India's National Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
Vol. 15 :: No. 23 :: Nov. 07 - 20, 1998
Changing political contours
Ahead of a politically crucial round of Assembly elections, the Congress(I) fashions "electoral understandings" in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, and the Left parties strive to forge a "Third Front".
AS the party prepares for Assembly elections in three States and Delhi, the mood in the Congress(I) is marked by a measure of hope and some apprehension. On the one hand, the party leadership believes that for the first time in five years electorally the odds are in its favour on account of the "all-round failure" of the governments headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Centre and in Rajasthan and Delhi. On the other hand, a section of the leadership is not sure that this advantage will translate into votes for the Congress(I) since the process of organisational restructuring initiated by party president Sonia Gandhi has not been completed successfully.
A senior member of the Congress(I) Working Committee (CWC) told Frontline that over the past few years the party machinery had become so rusted in North India that many leaders were unsure whether it could take up the challenge of fighting an election. In comparison, the CWC member added, the BJP has a much better organisation in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi "notwithstanding its failures in the area of governance."
This reading of the situation seems to be steering the Congress(I) and the secular forces towards a broad understanding - for the elections, in the short term, and for the political action to challenge the BJP-led Government at the Centre at the national level, after the elections. Precisely what form the understanding will take in electoral terms is not clear - there is talk of "friendly contests in some seats and cooperation in others" - but the Congress(I)'s efforts are focussed on the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha (RLM) and essentially relate to Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
In Delhi and Mizoram, the Congress(I) leadership would prefer to go it alone as it believes that alliances will not make much difference to the party's prospects.
The joint national-level action against the Vajpayee Government is bound to involve a broad spectrum of forces, such as the "third front" of secular, democratic parties, which is being brought together.
THE first indication of an electoral understanding came in respect of Madhya Pradesh. Congress(I) spokesperson Ajit Jogi told newspersons on October 20 that the party had worked out an arrangement with the BSP under which the latter would contest 120 of the 320 Assembly seats in the State and support the Congress(I) in the other seats. Days later, addressing a rally in Delhi, BSP leader Kanshi Ram more or less affirmed this. He said that the BSP's principal concern was to defeat the BJP and it had therefore decided to contest only a limited number of seats in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, two States where the party has grown considerably in the last few years.
Earlier, there had been a series of meetings between the leaders of the BSP and the Congress(I), such as Kanshi Ram, Mayawati, Arjun Singh and Digvijay Singh. According to sources in two parties, Kanshi Ram met Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi a couple of days before Jogi's announcement.
All this was followed on October 28 by a meeting between RLM leader and Samajwadi Party (S.P.) president Mulayam Singh Yadav and Sonia Gandhi. Although there was no formal announcement of any alliance or understanding, S.P. sources said that the discussions had revolved around electoral adjustments in Rajasthan, where the S.P. has a substantial following in some areas. Significantly, the meeting was called at the Congress(I)'s initiative.
Despite the electoral adjustments, one oft-repeated statement from the Congress(I) leadership - that there was no quid pro quo involved in the offer of support for the Congress(I) by the BSP and the RLM - puzzled political observers. While announcing the understanding with the BSP in Madhya Pradesh, Jogi asserted that this did not mean that the BSP would get the Congress(I)'s support in the seats that the BSP would contest. According to him, the understanding meant that the BSP understood the need to defeat the BJP and that its leadership had decided to support the Congress(I) in those seats where the BSP felt that it would not be able to fare well. Not even Congress(I) leaders take this assertion seriously. According to several leaders, under the unspecified terms of the understanding, the Congress(I) would end up fielding "weak" candidates in about 50 seats where the BSP is in a position to win. A similar tactic would be employed vis-a-vis the RLM in Rajasthan.
