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|October 12, 1999||
Sonia elected CPP leader
Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi
What was expected happened. Congress president Sonia Gandhi was today unanimously elected chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Party. Her name was proposed by P M Sayeed, the seniormost member of Parliament representing Lakshwadeep, and seconded by N D Tiwari, Tarun Gogoi, Jaffer Sharief, P M Keyndoh, Nisha Chaudhary and Saroj Kharpade.
There was no opposition or any contest for the leadership, from which the media was completely barred. In fact, mediapersons, save photographers and cameramen, were not allowed inside the Central Hall of Parliament where the election took place. Mediapersons were allowed inside only after Sonia Gandhi had left the premises. It was left to the other Congress leaders to answer the press.
As chairperson of the CPP, Sonia Gandhi now has a free hand to nominate in both the houses -- the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha -- the leaders of the opposition, deputy leaders, chief whips, and whips (one or more per house).
The key question that remained unanswered was who would be the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. While no names were officially announced, it is widely believed that Sonia Gandhi will retain the post for herself. In the previous Lok Sabha, it was held by Sharad Pawar.
After her election, Sonia Gandhi addressed her party leaders. In her 15-minute speech, Gandhi owned up responsibility for the party's debacle in the recent elections. Ambika Soni, a Congress leader close to Sonia Gandhi, quoted her as saying, "While many of the party leaders have very kindly owned up saying it is a collective responsibility, I too accept the responsibility for the defeat."
Sonia Gandhi promised to spend more time in Parliament, devoting herself to the affairs of the party and government. She, different Congress leaders claimed, said that the party will play the role of a constructive opposition and safeguard the nation's national interest. The issues that were raised during the elections still remain to be answered and will be raised in Parliament, Soni said.
One such issue that will be immediately brought up is the import of sugar from Pakistan during the Kargil conflict.
The reported challenge to Sonia Gandhi did not arise at all. Senior leaders Rajesh Pilot, who had said that he might run for the post of CPP chairperson, and Kamal Nath towed the party line and accepted Sonia Gandhi's leadership. Pilot refused to comment on the election. He did not even offer his opinion on whether Sonia Gandhi should hold the post of Lok Sabha opposition leader alongside that of the CPP chairperson. Similarly, Kamal Nath too avoided speaking to the press.
Madhavrao Scindia was more articulate. "We have accepted her leadership," he declared. Asked whether Sonia Gandhi should hold so many posts simultaneously, he replied, "She has said that she would hold such posts time permitting. Should she find that it is not possible to manage so many responsibilities, then she is free to nominate someone for any of the other posts," he said.
However, Scindia insisted that he was not a candidate for any post. Incidentally, Kamal Nath had earlier made the same point that since Sonia Gandhi may face time constraints in discharging her various responsibilities, she should nominate others to some of the key posts.
Sonia Gandhi now holds the post of Congress president and chairperson of the CPP. If she nominates herself to the post of Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, it will be another burden, especially since she has promised to devote time to both Parliament and also to restructuring and reorganising the party. The importance of the post of Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha lies in the fact that it has constitutional validity.
Scindia admitted that the party was introspecting on the recent electoral debacle. "It is an ongoing process that will continue for some time. We will then analyse the reasons for our defeat," he said.
He stated that he had not resigned, nor would he do so. "I have been appointed general secretary by her, and it is up to her to reshuffle us or drop us. So there is no need to resign," he said.
Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit also said that she would not resign. "It is all nonsense and rumours, these stories of resignations," she declared.
Ambika Soni disagreed. "I and the others have resigned to give Sonia Gandhi a totally free hand in reconstituting the Congress party setup. There is no purported drama as the media is making it out to be but something that we believe in," she said. "It is up to the others to do what they deem fit."
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