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Commentary/Vir Sanghvi

Kesri and Rao: Is a new evil better than the old one?

First things first. Yes, I agree that Sitaram Kesri had no business to manipulate the selection of the Congress Parliamentary Party leader to his benefit. And yes, of course there should have been an election.

But no, I don't believe that Narasimha Rao's supporters have any business complaining about Kesri's tactics. As the old cliche goes, people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw orgies.

Let's not forget how Rao got to be prime minister in the first place. In 1991, he had refused to take part in the Lok Sabha election (he'd been defeated in 1989) on the grounds that he was extremely unwell. Then, on May 21, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated and the leadership of the Congress fell vacant.

A panicky Congress Working Committee offered the job to Sonia Gandhi who turned it down. Rao was then made provisional president on the grounds that he was an elderly person in poor health who was on the verge of retirement.

But no sooner had the prime ministership become available than Rao staged a miraculous recovery. His health was fine, he declared. He was no provisional president; he was here for keeps.

When it looked as though the Congress would form the government, Sharad Pawar and his supporters flew to Delhi to stake the Maratha's claim to the top job. Nobody know show an election would have turn out. But Rao was not prepared to take that chance. Backed by a small coterie of supporters and the implicit blessing of 10 Janpath, he raised the slogan of consensus and got the job without allowing any election to be held.

Five and a half years later, Kesri has done pretty much the same thing.

Nor do I think that over the last six months, Rao has behaved with the dignity and self-respect we expected of him. He once told me that he had hoped to step down at the completion of his term as prime minister.

Apparently, the plan was to issue a statement at the conclusion of polling -- but before the results of the 1996 election were declared -- to the effect that no matter who won, he was going to retire. He had enjoyed his term as prime minister and he believed he had done what was right for the country. But five years was long enough and he was now moving aside to make way for somebody else.

This statement was never issued. Rao will not explain why. One version is that he was persuaded by people close to him that it would be foolish to step down when he was certain to become prime minister for another five years. Another is that he simply lost his nerve.

In any event, he was still Congress president when the results came in. At least two former members of his Cabinet went on television to declare that they would have stepped down if they were in his place. Kamal Nath was emphatic: if a team loses then the captain should step down, he told Prannoy Roy.

But Rao did not step down. He managed dissent within the party and made a mockery of the Working Committee by ensuring that his tame invitees (as distinct from the elected members) took his side blindly.

Eventually, when the rebels threatened to hold a convention attended by Sonia Gandhi at which they would split the party, Rao read the writing on the wall. He agreed to step down as Congress president claiming that it was unseemly for the head of the Congress to have to appear in court on corruption charges. Bizarrely, he seemed to think that it was entirely seemly for the leader of the parliamentary party to run from magistrate to magistrate begging for bail.

Even then, Rao could have behaved with some dignity and let the Congress elect an effective successor. Instead, he manipulated the accession of Sitaram Kesri (who would place his cap at Rao's feet and swear undying devotion) to the post of party president on the grounds that Kesri would do as he was told.

Anybody who tries to run a party by remote control deserves what happened next. Once Kesri had the job, he picked his cap off the floor, put it back on his head, turned around and knifed Rao.

The shouts of horror and outrage from the Rao camp stem not from any concern for inner-party democracy but from the realisation that Kesri made fools out of them.

Of course he did. But then, they probably asked for it.

If Narasimha Rao behaved badly by clinging on to the job by his fingernails, then Kesri has behaved in a manner that convincingly demonstrates that he is an extremely untrustworthy and insincere character.

Only two years ago, who would have dreamt that the Congress would choose as Rao's successor a man who was even older than him, even less charismatic and even more of an electoral liability? (It's strange but true. The Congress is now headed by a man who has long been incapable of winning a Lok Sabha seat for himself).

Kesri has got the job because he first sucked up to Rao and then betrayed him. It is as simple as that. Neither merit nor vote-winning ability ever entered into it.

While his personal behaviour has been scandalous (to the extent that sycophancy and betrayal are still scandalous in Indian politics), he has also bent the rules as Congress president.

Whatever his faults, Narasimha Rao was an elected leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party. Kesri, on the other hand, was the provisional president of the Congress, appointed without any election.

According to the party constitution, the CPP leader can only be removed if two-thirds of the MPs want him to go. Kesri didn't even bother to ascertain the views of MPs. He simply wrote Rao a letter giving him 24 hours to quit. Otherwise, it was suggested, he would expel him.

At the time, Kesri claimed that he did this in the interest of the party. But we now know what his real motive was: he wanted the job for himself.

In that sense, there is not much to choose between Rao and Kesri. Both have no agenda other than power at any cost. Those Congressmen who are celebrating Rao's ouster should stop and think as to whether the party has merely exchanged one evil for another. Of course it makes sense to get rid of a manipulator but it makes no sense to replace him with an even bigger manipulator.

But that alas is what the Congress has done. And I suspect that it will pay for its foolishness.

Vir Sanghvi

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