GOING by his response—or, rather, the lack of it—corruption charges do not seem to bother P.V. Narasimha Rao overmuch. Both in Parliament and the Congress Working Committee(CWC) meeting, he ignored all accusations flung at him over the JMM MPs' bribery case and the urea scam surrounding his son Prabhakar Rao. He sat like a Buddha—above pain and pleasure, praise and ridicule—as the BJP launched a strident attack on the twin issues during the June 11-12 Lok Sabha debate on the vote of confidence.
The BJP alleged that the United Front Government may not have got Congress support without a deal to protect Rao. Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, of course, denied any deal. But the assertion was unconvincing—for, more than statements in Parliament, much will depend on the Government's future response to the CBI probe and court trial of the cases involving Rao and his circle.
Rao, no doubt, was quite forceful in his speech—rededicating his party to aggressive secularism and, by extension, anti-BJPism and upholding Article 370 and economic reforms. But so low was his authority that each time he criticised Hindutva as practised by the BJP, a chorus of "urea, urea"—a reference to the Rs 133-crore fertili-ser import scandal—would greet him from the saffron benches. Rao would occasionally scratch the back of his palm in helplessness, while discomfiture was writ large on the faces of Congress members. Clearly, even for the Congress, Rao had become a 'liability'—if the lack of support from his MPs was any indication.
The CWC meetings on June 13 and 15 took note of the fact that the party's 'corrupt' image had largely been responsible for its poll debacle. An extended CWC meeting, attended by about 150 representatives from the states, seemed to share the same view but refrained from putting the blame on Rao. "An FIR means nothing," declared party General Secretary B.P. Maurya. Even from the dissident camp, there was no categoric demand for his resignation. This only strengthened Rao. In fact, he sought to insure himself against such attempts in future by announcing organisational elections by January 1997. This would, in Rao's reckoning, restrain the rebels from demanding his ouster in the July 6-7 AICC session scheduled to be held in Delhi on the ground that its agenda is to take stock of poll results. And they will have to wait till January to debate the one-man-one-post issue.
However, while Rao's decision to stick to both posts—that of Congress president and Parliamentary Party leader—did not surprise many, the rebels' failure to raise the one-man-one-post cry at the CWC meetings (after their repeated announcements that they would) did. "Is it not enough for Rao to take a hint after Rajasthan and Kerala PCC chiefs—Ashok Gehlot and Vayalar Ravi—raised the corruption issue?" asks a rebel CWC member. "There was unanimity that the electoral debacle was an outcome of organisational failure. Does Rao need to be told that he happens to be the party chief and is, therefore, accountable for the debacle?"
Meanwhile, Pratap Reddy, a close Rao aide who had vacated his Nandyal Lok Sabha seat for the former prime minister in November 1991, shot off a letter, demanding Rao's immediate resignation from both party posts in the wake of the corruption charges. The CWC did not take note of the letter, nor did it discourage the trend of 'indiscipline'. But it advocated tickets to Parliament and state assemblies to at least 70 per cent new faces each election as other-wise youth in the 18-35 age group would continue to be alienated from the party. It favoured strengthening organisations, but admitted for the first time that hopes of the party being revitalised soon enough to go it alone in the Uttar Pradesh poll were in vain. "We should try for an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party," said V.N. Gadgil, party spokesman. In other states, especially where UF constituents are in power, Congress units were told to behave like the 'opposition' despite the party's support to the UF Government at the Centre. At the national level, Rao succumbed to the rebels' pressure to welcome all Congressmen who have left the party since 1969 back to the party fold.
Despite all this, "no one—not even paper tigers—demanded Rao's resignation," said AICC General Secretary Devendra Dwivedi, a Rao loyalist. He added that the question of rebellion by paper tigers was a 'myth'.
Dwivedi's response, however, came as a provocation. Rajesh Pilot mildly touched the issues of corruption and organisational failure during the June 15 meeting and told Rao to own up theresponsibility for the lapses. In case such criticism snowballs into a major threat to his leadership, Rao plans to deflect it by adopting a more critical posture towards the Deve Gowda Government. The party's reservations on three major UF plans—referring the Ayodhya case to the Supreme Court under Article 138(2), the promise of autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir and review of Centre-state relationship—will come in handy in such an eventuality. To Rao-sceptics in the party, he has shown that he is above accountability. And that perhaps is the biggest problem the Congress faces. The natural consequence will be that either the party functions with absolute subservience to Rao or rises in revolt and splits.