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April 5, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Hand that rocks the nation

There is now a broad measure of agreement within New Delhi's political circles that the Congress has revised its political strategy. The original plan was to wait for the results of the November assembly election before assessing the situation. If the results suggested that a Congress revival was underway, then the party would bring down the Bharatiya Janata Party government and force a general election.

That plan is now in danger of being junked. The Congress is hungry for power and would like to take office within the life of this Lok Sabha. The only reason it has refrained from conspiring to topple this government so far is because Sonia Gandhi is still uncomfortable with the idea of assuming office without a popular mandate.

Proponents of the topple-them-now view offer several arguments. The first of these is that the government is stabilising after the warm reception accorded to the Budget and that nothing seems to make a dent in Atal Bihari Vajpayee's popularity. It is wrong to assume that the Congress will be as popular in November as it is today. Who knows, perhaps the BJP may recapture the initiative?

The second argument is that the BJP is doing enormous damage to India. Our international image is at an all-time low and foreign policy negotiations are being conducted clandestinely. When Natwar Singh met Strobe Talbott recently, he warned him not to be too optimistic about getting India to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

"Mr Talbott," said Singh, "don't you think you are making a mistake by dealing secretly with a government that is living on daily wages?" "Daily wages! That's a very striking phrase," said a confused Talbott.

There is also widespread concern about George Fernandes. It is possible that the Congress misunderstands his motives but there is no doubt that the party genuinely believes that Fernandes is a loose cannon who has no business occupying a sensitive office. Whatever doubts the Congress had over his role in offending the Chinese have been confirmed by the manner of the sacking of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat.

You could argue, as many people (including myself) do, that these arguments are no more than excuses. The Congress's real concern is with gaining power as quickly as possible. Congressmen do not like being in the Opposition. They are greedy for office. And they have no desire to face an election.

But the point is that the let's-topple-them-tomorrow lobby now includes virtually the entire Congress Working Committee. There is so much anger against the BJP within the party that even such moderates as PA Sangma are itching for action.

One example of the new mood is that apparent volte face over Bihar. It is clear that Sonia Gandhi's instincts were that Rabri Devi should go -- hence the statement about the moral right to rule. Because she is determined to strengthen the Congress in the Hindi belt, she recognised that to side with Laloo Prasad Yadav would be to demoralise her own party's Bihar unit.

It was the mood at the working committee that led to the decision to oppose President's rule. Almost to a man, the CWC argued that the Congress could not support the sacking of a legitimately elected government and the handing over of the state to a knicker sporting Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh man. If these arguments had been restricted to the R K Dhawans on the CWC, then they could have been ignored. But even Manmohan Singh took this line.

Much the same is true of the party's decision to go for the government's jugular on the Bhagwat issue. The admiral was sacked over the new year. There is no reason his dismissal should dominate Parliament in April. But the Congress feels that the sacking is a good example of Fernandes's cavalier attitude to his responsibilities. Moreover, to accuse the BJP government of damaging such pillars of Indian democracy as the armed forces is to lend weight to the argument that the BJP regime should be thrown out before it can do any more damage.

There is also an internal angle at work here. One reason the Bhagwat issue did not take off earlier was because of Sharad Pawar's reluctance to raise it. (This could be because Pawar himself had served as an intermediary between Bhagwat and Fernandes and, therefore, felt compromised.) To Pawar's detractors in the Congress (that is, the entire party except for Praful Patel and Gurudas Kamath), his unwillingness to embarrass the government over Bhagwat demonstrates that he is unfit to be leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. Others take the point further and claim that the BJP has many moles within the Congress; hence the need for urgent action.

Yet another justification offered by the topplers is that an incumbent government faces a massive advantage at a general election because of its mastery of official machinery (given the recent anti-incumbency trend, this is hardly convincing but is bandied about nevertheless). Were a general election to be called and Vajpayee was still prime minister, the BJP would gain. Were it to be called with Sonia Gandhi as PM, she would have the edge.

Sonia Gandhi has resisted these views so far. She has also tried to elevate the level of the Congress's politics. One instance: during the Mohan Guruswamy debate, she did not countenance personal attacks on the integrity of Vajpayee or his family. Having been hurt by irresponsible allegations about her own family (many of which emanated from the BJP), she does not believe in playing petty politics with serious issues.

Unlike the optimistic topplewallahs, she recognises that it will not be easy to run a government within this Lok Sabha. She has no desire to depend on the likes of Laloo Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav and realises that if the Congress is to win majority support, then she will have to contend with J Jayalalitha as well. What kind of government can anybody provide in these circumstances?

She also knows that there are no easy answers to most of the problems she faces. She went along with the CWC on Bihar. The consequence is that Harijans now hold the Congress responsible for the latest massacre; and the chances are that there will be many more massacres. Tamil Nadu remains another problem. The logical course of action would be to reunite with the Tamil Maanila Congress. But the TMC will not touch Jayalalitha. And the Congress cannot touch M Karunanidhi after the Jain Commission report. Similarly, she should readmit Mamata Banerjee but nobody in the West Bengal Congress unit is willing to work under Banerjee and Banerjee won't come back unless she is the boss.

Faced with these conflicts, Sonia Gandhi has chosen a middle path. She will not topple the government now. But she will give it a rough time. The Congress will oppose it on every possible issue so as to discredit it in the eyes of the people.

The trouble with this strategy is that events often take on a momentum of their own. The Congress may think it is only forcing a censure vote on the Bhagwat issue. But what happens if Vajpayee resigns after his government is defeated on the floor of the house? He nearly did that over Bihar and it is probable that he will do it again. In that case, the topplewallahs will win by default.

Nobody can predict how Indian politics will shape up over the next six months. But one thing is clear: we have entered a dangerous and uncertain phase.

Vir Sanghvi

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