IF I were in a position to campaign for you, would I have not contested the elections myself?" This was P.V. Narasimha Rao, five days before Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. The polite demurral, with the self-deprecatory tone typical of the man through his nearly five-decade political life, was addressed to a woman Congress candidate who wanted him to canvass votes for her before the May 1991 general elections. Rao cited his bypass surgery and the consequent decision to retire from public life.
Days later, he was engaged in active lobbying—first for the party chief's post and then the Prime Minister's office. In subsequent years, he has sidestepped health problems as well as political crises with a sure-footed survival instinct, defying doomsayers repeatedly. Lady Luck has obviously been on his side. Ironically, it is the Congress that seems singularly bereft of luck—Rao's well-sustained tryst with power has coincided with a downslide in his party's fortunes.
Rao's first plus came in having ensured a full five-year term for a government that has had a tenuous relationship with majority. Rao enjoys the support of an estimated 300 of the 360 party MPs in both Houses of Parliament, the Chandraswami controversy notwithstanding. But judgment day is nearing. The basic contradiction in his rule—adherence to power and alienation from the base—may extract its toll as he leads the party to the next elections, only few months away.
His trump-card is that his opponents are by no means arrayed against him in a neat battle formation. The Gujarat crisis, with possible wider repercussions for the BJP, and the Telugu Desam's woes in Andhra Pradesh have provided some cause for optimism in a hitherto bleak pre-poll scenario for the Congress. Particularly so, because non-Congress centrist elements have not yet managed to cobble together a viable third force. And in Tamil Nadu, Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha, who had walked out of the alliance with the Congress, now has her own set of problems with former minister Veerappan and his budding alliance with cinestar Rajnikant.
Within the party, Rao-sceptics tend to fritter their energy in mutual recriminations—not even during the Arjun-Tiwari split could his antagonists manage a truly collective voice. "Many of us have had reservations about him at one time or the other, on one issue or the other. But they were never raised properly," says a prominent Cabinet member. He concedes the decline in the party organisation has only vested more powers in Rao's hand. On the flip side, the lack of cohesion down the ranks has only created further confusion: many state units are involved in factional feuds in the election year. In short, Rao has gained but at the party's expense.
On the achievements front, there is a list of macro issues: liberalisation, stability, the business-like handling of militancy in Punjab. "The Rao Government has somehow been able to create an impression among the people that it has succeeded in bringing the economy back on the rails and restoring normalcy in terrorist-hit states," says Rajya Sabha MP Bhuvaneshwar Kalita, a former AICC joint secretary.
Here comes the next catch. The cadres have a genuine grouse—the absence of the party machinery's involvement on these fronts. Even the propaganda style Rao has chosen banks heavily on prime time television promotionals rather than grassroots-level party channels. "Who will tell voters about such achievements if the cadres are not mobilised for this task?" asks Tariq Anwar, chairman of the party's minority cell. The Surajkund 'training camp' held in July for about 250 selected workers probably served no purpose because it was not followed up with any practical guidelines from 24 Akbar Road, the party headquarters.
Members of the Congress Parliamentary Party level identical charges. "We get three-line whips occasionally but absolutely no briefings, as used to happen regularly during Rajiv Gandhi's time," says a Lok Sabha member from Kerala who still puts himself in the 'Rao loyalist' category. For him, preparing for the next elections is more important than harping on his non-inclusion in the Cabinet.
But true to his image and style of functioning (or, as is frequently alleged, lack of them), Rao depends heavily on a clutch of political managers like Bhuvanesh Chaturvedi, V.C. Shukla, Pranab Mukherjee, Devendra Dwivedi and some loyal bureaucrats. In his scheme of things, a government's survival hinges on its capacity to manage an adequate number of MPs. This explains Shukla's prominence both in the Government and the party—it was he who organised a series of defections from the Janata Dal, including the one during the July 1993 non-confidence motion. And it was he who had it conveyed to Sonia Gandhi that the Bofors probe would be expedited if she did not keep quiet. Operation Gujarat is only the latest in his string of exploits.
Handling political affairs almost exclusively through lieutenants has its corollaries. State party units are in disarray. In almost a dozen states – including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Gujarat – various proposals for reorganisation or appointing chiefs have been pending for months. Rao is said to be still counting the pros and cons of expanding some PCCS to over twice their size "so that everyone could get a place".
After having packed the Cabinet with anti-Sharad Pawar people, Rao is under pressure from Home Minister S.B. Chavan to make Suhakarrao Naik the Maharashtra PCC chief. "If that happens, Pawar will raise the banner of revolt and that will be much more serious than the one organised by Arjun Singh," says a Lok Sabha member from the state. Pawar still commands the support of an estimated 70 MLAs and about 35 MPs, some of them from outside the state. "But I don’t think Rao will force Pawar to that extent," the MP says. Pawar has already raised issues like the need to apologise for the Ayodhya demolition in a bid to project ideological, more than personal, differences with Rao.
The Maharashtra MP hopes the PCC chief will be selected from the neutral three – AICC General Secretary S.K. Shinde, and state leaders Prataprao Bosale and Patang Rao Kadam. Shinde himself is a amenable to the idea: "I have no reservation if the high command wants that." What has delayed the process is Rao’s indecisiveness. In the past, he has tended to keep at bay people with some personal following. He even prefers the Elders over Lok Sabha MPs for inclusion in the Cabinet.
