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The real reason for Margaret Alva's exit

November 17, 2008

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Is Margaret Alva a sacrificial lamb in the byzantine politics of the Congress party?

It is always sad when a person responsible for imposing discipline in a party has to explain charges of violation of party discipline. Margaret Alva is one of the Congress's most experienced, most senior managers. In her entire political life, she has never shirked from telling the truth or speaking out when she thought things were going wrong. And now, to see her like this... Is this really Alva? Or has she been set up?

When PV Narasimha Rao was the prime minister and the party was trying to assimilate economic reforms, she was the one who said bluntly that the leadership hadn't done enough to explain reforms to the people -- a way of saying to the party leadership: 'explain to people that good economics is also good politics'.

As general secretary in charge of Maharashtra, she saw how chief minister (and party colleague) Vilasrao Deshmukh was enthralled by Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar [Images]. Accordingly, she did everything to ensure the ruling Democratic Front in Maharashtra became tripolar: if Pawar was one pole, there was Vilasrao Deshmukh and Narayan Rane, who would hold Deshmukh in check if he tried to sell the Congress down the river to Pawar. These could be mistaken assumptions, but Alva made her moves out of conviction, not any ulterior motive. No pushover, Deshmukh refused to keep quiet and Pawar egged him on to complain to Delhi [Images] about the biases of party general secretaries. But Alva refused to be deterred, although she must have been irritated by rumours that in her conduct she behaved as though she was general secretary of one faction of the party in Maharashtra.

Maharashtra is important because it has a lot to do with her present predicament. In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, Alva contested the Kanara Lok Sabha seat. She lost that election by 33,000 votes. The assembly elections were held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha polls. In one assembly segment -- Khanapur -- in her parliamentary constituency, the Congress, which has consistently lost there, narrowly missed winning the seat. The candidate was a Muslim, Rafique Khanapure. He lost by 600 votes, the smallest margin of defeat the Congress has ever had.

When assembly elections came along earlier this year, Alva made her case to the screening committee headed by Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh: give my son Nivedith, a seat from Sarvagyanagar, Bangalore. If not, then Khanapur.

The screening committee discussed the matter. Because of delimitation, the number of seats from Bangalore had more than doubled. But every seat counted. Alva  -- and her family -- had been representing Kanara. There was no evidence of their work in Bangalore.

Although he had lost the election, Rafique Khanapure had been nursing Khanapur. Was it a good idea to deny a worker a ticket in preference to somebody's son?

To be fair, it wasn't as if other sons, sons-in-law and assorted relatives hadn't got tickets. Although the party denied former Railway Minister C K Jaffer Sharief's demand that his grandson get a nomination, one was given to his son-in-law. Former Congress MP R L Jalappa's son was given a Congress nomination. Two sitting Members of Parliament sought seats for their sons. Both created a situation where all other potential Congress candidates just melted away in the dusk. They had to be given the seats. (Both lost but that's another story.)

Khanapur is a peculiar seat. Because it is on the Maharashtra-Karnataka border in Belgaum district, it has a large Maharashtrian population. The Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti has a base there. The biggest caste there is the Marathas. So if the Maratha vote were to be split by putting up a number of dummy -- or otherwise -- candidates, the seat could be a shoo-in for the representative of another community.

Rane, the new entrant in Congress with Alva as his only mentor, could have offered his help in getting the Maratha vote split so that a minority Christian could be elected. Alva, therefore, may have thought she could leverage her Maharashtra connections in Karnataka.

Much of Khanapur was well aware that a battle was going on for the constituency. If Margaret Alva was powerful in the region, so was another Congress leader, R V Deshpande who belongs to this area. Deshpande has just been named president of the Congress in Karnataka.

To those who wonder why Alva chose to speak out now, nearly six months after the assembly elections have come and gone, consider all that has happened in these six months. Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee Chief Prabha Rau has been elevated to the post of governor. Deshpande has been appointed Karnataka PCC Chief. And Alva has got nothing, not even a seat for her son, although she had virtually announced that she would be the one to contest the assembly seat from Khanapur.

What is surprising is the number of people who are ready to back her charge that seats were bought and sold in the assembly election. P Shivshankar, former law minister; R L Jalappa, minister in Karnataka and MP Siddaramiah, well known Kuruba leader in the state.

All this gives rise to another thought. Is there a subtext to the drama that's going on? Alva's real target is Digvijay Singh (the chairman of the screening committee who, she claims, is the man who looked the other way while tickets were being bought and sold). Singh is known to enjoy the confidence of Rahul Gandhi [Images].

This is a real worry to those who advise Sonia Gandhi [Images], for they risk marginalisation. Could they have put Alva up to attacking Digvijay Singh by destroying his reputation? In other words, in the byzantine politics of the Congress, is Alva merely a lamb being led to slaughter by those who want to use her to get at other leaders including Digvijay Singh?

How the Congress leadership will handle this hot potato will also speak of its agility. But one thing is clear: coteries in the Congress are well and alive, thank you.

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