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|October 12, 1999||
Loyalists deflect criticism from Sonia
Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi
The Sonia Gandhi brigade continues to deflect criticism from her leadership of the party. Five secretaries - Mani Shankar Aiyar, Ramesh Chennithala, Imran Kidwai, Sudhir Sawant and Mukul Wasnik - have issued a letter requesting Sonia Gandhi to assume the role of leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. Of the five secretaries, only Aiyar and Chennithala are members of Parliament.
The move is a counter to an earlier statement from Kamal Nath, member of Parliament from Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh. He had said that too many responsibilities on Sonia Gandhi might be a strain and hence she should not take up the position of leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha.
Sonia Gandhi is already the Congress president and chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Party.
As the leader of the largest Opposition party in the Lok Sabha, she is entitled to being the leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha (considered equivalent to a Cabinet minister), a post that entails considerable administrative and political responsibilities, besides coordination with other political parties.
"My only contention," clarified Kamal Nath, "is that Sonia Gandhi may not have sufficient time for all her responsibilities and should therefore avoid being the leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. She can continue as the CPP chairperson and thereby influence policies. However, the decision is entirely hers."
Kamal Nath, who along with member of Parliament Rajesh Pilot stirred a hornet's nest in recent days asking for major changes to be undertaken in the Congress party, including handing over power to a younger generation of leaders, has denied a desire for any post.
However, sources in the Congress claim that Nath, who has won a record seven times from Chhindwara and was minister of environment and forests in the P V Narasimha Rao government, is a contender for the post of deputy leader of the Opposition, if not leader itself.
Today, the CPP will hold a meeting to elect the CPP leader, which will be Sonia Gandhi since no one has yet challenged her leadership. As the CPP chairperson, a post held by her since 1998, Sonia will then be free to nominate in both houses - the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha - leaders of the Opposition, deputy leaders, chief whip and one (or more) whips.
It is expected that Sonia will nominate herself to the post of leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, if only to ensure no potential challenger.
Kamal Nath insisted that his statement calling for a generational shift in the Congress was only a reflection of the changing times. "It happens in all democracies all over the world. I have not pointed a finger at any particular leader nor do I intend to, but I am only saying that all the older leaders should make way for the younger lot. Till today, various block and district-level Congress leaders are old men, often out of sync and touch with the younger voters," he stated.
However, despite Kamal Nath's assertion, many of the senior leaders have criticised his statement, especially some members of the Congress Working Committee, the party's highest decision-making body. Senior leader R K Dhawan, who lost the election from New Delhi, has flayed Kamal Nath's statement, saying that in the time of crisis, the party also needed experienced men.
Kamal Nath steadfastly refused to blame the senior leaders for the party's debacle. "I am not blaming anyone, only being suggestive," he stated.
Meanwhile, Congress spokesman Ajit Jogi admitted that more resignations had come in following those offered by general secretaries Ambika Soni, Oscar Fernandes and Pranab Mukherjee besides Dr Manmohan Singh, who was the leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, from their respective posts.
While Jogi refused to give names, sources said that some of the state Congress unit chiefs from where the party has lost have resigned. However, none of the chief ministers of the states where the Congress suffered a setback have yet resigned or even offered to resign.
Sources also said that Ambika Soni had declared that in her resignation letter she had not owned responsibility for the debacle but had only resigned to give Sonia Gandhi a free hand to restructure the entire Congress set-up.
Much is being made of the fact that none of the chief ministers have resigned, especially Digvijay Singh of Madhya Pradesh, Ashok Gehlot of Rajasthan, Giridhar Gamang of Orissa and Sheila Dixit of Delhi. These four had offered to resign in the wake of Sonia Gandhi's resignation after Sharad Pawar and Purno A Sangma had challenged her leadership.
"What does the offer to resign mean?" asked a senior Congress leader. "You either resign or you don't. All this is just a drama."
This senior leader also pointed out that certain chief ministers would have to go. "Let's face facts, someone like Gamang is a disaster. He is no doubt honest and sincere, but he lacks administrative ability nor is he able to provide political leadership," he added.
However, if Gamang is asked to go, then the same yardstick will have to apply to others, especially Sheila Dixit. And if the chief ministers have failed barely a year later, is the central top leadership not responsible? The senior leader preferred not to answer, only saying, "Each state and region must be seen separately."
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