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April 19, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Threshold of a dream

It's a funny business, politics. Just when Sonia Gandhi found that things had stopped going according to plan and that the problems and miscalculations were mounting, she suddenly found that she was about to become prime minister of India.

Nobody knows what the mood at 10, Janpath is like, but my guess is that there is more apprehension in the air than there is exhilaration. Yes, Sonia wanted to see the Bharatiya Janata Party out after a year in office. Yes, she wanted the Congress to become the unquestioned leader of the non-BJP forces. And yes, she wanted her party to rule India again. But I would be very surprised if she wanted things to happen in this manner.

The Sonia Gandhi strategy was simple but difficult. It was simple because she had just one goal: to revive the Congress. She only joined politics at a time when the party seemed on the verge of collapse as member after member deserted it. She was reconciled to the formation of a BJP-led coalition at the Centre, but hoped to use Atal Bihari Vajpayee's time in office for two purposes. Her calculation was that once the BJP had been in office for a year, people would see that it was no different from any other party, its lunatic fringe would rear its ugly head and such internal contradictions as the Vajpayee-L K Advani rift would surface.

Her second intention was to use the time to revive the Congress. She recognised that P V Narasimha Rao had destroyed the party, and that Sitaram Kesri had made things even worse -- if such a thing was possible. She wanted the Congress to once again become the kind of party that could win elections on its own, not the kind of party that stayed in office by buying members of Parliament, befriending casteists and splitting small parties.

The assembly election victories in Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh demonstrated that not only was she on the right track, she was also succeeding. And even as the Congress went from strength to strength, the Sangh Parivar launched lunatic pogroms against Christians, failed to control the price of onions and showed it could only grapple uneasily with the problems of governance.

In retrospect, those assembly elections were a turning point, but not only in the way that Sonia had intended. They had two other consequences. One: Congressmen scented power and became greedy to capture it at any cost, never mind Sonia's carefully calibrated timetable and her desire to win a mandate. This is why her strategy, no matter how simple it seemed, had always been a difficult one to implement -- because it expected Congressmen to be patient.

Two: that motley bunch of casteists and buffoons called the third force which had emerged in the 'nineties to fill the vacuum created by the decline of the Congress recognised that time was running out. If the Congress returned to its original strength, then there was no room for the third force. Hence, it had to force the Congress into an alliance with it.

It is no secret that last week's political crisis -- which culminated in the defeat of the government -- was more or less forced on Sonia by the large persons and little parties of the third front. Once J Jayalalitha withdrew from the BJP coalition, the Congress had very few options left. Even if President K R Narayanan had not invented a new constitutional precedent and directed Vajpayee to seek a vote of confidence, somebody or the other would have moved a no-confidence motion. The Congress would have had no option but to vote against the government -- how can an opposition party do anything else? As far as the third front is concerned, everything has gone according to plan. The BJP is out, and the United Front is willing to support Sonia as prime minister. What more could the Congress want?

The problem with that assessment is that Sonia never wanted to become prime minister by hook or by crook -- don't forget, she turned down the job in 1991 when the Congress had a near majority in the Lok Sabha. She wanted a Congress ministry to be sworn in on the basis of a popular mandate.

But given that she has lost the initiative and been handed a situation that is not of her own making, what options does she have left? My guess is that she will make it clear that she wants to form a minority government with outside support. She will hold firm against Subramanian Swamy, Laloo Prasad Yadav and the rest in her Cabinet. Her position will be: if you don't like that option, then see how you can form a government without us.

Unfortunately, much of the Congress Working Committee will not back that position. It will suggest a coalition with at least two other parties, and then promise to back her if she wants an election in the winter. Of course, Congressmen never want to fight an election, so the promise will be hollow. But as events over the last two months -- over President's rule in Bihar, for instance -- have demonstrated, a stubborn and vociferous CWC can force her to question her own judgement.

In my view, each time she gives in to the CWC, to the canny veterans and the wizened dealmakers, she makes a mistake. Already, the situation has moved so quickly that it is nearly out of her control. If she gives in again, she might secure ministerial berths for a few loyalists, but it is back to square one for the Congress. Only a fool or a power-hungry Congressman will fail to recognise the obvious: there is enormous sympathy for Vajpayee and a general disgust with the antics of India's politicians.

Already, questions are being asked about the kind of company the Congress is keeping. The battle against the Vajpayee government was waged -- in the main -- by Swamy and Jayalalitha. Neither would have had the guts to force the issue had Sonia not attended Swamy's tea-party. It is all very well -- and probably accurate -- to say that for Sonia, a tea-party is no big deal. But the BJP spin doctors could well make out that the tea was phase one in the conspiracy to oust the government.

There are also unsavoury rumours floating around Delhi about the manner in which Mayawati and Kanshi Ram were persuaded to change their minds on the night before the vote. Certainly, in the absence of any concrete evidence, it is completely unfair to conclude that many large suitcases changed hands. But equally, the suggestion of suitcase deals and purchased MPs brings with it an unhappy memory of how these things were conducted during the Narasimha Rao era.

It is up to Sonia to demonstrate hers is the Congress of Rajiv Gandhi, not the Congress of Rao. The future of the party depends on the decisions she will make in the next few days. If she goes along with the dealmakers, then she will have wiped out the gains of a year as Congress president. We will be back to the old days, or even to the era of Kesri, to a time when the Congress conceded that it could only take office on the shoulders of the Laloos and the Mulayams. The party can then abandon any hope of winning an overall majority in the next general elections.

The only way of proving that things have changed is of having the courage to go it alone, to throw out the suitcasewallahs and to boot out the wheeler-dealers. The Congress may be in this for power at any cost. But Sonia is in it for the Congress. And the only way she can secure the future of her party is to have confidence in herself. If she trusts her own instincts and holds out for a minority government, then she will have pulled off what many of us thought was impossible.

She will have revived the party of Nehru and Gandhi.

Vir Sanghvi

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