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December 26, 1997


T V R Shenoy

Sonia... Yet so far

Suicide, the Supreme Court ruled a few months ago, is illegal in India. Someone should give a copy of that judgement to the Congress high command.

Congressmen are frankly bewildered as the party falls part in state after state -- Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu... What, they wonder, is Sitaram Kesri doing to stop the rot?

But Chacha Kesri isn't the only focus of Congressmen's resentment. A groundswell of resentment is clearly rising against no less than Sonia Gandhi. Seemingly minor incidents are being read as deliberate insult or a causal disregard for the party's sentiments.

Take, for instance, Sonia Gandhi's reported decision to enjoy a family holiday in Thailand. Both the timing and the choice of place are raising hackles. Even Rajiv Gandhi, it is pointed out, chose to enjoy himself on Indian territory -- the Andamans, say, or Lakshdweep. Nor did he holiday just as a general election loomed over the country.

"Generals, one disgusted Congressman told me, "don't vacation when the troops are fighting." I refrained from pointing out that another well-known Italian notoriously fiddled even as Rome lay burning. Such sentiments are now being heard in the highest councils of the Congress.

Here is what Ashok Gehlot, a Congress leader from Rajasthan, reportedly said at an extended session of the Congress Working Committee: "For six years we were told Soniaji is coming. We toppled Gujral because we thought she wanted it. But is she coming? If not, we have waited far too long!

"She is welcome if she chooses to lead us," Gehlot continued, "otherwise it is time we gather around another leader who has charisma and acceptability with the people." The assembled Congress grandees were stunned into silence at this plain speaking.

Was this an aberration? Not in the least. A few days later the same feelings were heard at a meeting of the UP Congress Legislative Party. "Will she or won't she? We have a right to know."

People who make a Mecca of 10, Janpath dismiss these incidents. The legislators in Lucknow were merely venting a momentary frustration, they say, while Gehlot is nothing but a Kesri acolyte. Of course, it isn't so long since Chacha himself was a Sonia bhakt. But neither reason explains the actions of two other prominent Congress dissidents -- G K Moopanar and Mamta Bannerjee.

The similarities between these leaders from Tamil Nadu and West Bengal are striking enough even if you ignore the fact that both have floated outfits sporting the initials 'TMC'. Both have a record of unstilted loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhis. But both also sense that they owe something to the ordinary Congressmen in the field (something not necessarily true of other Congress leaders).

Caught between these conflicting loyalties, Govindaswamy Karuppiah Moopanar and Mamta Bannerjee have been forced into rebellion. One TMC is yoked to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the one party that Sonia Gandhi absolutely detests -- to prevent the extinction of the Congress doctrine about "political untouchability" -- to save the party from being ground out by the Marxists.

But neither jettisoned the loyalties of a lifetime without making one last attempt. "Madam," Moopanar reportedly pleaded with Sonia Gandhi, "Please lead us. But don't expect us to fight under some lesser commander." This view was echoed by Mamta Bannerjee.

Sonia Gandhi's failure to respond was directly responsible for both of them leaving the party. But I am not sure why experienced politicians like the leaders of the two TMCs expected anything else.

Didn't they remember what happened when Arjun Singh and N D Tewari left to form the short-lived Congress (T)? Sonia Gandhi called on Narasimha Rao to compromise. But the old man refused to budge, and she accepted the snub meekly.

In those days, Rao was prime minister as well as Congress president. Today, Kesri lacks Rao's stature but is confident about cocking a snook at the lady. And all she can do is to holiday on a Thai beach.

Sonia Gandhi has wielded power thus far without coming out into the open. But the occasional telephone call or darshan won't satisfy Congress workers any longer. They want her to oust Kesri, to campaign for them, even to contest herself.

But the lady seems to have different priorities, First, a vacation in Thailand, and then her son's wedding. The Congress party is conspicuously absent from her engagement diary. She shouldn't complain if the average Congressman's former unstilted loyalty too becomes conspicuously absent in 1998.

T V R Shenoy

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