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Indian political mainstream
Issue Date- 6th November , 2000

Congress president elections : Sonia vs Jitendra Prasad

In a contest for the position of Congress President, the incumbent president, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, and her only rival Mr. Jitendra Prasad, former vice-president of the Party and former Chief of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh and at present a member of the Congress Working Committee (CWC), are locked in an uneven battle. The result will be known after polling on November 9. Mr. Jitendra Prasad filed his nomination papers on October 29, the last day for doing so after he had written several letters to the Congress Party’s election authority chairman, Mr. Ram Nivas Mirdha, complaining about various things. Congressmen who advise the Congress President in such matters were not happy that Mrs. Sonia Gandhi was facing a candidate for a post which they believe should be hers’ by right. They did wanted an uncontested election so that they could prove to the Party and to its sympathizes and rivals alike, that Mrs. Sonia Gandhi was an unquestioned leader. Mr. Jitendra Prasad who has been known to be a dissident was willing to withdraw if the leaders surrounding Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, generally described as the coterie, spoke to him and acknowledged his leadership. This did not happen and finally Mr. Jitendra Prasad filed his nominations on the last day. He claimed in a Press Conference on the following day after filing his nominations that he had nothing personally against Mrs. Sonia Gandhi but wanted recognition for party workers and was contesting for upholding of the right of dissent and of internal democracy. Thereafter he went on a countrywide tour beginning with Sriperambudur, the place where Mr. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991 and where a memorial has been put up by the Congress party. The place is near Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. However, there were hardly any Congressman present at Chennai airport to welcome Mr. Prasad or to accompany him to Sriperambadur. Undaunted, Mr. Jitendra Prasad kept his schedule and toured different parts of the country to canvass support among Congressman for his candidature. Mrs. Sonia Gandhi at first showed unconcern but retorted to criticism about the coterie around her by saying that there was a coterie even when Mr. Jitendra Prasad was political advisor to the Congress President in the times of Mr. Rajiv Gandhi and Mr. P. V. Narasimha Rao. The result of the election is a foregone conclusion but Mrs. Sonia Gandhi’s managers have pressed the panic button quite unnecessarily. Mrs. Ambika Sonia has resigned as Congress General Secretary to canvass for Mrs. Gandhi. This does not mean that Mr. Jitendra Prasad has no support. In fact in his own state of Uttar Pradesh he has considerable following and among them is Mrs. Nour Banoo, member of the Lok Sabha. Mr. Prasad may even get the vote of many disgruntled people in the party outside the state. But he is no serious threat really. At his instance the Congress Election Authority has decided to mix up the votes from different states and the secrecy of the ballot will thus be observed. While resigning from the office of General Secretary, Mrs. Ambika Soni said that she wanted to be free to canvass for the Congress President Mrs. Sonia Gandhi and did not want to be accused of utilising her party office. It is likely that Mrs. Ambika Soni’s example may be followed by other office bearers of the party. That would certainly strengthen Mrs. Sonia Gandhi’s position but would also show that the fight given by Mr. Jitendra Prasad is being taken seriously by the Congress establishment. The fact is that Mrs. Sonia Gandhi has proved an ineffective leader and secured the lowest number of seats in the last Lok Sabha elections for the party. There is sycophancy on the one hand and open or concealed dissidence on the other. The defeats in assembly elections in Orissa, Bihar and other states showed Mrs. Sonia Gandhi’s lack of charisma and grip on the party. Her coterie is therefore taking no chances. Party elections are being held after three years and the last time the Congress President faced the party electorate, the late Mr. Sitaram Kesri was in office. Although he faced rivals like Mr. Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot his victory was a pronounced and definite one. The office bearers of the various states’ Congress party are entitled to vote in the election of the Congress President but Mr. Jitendra Prasad is handicapped by the fact that the list of the State Congress office bearers and that of the district Congress office bearers do not contain their addresses or telephone numbers. These may not have been designed simply for Mr. Jitendra Prasad but certainly add to the difficulties of rivals like Mr. Jitendra Prasad who has no party establishment to support him. The Election Commission of India has very little to do with the internal elections of the Congress party, but the Chief Election Commissioner, Dr. M.S. Gill, has stressed the need for the main parties recognised by the Election Commission to hold elections regularly. He has cited the German model in this connection for the parties to follow. Congress : A sham party The organisational elections provide focus on three aspects of the Congress party : the control of the party by the coterie, the weak leadership and the sham inner party democracy. Today, every single Congress loyalist (minus the coterie and a few around the inner ring) shakes his head in private about the party president. Analysts Seema Mustafa says this is not an exaggeration. This is the unholy truth. She does not know anything about the party, she has no views about anything, she only listens, she never talks, she does not know anybody, she is completely controlled by the men around her are the sentiments voiced behind shut doors by the Congress loyalists. Sonia Gandhi is kept indoors so that her every appearance is seen as a major event. The appearance is surrounded by drama sufficient to