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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 30, July 16, 2011

Confusion worse Confounded

Wednesday 20 July 2011, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

Former PM P.V. Narasimha Rao, who would have completed ninety years on June 28, 2011, was close to N.C. and frequently interacted with him. There existed quite a deep friendship between the two who knew each other well. When P.V. was elected the Congress President after Rajiv Gandhi’s tragic assassination in 1991, N.C. wrote editorially in this journal: “The choice has naturally fallen on the senior leader in the party who can never be accused of domineering—rather he has long cultivated an almost self-denying approach to any situation facing the party. A person without a faction but one who commands esteem for his intellectual qualities, Narasimha Rao can be described as a one-man think-tank—something which has almost become an endangered species in our political world today.” However, P.V.’s elevation to the office of the Prime Minister did not prevent N.C. from criticising him whenever the occasion arose regardless of his friendship with the public figure, but he did so with a sense of objectivity and sobriety that is almost extinct in today’s political life. This is reflected in the following editorial he wrote in May 1992. Editor

It takes a long time for the mountain in agony to produce the mouse. One would certainly not like to suggest by any stretch of imagination that any of the members of the just constituted Working Committee of the Indian National Congress could be equated with the rodent species, nor would like the present Congress President to claim to be a mountain by his own right.

And yet one cannot help getting the feeling that when a party President takes one full month to form his High Command—and that too with four vacancies yet to be filled out of twenty—he is bound to be regarded by the public at large as one who has lapsed into dithering in forming a team which formally should follow almost immediately after a Congress session. Then, the manner of striking out two senior members from the elected list and then to induct them in the nominated list is something really extraordinary and defies all principles of elective functioning.

For one thing, has the Congress President the right to strike out the name of anybody who has been duly elected by the open Congress session, the highest body inside the party? On what ground could Arjun Singh and Sharad Pawar be dropped out of the elected list and then taken back in the nominated list? No provision of the party constitution invests the party President with such prerogative to treat the elected list in a cavalier fashion. Apart from the irregularity involved, this amounts to belittling the sanctity of any election.

If this is meant to demonstrate that their standing in the party is now cut down since they would from now on figure only in the nominated list, this would indeed be an absurd proposition. For one thing, there is no difference whatsoever between an elected and a nominated member once the Working Committee is formed—they become all equal in the eyes of the party and the general public, and the party President too is not permitted to betray any difference in treating them.

It is said in some circles that Narasimha Rao was disturbed at the emergence within the party of a so-called syndicate jointly ventured by Arjun Singh and Sharad Pawar, the two contenders for the Prime Ministerial gaddi last year. This argument is hardly tenable because all reports from careful observers at the Congress session make it abundantly clear that no such syndicate was secretly formed at Tirupati. What is likely to have happened was that the two contending factions led by Arjun and Sharad came to a quiet understanding to ensure that their respective lists were not defeated by their internal rivalry; in other words, they might have forged an electoral ceasefire, a sort of deal which even political adversaries often strike in the election season.

Granted that the party President was seriously upset by the spectre of a frightening syndicate at Tirupati which he felt may threaten his leadership, one has to question in all seriousness whether this is the way to bring about its liquidation. Rather such a tampering with the electoral process might provide his challengers, if any, with an alibi that the party President needed to be checked in order that there is no arbitrariness in the functioning of the party as such. If Arjun Singh has promptly issued a statement swearing loyalty to the leader, that does not necessarily mean that everything would from now on be lovely in the garden.

The confusion over the formation of the Congress Working Committee has been worse confounded by this latest mess by the party President. There was a fresh breeze of morale uplift for the rank-and-file Congressmen when Narasimha Rao insisted on inner-party elections, however faulty they might have been. And he himself claimed with good reason that this way the party would be put back into normal functioning. That was why many were taken by surprise when at Tirupati the party President, immediately after the poll results were announced for the ten elected seats in the Working Committee, expressed his anguish that the elected list did not include any woman member nor anybody from among the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. As the party President he was expected to respect the verdict of the poll and not turn an instant critic. Moreover, he himself was invested with the power to rectify the imbalance by including the left-out categories in the list of the ten members due to be nominated by the party President.

Instead, the bizarre game of resignations followed, the lead in it having been given by one of the elected known to be closest to him. A totally uncalled for impasse was created by the party President’s obiter dictum, and then after a month of cogitations, he has come out with a lopsided verdict which instead of clarifying the atmosphere is bound to make things worse. To put it briefly, nothing has been done in the eleven months since his becoming the President of the Congress to so undermine the morale of the party as a whole as this patent mishandling of the issue of forming the new Working Committee.

One need not go into a minute examination of the biodata of the new members of the Congress Working Committee. However, it is rather strange that after making so much song and dance about balanced representation, there should be more than one member from the same State. Is not Antony adequately equipped to represent the Kerala point of view and is Karunakaran needed to supplement him—or, more likely, to negate him? Could not Sharad Pawar represent Maharashtra on his own, is Shinde needed to provide the counter-point? And is Janardan Poojary, the father of the so-called loan mela technology, so necessary to reinforce the party’s leadership? These and some other questions are bound to trouble many a Congressman. And such misgivings within the party will by no means enhance the position of the party President.

It may of course be argued that the question of the formation of a new Congress Working Committee is an internal matter of the ruling party and should not bother the wider public which is concerned with Narasimha Rao’s functioning as the Prime Minister of the country. This is far from tenable as an answer. For one thing, the health of a ruling party is always a matter of interest and concern to the country as a whole, the more so when it does not command a majority in Parliament, thereby imposing upon other parties an added responsibility of scrutinising its capacity to run the government.

Secondly, the formidable agenda of unresolved problems facing the nation demands that there has to be utmost confidence in the capacity of the government in tackling them. Kashmir, Punjab, Assam and the North-East, and Tamil Nadu, apart from the spread of communal bitter-ness and tension—all are beset with crisis situations of unprecedented magnitude. In tackling them the government has displayed no pers-pective whatsoever. The government’s approach betrays a day labourer’s mentality—how to manage somehow till the next morning. In such an environment, when the leadership of the ruling party is found to be engrossed in petty rivalries and squabbles and messes up the very simple principles of political functioning, one can easily imagine its deleterious impact on the public mind. Such issues of inconsequence as spending a month of precious time to search for a Working Committee of the ruling party cannot but lead to the sapping of the nation’s confidence in the government itself.

One does not feel happy in making sharp criticism on Narasimha Rao. This is not because one should be scared of attacking the Prime Minister of the country, but because he commands a lot of respect by his intellectual qualities and wide political experience of more than four decades. Consciously avoiding the hi-fi flam-boyance of some of his predecessors in office and the anarchic waywardness of some others among them, Narasimha Rao earned, in the last one year of tension and turbulence, a lot of goodwill and with it has roused expectations. It is in this background that any lapse into political vacillation—as the Working Committee episode has shown—is bound to provoke both frus-tration and exasperation. With his congenitally democratic temper, one feels the responsibility to spotlight on any failing on the part of a leader occupying the very seat of power. Not to do so will be doing him an injustice as one would fail in one’s obligation to be the watchdog of democracy, no matter however inadequately.

This country expects much more from Narasimha Rao in his capacity as the Prime Minister as also as the President of the ruling party.

(Mainstream, May 23, 1992)

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