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The Rediff Special/Aditi Phadnis in New Delhi
November 26, 2004
All former foreign secretary S K Singh asked Sonia Gandhi at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit' was what she was going to do about her party in Uttar Pradesh.
'I find it dismal...I have been disappointed by the situation of the Congress party in UP. I have been thinking day and night as to what can be done in the state, which is so vital to the Congress party,' Gandhi said with a passion that took everyone aback.
Acknowledging that it was a leadership problem, she said: 'Something is happening, tomorrow or day after or even this evening.'
She was as good as her word. Jagdambika Pal was dismissed from the presidentship of the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee the next evening. A day later, Salman Khurshid was appointed as PCC chief for a second time. It was a silent, bloodless coup by the chief of an army that lies devastated and decimated around her.
In no other state in India is 'decimated' the most appropriate word to describe the state of the Congress. In the last Lok Sabha election, the Congress lost its deposit in 48 constituencies getting less than 16 per cent of the total vote cast in each constituency. It got nine Lok Sabha seats out of 80. In the 2002 Vidhan Sabha election, it got 16 seats out of 403.
So what is the miracle Khurshid can cast, especially given that the last time he had the job party MPs claimed there was no appreciable improvement in the party's prospects? The answer is: It is a different Salman Khurshid this time and a different Uttar Pradesh.
When he went as PCC chief in 1998, Salman Khurshid had behind him stints as minister of state for commerce and external affairs. He had also represented Farrukhabad in the Lok Sabha. But he needed to establish himself as a leader beyond his parliamentary constituency, as someone whose word counted for something in UP. The PCC chief's job seemed just the thing.
The Congress was on the road to near-extinction in UP. In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections the party got eight seats. In the assembly election, the party had got 3.5- to 4 per cent of the popular vote. The Bharatiya Janata Party was grabbing its upper caste vote.
Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati's organisational strength and sectarian appeal had made huge inroads into the Congress's Dalit and Muslim base. The party had no profile in UP, no USP, nothing, actually, not even a revival plan.
Khurshid replaced Jitendra Prasada, at that time one of his closest friends. He took on the job expecting his friends to help him, in a spirit of humility but also conscious that if he made things work for the Congress in UP, he would have achieved a big political breakthrough.
Unfortunately, many of his friends were conscious of this as well. So Congress leaders in UP bragged that he was 'hamara bachcha' and that they could get him to do as they liked. Khurshid, they said, was coming from a five-star culture (Delhi Public School, St Stephen's College, Oxford and Lincoln's Inn), so he didn't really know UP. "But under our guidance...."
Khurshid was naive and an innocent floundering in a sea of cunning in Lucknow. He found himself undermined from the start. He would call a public meeting and find that overnight another meeting had been organised elsewhere -- in Rampur or Shahjahanpur -- so he would get no party help.
Where his appeal worked was among the Muslims. Mulayam Singh Yadav had consolidated the Muslims, but they thought they heard a faint new strain of music from the Congress in the voice of Salman Khurshid. A change was taking place though it was slow in coming.
The 1999 Lok Sabha election came around and the Congress got another setback in UP. Sonia Gandhi called a meeting of Lok Sabha MPs from the state at 10 Janpath. They were just eight so they could be seated comfortably around a table.
Each one of them pointedly said the Muslims did not vote for them - in other words, that no credit was due to Khurshid. Avtar Singh Bhadana, who declared that he had won only because of the Muslim vote, was the only exception. After this meeting, Khurshid was replaced as PCC chief.
That was then. The actors have changed. Jitendra Prasada, Madhavrao Scindia (whose protégé Sriprakash Jaiswal was encouraged to block Khurshid) and N D Tewari are no longer around.
Khurshid, who chose not to contest the Lok Sabha election, is determined to take the road show route to the party's revival which means a first-hand assessment of the shape of the party in every district. A plan for the revamp of district and block level Congress presidents is on the cards once the new PCC chief gets his bearings.
That the Congress needs to have a new caste equation working for it in UP goes without saying. The upper castes, especially the Brahmins, are angry and alienated from the BJP. Mayawati, who continues to have a hold over the Dalits, needs to be reassured that the Congress is not out to gobble up her vote but wants to work with her.
The greatest hope for the party is from its erstwhile Muslim supporters who have drifted away to the Samajwadi Party. This is a formidable challenge because Mulayam Singh Yadav knows UP better than any other leader in the state. He knows the administration, the party, the people. This includes the Muslims.
Ultimately the Congress's salvation lies in a Brahmin-Muslim compact with help from the outside from Mayawati. This cannot come about from demonstrations against the arrest of the Shankaracharya -- one was organised by Jagdambika Pal last week -- but by raising governance issues.
The other challenge for Khurshid is what the Congress' attitude should be to Mulayam Singh Yadav. Faced with a moribund organisation, almost all the Congress MLAs from UP --with the exception of R P N Singh from Padrauna -- had told Jagdambika Pal and the leader of the Congress Legislature Party, Pramod Tewari after the 2002 assembly election that the Congress should strengthen forces of secularism and join the Yadav-led government.
Pal had met Sonia Gandhi with this request of the legislators and argued that this could hold out the possibility of the party's revival in the state.
Khurshid does not share this view. The Congress stand is: support a secular government, not an inefficient one. 'Hamne samarthan diya hai, atmasamarpan nahin kiya' (We have supported the Mulayam government, not surrendered to it), he said in a recent interview.
The Congress needs to do what it has avoided doing all these years -- it needs to start an agitation. If Rajesh Mishra could organise a rally in the heartland of the BJP, Varanasi, to which people poured out to see Sonia Gandhi, there are still some Congress-minded people out there (Mishra won the Lok Sabha seat, incidentally). Khurshid Mark II needs to go out and get them.