ON another front, efforts to forge a "third front" of non-Congress(I) secular forces were launched at the initiative of CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet. The CPI(M) leader held a round of discussions on this subject with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M. Karunanidhi as well as with Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) leader G.K. Moopanar. The Asom Gana Parishad is also reported to have evinced interest in the move. At these meetings, Surjeet emphasised the need to give issue-based support to a Congress(I) government at the Centre in the event of the BJP-led Government collapsing. According to sources close to the DMK and the TMC, the success of the efforts to form an alternative government would hinge largely on the results of the Assembly elections. If the BJP fares badly in these elections, that would mark the beginning of the end of the Vajpayee Government, the sources said.
The efficacy of the strategy, however, will depend on how far the Congress(I) manages to hold its own in the elections, particularly in the matter of settling personality clashes within the various State units. In some States, leaders of Congress(I) factions have concealed their personal ambitions behind a veneer of ideological positioning in respect of the desirability (or otherwise) of entering into alliances with other parties. For example, in Madhya Pradesh, the understanding with the BSP was finalised in spite of opposition from Chief Minister Digvijay Singh and former Union Ministers Madhavrao Scindia and Kamal Nath. These leaders perceive the alliance with the BSP as part of a strategy by CWC member Arjun Singh and Jogi to unseat Digvijay Singh as Chief Minister. Persons close to the Chief Minister say that Jogi, who has a good personal equation with Kanshi Ram, is being projected for the post.
During the Lok Sabha elections, it was Digvijay Singh who was in favour of an alliance with the BSP; Arjun Singh was opposed to it. The turnaround by the two leaders indicates that for them the decisive factor is not commitment to the idea of unity of secular forces but personal political considerations. In this context, CWC members fear that leaders who oppose the electoral understanding would create hurdles in the run-up to the polls.
Similar personality clashes abound in Rajasthan too. The negotiations with the RLM were proposed by former Union Minister K. Natwar Singh, who is an aspirant for the chief ministership. But other contenders, such as Rajesh Pilot and Nawal Kishore Sharma, are not keen on an alliance; in their estimation, in the event of the Congress(I) needing the RLM's support to form a government, Natwar Singh would be at an advantage in the contest for the chief ministership. It is not clear how things will shape up if the leaders who oppose the alliance work to sabotage it. Right now, however, there are no manifest signs of such moves partly because Sonia Gandhi is believed to favour the limited understanding finalised in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
ANOTHER factor that may weaken the Congress(I)'s election strategy is interference by a group of leaders and apolitical personalities close to Sonia Gandhi in the selection of candidates. Party activists complain that the group has violated Sonia Gandhi's directive that the selection process should be democratic and that only persons who conform to high standards of morality and who have demonstrable commitment to the party's ideals should be given the ticket. Sonia Gandhi had, incharacteristic fashion, formed committees and deputed observers to the States where elections are to be held, but there are reports that the observers are being bypassed by the group in the selection of candidates. In many places the group has recommended the nomination of candidates who are considered to be unpopular. The sons of Arjun Singh and Motilal Vora have been given the ticket in Madhya Pradesh.
The one factor that gives the Congress(I) hope, however, is the overall political climate in the country, particularly the popular resentment against the BJP-led Government's failure to check the price rise. The Congress(I) election manifesto is believed to have highlighted the current political situation and made a forceful case before the public to choose the Congress(I) over the BJP. According to CWC members, the manifesto would also contrast the stability provided by Congress(I) governments in Madhya Pradesh and Mizoram and the instability in the BJP's Government in Delhi, where three Chief Ministers held office in five years. The manifesto also lays emphasis on improving the well-being and welfare of the oppressed and the poor, including the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes and farmers.
But, as many Congress(I) leaders say, manifestoes by themselves do not win elections. "The ultimate battle," pointed out CWC member A.K. Antony, "is fought in the polling booths and the test of the organisation is in winning that battle." Whether the Congress(I) is adequately prepared to win this battle is far from clear. But if Sonia Gandhi's leadership can get over the personality tussles in the States and ensure the selection of good candidates and the effective implementation of the limited understanding with other secular parties, the results of the Assembly elections on November 25 could well mark the beginning of the Congress(I)'s return to political power at the Centre.