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May 16, 1999


Pawar, Sangma, Anwar raise banner of revolt

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George Iype in New Delhi

Congress president Sonia Gandhi's Italian origin became her biggest liability within the party when three senior leaders -- Sharadchandra Pawar, Purno Agitok Sangma and Tariq Anwar -- virtually revolted against her leadership on Sunday by asking her to give up her ambition of becoming prime minister of India.

Stoutly opposing Gandhi's projection as the party's prime ministerial candidate in the forthcoming Lok Sabha election, the three members of the Congress Working Committee, the party's highest decision-making body, dashed off a strongly worded four-page letter to her. In the letter, they have explicitly opposed persons of foreign origin heading an Indian government.

"It is not possible that a country of 980 million with a wealth of education, competence and ability can have anyone other than an Indian, born of Indian soil, to head its government," the three CWC members said in the letter.

The letter signed by Pawar, Sangma and Anwar says they want Gandhi to take the immediate initiative of proposing an amendment to the Constitution of India so that the offices of President, vice-president and prime minister can only be held by "natural born Indian citizens".

Congress sources said another senior member of the CWC, Rajesh Pilot, was also with the Pawar camp and was engaged in drafting the letter on Saturday night.

While Pilot has not come out in the open against Gandhi, Pawar left for Pune to attend a function and Sangma took off to the United States for a three-day visit.

But jolted by the revolt within the party and threatened by the personal attack on her by the Pawar camp, Gandhi has convened an emergency meeting of the CWC on Monday to discuss the controversial letter and settle her 'foreigner' status issue.

Party officials said Pawar drafted the challenging letter soon after the CWC met on Saturday to thrash out electoral alliances. At the meeting, a bitter argument rose between Pawar and supporters of Gandhi on the issue of her Italian roots.

Though Pawar took the plunge to attack Gandhi as he has been marginalised in the party by the Congress president and her coterie for long, the timing and issue of the revolt forced Gandhi to call a war council of her loyalists on Sunday.

It is the first time since she took charge of the Congress in April 1998 that senior leaders have questioned Gandhi's authority.

But Congressmen fear that the issue that Pawar has used to challenge Gandhi -- her 'foreigner' status -- could split the party or weaken it considerably in the run-up to the election to the thirteenth Lok Sabha.

They are also nervous because the Bharatiya Janata Party's campaign against Gandhi's Italian origins has received a fresh impetus with a section of the CWC openly opposing a foreign-born person becoming prime minister.

Stung by the unexpected crisis, Gandhi immediately deployed three of her supporters -- Pranab Mukherjee, A K Antony and R K Dhawan -- to try and talk to Pawar, Sangma and Anwar to resolve the differences before they begin to hurt her and damage the party.

While Gandhi's negotiators sat with Anwar throughout Sunday, what will emerge out of the crucial CWC meeting on Monday has begun to baffle most Congressmen.

Gandhi supporters said Pawar and his men had "denigrated" the Congress president and so should be expelled from the party. They claim that Pawar does not have much support among MPs, especially as many are convinced that only Gandhi's charisma can help them win the election.

"Pawar has prime ministerial ambitions. He knows he cannot become prime minister when Soniaji is around. Therefore, it is his last fight for existence within the party," a Gandhi loyalist told Rediff On The NeT.

He said Gandhi is in an aggressive mood and is not ready to give in to Pawar's demands. "Soniaji has made it very clear that the foreigner row cannot intimidate her. Therefore, there is no question of her giving up either the party post or the prospective prime ministership," he stated.

But Pawar loyalists said he has the support of some 35 MPs in the fight against Gandhi. Pawar is said to have deftly picked up his support from the CWC, by winning over two prominent minority leaders. Sangma is a Christian and Anwar, a Muslim. And both have been with the Congress for a very long time.

"Pawar is left with no option but to revolt against the party leadership because he does not fit into the scheme of things that Gandhi is preparing," a Pawar supporter told Rediff On The NeT.

He said Pawar's decision to "dig up the foreigner issue has been done after considerable introspection". "That is the only sensitive issue with which the Congress leaders can challenge the Congress president."

While the Pawar camp is getting ready to fight to the finish, Gandhi loyalists expects one of four scenarios to unfold at Monday's meeting.

One, Gandhi leaves it to the majority opinion in the CWC to decide whether her foreign origin is hurting the party's sentiments and affecting its electoral prospects.

Two, Gandhi asks Pawar and others to follow her or leave the party.

Three, Gandhi accepts Pawar's demands, gives up her prime ministerial ambition, and limits herself to leading the party.

Four, left in the lurch by the majority in the CWC, Pawar and his supporters split the party and form a new party.

But most believe one of the first two scenarios is more likely. "Gandhi is in a fighting spirit. I do not think she will entertain the ideas put forward by Pawar and others," a party source said.

The CWC has 18 full-fledged members, three permanent invitees, and two special invitees.

Meanwhile, Antony, a supporter of Gandhi and leader of the Opposition in the Kerala assembly, said the letter written by Pawar should not be seen as a revolt against the party leadership. "There is no question of the Congress splitting because Pawar and some other leaders have raised an important issue," he told Rediff On The NeT.

Antony said it was "unnecessary for the party to rake up the issue of Soniaji's foreign origins". "But since the issue has been raised by senior leaders, we hope to find a solution to it soon," he added.

Pawar, Sangma, Anwar oppose Sonia as PM

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