His indecisiveness and his dependence on a bunch of lieutenants have contributed to his stability. Those who know Rao closely speak of his perceptive nature. "He knows people, their strengths and weaknesses alike and never misses an opportunity to exploit them. Remember how he used Pawar against Arjun Singh and humiliated the former after Singh’s expulsion," points out a close aide. "He feels more comfortable interacting with small groups rather than involving a larger section of the party in important decisions."
This may be a recipe for a government’s stability but certainly not for electoral victory, which demands a close rapport with the masses more than manipulation of symbols. For instance, Beant Singh’s assassination not only deprived Rao of a hard-core supporter but also robbed him of a major electoral plank: that of having restored peace in Punjab. And while he crows about a national consensus on liberalisation, even some party MPs have joined the Opposition chorus against the open-door policy in the consumer goods sector. In fact, MPs from the North-East have complained that no positive effect of liberalisation has reached their region. Assam, the state Finance Minister Manmohan Singh represents in the Rajya Sabha, has just had Rs 1 crore worth of investments during the four years of reforms. While the coming five months could still witness an effort on Rao’s part to bring about a semblance of coordination between the Organisation and the Government, there are indications that the decline in his authority and in the party’s support base are irreversible. Ghulam Nabi Azad did not waver before quitting the ministry when Rajiv Gandhi drafted him for party work in 1987. But at least three ministers – Balram Jakhar and C.K. Jaffer Sharief, besides Azad – have defied Rao’s suggestion that they take up party work.
Sharief, in particular, may have already been pushed too far. As he returned to Delhi on October 12 after a month-long treatment in London, he was unruffled by the brief note he received from the PMO, informing him that Rao himself would look after the Railway portfolio. The message, followed by a Rashtrapati Bhavan communique a day later, had the effect of an order taking away the crucial portfolio. But an unperturbed Sharief summoned ministry officials to his Akbar Road residence to get a feedback. Later, he was said to be exploring the extreme option of resigning from the Cabinet.
The other instance of a minister standing up against the Prime Minister in a fashion never witnessed during the Indira-Rajiv years came with Rajesh Pilot. His parting shot as minister of state for Home – ordering the arrest of Chandraswami, with his known proximity to Rao – was likened by some to V.P. Singh’s 1987 order for a probe into kickbacks in defence deals. Pilot has since been shifted to the Environment Ministry but the fallout is still expected.
Youth Congress chief M.S. Bitta did threaten to mobilise volunteers against Pilot, but he was an exception. Pilot has the tacit support of many. Says a Muslim party leader who was part of the Rajiv cabinet; "Pilot has everything on his side – a secular image, a backward class and rural background and urban sophistication, besides age." The endorsement he got from two PCC chiefs – Ashok Gehlot (Rajasthan) and Jitendra Prasada (Uttar Pradesh) – indicates disgruntled Congressmen may, if push comes to shove, provide fodder for the Opposition tirade against Rao. And corruption and criminalisation of politics are going to be key poll planks.
Pilot has also initiated a move for a patch-up with Arjun Singh and N.D. Tiwari along with AICC General Secretary Ahmed Patel. The logic is that Muslim support cannot be regained if the breakaway duo is out of the Congress. The party admits erosion in its traditional base – SC/STS, minorities and backwards – mainly in the post-Mandal and post-Ayodhya phase. The revolt by Pilot and Sharief, though not coordinated, threatens to alienate the residual support base further.
With Laloo Yadav sitting pretty in Bihar and Mulayam Singh Yadav emerging unscarred from his ouster from power in a tie-up with the Left Front, the Congress faces a grim prospect in two states which together contribute 139 seats to the Lok Sabha. Sonia Gandhi’s emotive posturings and Tiwari’s exit had already done substantial damage in Uttar Pradesh.
The threat to the Digvijay Singh government from the BJP’s overtures to tribal MP Ajit Jogi and the revolt brewing in Orissa against Chief Minister J.B. Patnaik are bad omens for the party – it might end up ruling only a few states like Kerala and some north-eastern states.
The Andhra Pradesh unit is debilitated by factional feuds. The party also faces a bleak future in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu – in the latter, despite the fact that Jayalalitha looks less solid than ever before. The fact that Rao has failed to create a strong PCC or have any AICC member from the state for the past four years is telling. Crucial decisions like renewing the alliance with the AIADMK too have gone abegging. "Indira Gandhi used to emerge stronger when regional satraps had problems. But non developments in states have an accumulated reaction against the Centre and all, including Rao, are losers," says an AICC leader.
But the Congress tragedy has not catalysed the formation of a strong alternative. Nor has the BJP, of late, behaved any different. The realignment of non-Congress elements into a third force – typical of the election countdown period – is yet to gather steam. The TDP split and the DMK’s unceremonious removal from the NF has only put a spoke in the wheel of the process. But can Ro galvanise an enfeebled Congress into a position where it can capitalise on others’ weaknesses? The safe bet seems to be a hung Parliament, with a possible new equation to block the BJP’s access to New Delhi. Rao has displayed an uncanny ability to cross creaky bridges when he comes to them. The coming elections will prove the most perilous of them all.