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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.