convince the Congress worker that he or she is a very fortunate person in having actually got a glimpse of the Goddess. She is not accessible to the ordinary leader. She rarely visits the party office. Her interactions with the media are, fortunately, few and far between. Even these are limited to short rehearsed sentences. She dresses beautifully. She looks good. She has the right touch of arrogance that has Congress members wanting to throw themselves at her feet. The tragedy is that Mrs. Gandhi when herself has begun to believe in the image. But Mrs. Sonia Gandhi declares that she listens to party leaders but takes decisions herself. Like insisting on the “election” of Ajit Jogi as the Chhatisgarh chief minister. The views of Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh were rejected, his arguments struck down as 10 Janpath insisted that he prepare the ground for Jogi’s smooth take-over. The organisational elections have shown the lack of inner party democracy. Voter’s lists include brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, you name them, dead or alive “loyalists,” as the power brokers struggle to prove themselves to the Family. Jitendra Prasada by deciding to contest the election for president, has done the unforgivable. He might have declared that he will not do a Sharad Pawar, and will remain in the Congress. But he will not be forgiven. And he will be punished. The coterie has convinced Mrs. Gandhi that the Congress will come to its own soon. The people will get tired of the Bharatiya Janata Party and they will turn to, who else, but the Congress. “Where else will they go, they will have to come to us, look at Gujarat,” runs the well rehearsed argument. Hence, we need do nothing more than remain where we are: a formless, shapeless, apathetic, indifferent alternative. And like all coteries in history, the present group too paints only a part of the total picture. Negative votes might be cast for Mrs. Gandhi and her group of leaders in states like Gujarat where there is no regional alternative but what about Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and all the rest? Here the argument is: if they want a secular alternative, they will have to support us. The irony is that while for the Congress there is no leader other than Mrs. Gandhi, for the regional parties there is no Congress with Mrs. Gandhi. Nobody, except Laloo Prasad Yadav and Jayalalitha, is willing to touch a Congress with Sonia Gandhi at the helm of affairs. Some like Mulayam Singh will prefer sitting in the Opposition, others like Chandrababu Naidu will not hesitate to make common cause even with the enemy so long as it is not Sonia Gandhi. Surely the Congress has seen better days. There is a view that Sonia Gandhi has destroyed the party as no other leader had in the past. Her role in ousting her predecessor, the late Mr. Sitaram Kesri, who passed away a few days ago, needs to be recalled. According to senior Congressmen with the exception of P.V. Narasimha Rao, Kesri was perhaps the wiliest political brain in the CWC. He was also the first elected president in 42 years and the first from the lower castes. But once he was Congress president, the swords within the CWC were never really sheathed. The double talk was shocking. There was the diligent Pranab Mukherjee, drafting notes in Kesri’s house. Not just him. Every leader of the CWC trooping in, caps in hand and consulting him reverentially. But the minute they left his door the intrigues would resume. Kesri knew what was going on. He was disgusted the way “the party of vested interests” was being run. The insensitivity to the caste question pained him. Even some Congressmen are amazed at how quickly the BJP had sought to dispel its upper caste image. After all, it was the BJP which had enabled Mayawati (“dalit” leader of the BSP in UP) to become chief minister. Call it crafty orchestration, but Bangaru Laxman’s elevation to the post of the party president was a bold decision. Kesri could never really recover from the unseemly haste with which he was ousted from the party presidentship. What astounded him was that caste prejudice in the party “was even stronger than the lure of power.” After the elections in March 1999, he as party president had led the delegation to the President and asked for time. He could well have become prime minister. Senior Congressmen recall that within hours a coup was staged of which Sonia Gandhi was the central figure. The very same Pranab Mukherjee, who sat around Kesri drafting his notes, went around the party office ensuring that every nameplate bearing Kesri’s name was removed. That was Sonia Gandhi’s contribution to the democratisation in the party. This is the point Jitendra Prasada is making, though not in so many words. The problem of Indian democracy is that most parties behave in the manner of the Congress. All political parties are chary of internal democracy. To their credit the Congress and the Shiv Sena are upfront about it; this is implicit in their unwritten Articles of Association. And contrary to popular impression, in the Congress the trend existed even before Indira Gandhi, though under her sycophancy flowered and prospered to encompass the whole family : Can one ever forget the wonderful sight of an obsequious N D Tiwari (former UP Congress chief) carrying the footwear of Sanjay Gandhi on his head? But to go back in time, Mahatma Gandhi anointed Nehru his heir-apparent. Nehru, in turn, groomed his daughter who groomed her son. Subhash Chandra Bose contested and won against Pattabhi Sitaramiah. And yet, his working committee stood disbanded - because Gandhi was unhappy with the result. The Shiv Sena, of course, doesn’t believe in any of these formalities. Why go to the trouble of fighting elections, when it is by far simpler to appoint Bal Thackeray president for life? In the BJP, the leadership will go to any length to prevent election to the highest post in the party. The same goes for all the regional parties - from Jayalalitha’s AIADMK and Mayawati’s BSP to Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and Chandrababu Naidu’s TDP.

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