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October 18, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Big boomerang theory

Some months ago, when the three Fat Men of the Congress Working Committee staged their revolt, I wrote, in this column, that they had done Sonia Gandhi a favour. I argued that while Sharad Pawar's departure would severely damage the Congress in Maharashtra, costing it 20 seats, it would not benefit Pawar at all. Instead, the revolt would end up helping Pramod Mahajan and Bal Thackeray because the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena alliance would benefit from the split in the vote. I doubted that we were into a situation where a loss of 20 seats would matter that much to the Congress. But, I suggested, Pawar's fate would help Sonia.

My argument went as follows: Sonia Gandhi had not intended to be prime minister if the Congress formed a government after the no confidence motion. Her choice was Manmohan Singh. But because Pawar had made her foreign birth an issue and had said that no foreigner should ever become prime minister, Sonia would now be forced to become the party's prime ministerial candidate. If she said that she had never wanted the job, it would seem like a weakness, and a retreat in the face of Pawar's attack.

At the time the Fatties staged their revolt, it was quite clear to me the Congress would not form the next government. My view was that the Congress had blown it by toppling Atal Bihari Vajpayee too early, and that the momentum built up by the assembly election victories had consequently ground to a halt. But it seemed to me that because Pawar would do badly, his example would deter other Congressmen from opposing Sonia Gandhi or holding her responsible for the defeat. Congressmen would say: perhaps it is Sonia's fault, but what choice do we have but to grin and bear it? Pawar left the party and look at what a mess he has made of what was once a promising political career.

Most people I know did not buy this argument. The Fatties themselves were extremely peeved. Tariq Anwar thought that they were riding a wave. P A Sangma was too tired and emotional to ever allow himself a sober moment of reflection. And Pawar was busy constructing multi-storey shopping complexes in the sky.

According to Pawar, in his role as Chief Fatty, their revolt would lay the groundwork for the creation of a new third front. The Nationalist Congress Party would pick up 20 to 25 seats in Maharashtra, at least two or three in the Northeast, and another three or four in the rest of India. With a tally of 30 seats in the new Lok Sabha, Pawar would become the kingmaker. He would refuse to join the BJP but would encourage the left, assorted constituents of the National Democratic Alliance, such regional parties as the Trinamul Congress, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party to join his new front. Sensing that this was where the power lay, Congressmen, already livid with Sonia for having led them to a humiliating defeat, would either get rid of her -- in which case the Congress would join his front -- or would defect in droves to the new Fatty-led coalition.

At the time, I thought this was laughable. But now that Pawar's dreams have been shattered, I find myself strangely unable to laugh. Instead, I feel sorry for Pawar. How could a man who is so pleased with his own deviousness and cunning have got it so wrong? How could he have crated a situation in which he would destroy his own career?

And what of Sangma? Those of us who knew him well regarded him as a cherry little fellow who liked the good life, but who had managed to convince the nation at large that he was a great leader and a man of integrity. What could he possibly have gained from such a misadventure? I am told Sangma bought Pawar's overblown scenario and believed he could be prime minister of such a coalition. (Why Pawar would step aside to let a little man from Meghalaya take the top job was never clear, but for some reason Sangma genuinely believed that he could be PM).

But look at them now! Pawar's best hope is to either sell himself to Mahajan for a share of power in Maharashtra, or to return to the Congress for some kind of coalition government in the state. At the national level, he counts for absolutely nothing. Poor Sangma managed to win his own seat but could not get a single member of Parliament elected from the northeast. He now faces the bizarre prospect of a new life as the northeastern face of a small time Maharashtra regional party.

I feel less sorry for Tariq Anwar who was a bit of a no-hoper even before he became a revolting Fatty. Had he stayed in the Congress and counted on Laloo Prasad Yadav to get him elected to the Lok Sabha, he would probably have lost anyhow. Nevertheless, he faces the less-than-exciting prospect of explaining to his community why he chose to leave the Congress and join up with the patron saint of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) act.

While the Fatties waddle and wallow in self-pity, their revolt has saved Sonia Gandhi. The Congress has turned in its worst performance in history. In normal circumstances, this was certain to have led to a revolt. People would have held Sonia Gandhi responsible for the electoral debacle. They would have pointed out that if Sitaram Kesri was made to quit because the Congress could mange only 140 or so seats, then the same treatment should be meted out to Sonia Gandhi whose performance has been worse.

Instead, there is surprisingly little dissension. Congressmen say that Sonia would have done much better had the party swept Maharashtra as it seemed certain to before the Fatties departed. And the failure in Maharashtra is being blamed on Pawar and not on Sonia Gandhi. Worse still, from Pawar's point of view, the sort of scenarios I predicted does seem to have to come to pass.

The perennial dissidents -- the Rajesh Pilots and their ilk -- are being careful about voicing any criticism that could be construed as indiscipline and could lead to expulsion or disciplinary action. They explain their difference much as I had suggested they would. What can we do, they say. If we are expelled from the party, then we will end up like Pawar.

Two months ago, I asked Sonia Gandhi how she felt about Arun Nehru and Arun Singh both being part of the BJP establishment. ''What can one say?'' she replied wryly. ''These are the tricks that life plays on you.''

I recalled that quote when I thought about the mess Pawar and his fellow Fatties have made of their revolt. I wonder how Pawar feels now that he is out in the cold. Does he ever wonder what things would have been like if he had stayed in the Congress and revolted after the election? Does he recognise how much he overestimated his own strength? Does he reflect on the fact that he forced Sonia to come upfront and suggest (though she has never actually said so) that she would be the party's prime ministerial candidate? Does he realise that the only reason Sonia has not faced a revolt after the election is because he made a fool of himself by striking too soon?

And does he, in turn, ever think: ''What can one say? These are the tricks that life plays on you.''

Vir Sanghvi

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