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Mainstream, VOL L, No 20, May 5, 2012

Signs of Panic

Sunday 13 May 2012, by Nikhil Chakravartty


On July 27, the Congress-I Working Committee was called by the party President, Rajiv Gandhi, and it adopted, among other things, a resolution on the political situation.

What was strange was that this ten-para one-thousand-word document, claiming to reflect the ruling party’s views on the present situation, had no reference at all to the crisis in Punjab or to the serious developments in Kashmir, not to speak of the Bodo or the Jharkand agitations. There is a reference to the challenge to the country’s secular basis and in that context a swipe at the BJP over the Ayodhya tension though no reference to the Babri mosque agitation. What shows up the hollowness of the Congress-I pretensions to defend secularism is its persistent default at calling a meeting of the National Integration Council though the Left parties have been demanding it for four long months. Nor has the Home Minister kept his promise made in Parliament that he would call a meeting of the NIC to discuss the Punjab crisis before the end of last month.

Actually, the purpose, the sole purpose, for which the Congress-I Working Committee was called was to take instant measures to neutralise the lightning impact of the mass resignation of the Opposition MPs from the Lok Sabha, as all reports available to the ruling party leadership pointed to the adverse effect it had on the image of the Congress-I with a pronouncedly serious impact on the morale of the party ranks and its middle leadership. Already the sledge-hammer attack had been launched against the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) to the point of vitriolic abuse having been showered on him and his office by senior Ministers, not to speak of the tribe of Salves.

Obviously, this intemperate attack on the CAG turned out to be a fiasco, as it has lowered the Congress-I leaders in the eyes of a large section of the intelligentsia. The adverse reaction of the association of auditors and similar bodies apart from distinguished intellectuals and senior lea-ders once associated with the Congress, should have made it abundantly clear to the Congress-I leadership that the attack on the CAG to save the face of the Rajiv Government has really boomeranged.
The tirade against the CAG could hardly recompense the Congress-I for the serious setback it suffered by the mass resignation of the Opposition MPs, turning the Lok Sabha into a veritable rump. This was indeed as grievous as losing the political initiative at the threshold of the election campaign for the Lok Sabha. Rather, it has added to the discredit of the Rajiv Congress.

What then was to be done to wrest back the initiative from the Opposition? This was the critical question that the Congress leadership had to face when they met in conclave in the Congress Working Committee. The target of the Congress Working Committee resolution was the Opposition in general as its wording clearly shows. However, a more pointed target was, once again, Vishwanath Pratap Singh. K.C. Pant started the game by attacking V.P. Singh for having allowed the Defence Ministry to buy the Bofors gun. This argument was made with such gusto and vehemence that the Congress-I members felt that at last they had got a talking point against the Opposition. As the Congress-I has reduced itself to a one-person outfit in the person of Rajiv Gandhi, his rise and fall determining the fortunes of the party, so it has taken up V.P. Singh as not only the symbol but the very embodiment of the Opposition. In other words, in the Congress-I understanding, the coming election battle is going to be just a boxing match between Rajiv Gandhi and Vishwanath Pratap Singh.

It is in this context that the Congress-I Working Committee has worked out its political strategy that V.P. Singh has to be singled out for attack as if that can neutralise the stigma that the CAG Re-port has brought upon Rajiv Gandhi. V.P. Singh had issued a statement rebutting Defence Minister Pant’s personal attack on him, pointing out that as the then Finance Minister his responsibility was to provide funds for the gun, since “the responsibility of the technical choice of a weapon fairly and squarely lies on the Defence Minister”. Promptly followed the rapid broadsides by the Congress-I leaders, both high and low. In the excitement, Chidambaram, demonstrating his credentials of being more loyal than the King, fired off a letter to Vishwanath Pratap Singh trying to teach him the job of a Finance Minister.

This chorus of attack on V.P. Singh has reached an absurd proportion, almost making out as if it was V.P. Singh who was instrumental in buying the Bofors gun. The role that Rajiv Gandhi played as the Defence Minister was sought to be covered up by this massive propangada blitz. However, any discerning observer is bound to ask the uncomfortable question what role Rajiv Gandhi himself played in this controversial deal— even why he suddenly decided to take over the Defence portfolio just about the time when the negotiations for the Bofors deal were reaching the crucial stage and whether there was any organic link between the two.
All this ballyhoo does not seem to have the desired impact on the public mind. The criticism of the stand of Rajiv’s supporting Ministers attacking V.P. Singh is hardly finding the response it was expected to generate at least within the Congress circles. This is reflected in the reactions of senior Congressmen, quite widely expressed in private and sometimes even in public, as seen in C. Subramaniam’s cogently argued statement on the subject. (See pages 33-34)

The totally unforeseen resignation from the party by the former Cabinet Minister, Rao Birendra Singh, has come as a blow to the prestige of the Rajiv Congress. Coming as it has immediately after the launching of the concerted campaign against V.P. Singh, this resignation

by an important regional leader is no doubt a setback for the Congress-I despite all the heroic efforts by the AICC-I General Secretaries at playing it down.

More serious is the prospect of more resignations to come. Reports are afloat about a number of Congress-I MPs about to resign from the party. In such a critical situation, one can detect signs of panic in the Rajiv establishment. Frantic consultations are on as to how to delink the Left from the Janata Dal; and some are planning how to keep the BJP apart from the Janata Dal. The main objec-tive of these desperate moves is to avert the frigh-tening contingency of the Congress-I having to meet the challenge of a single Opposition candi-date in most of the Lok Sabha constituencies. It was this which had brought about the debacle for the Indira Congress in 1977. For the Rajiv Con-gress to have to face such a challenge would be the sure prospect of a rout. Particularly when there is no major plus point for it to offer before the electorate. The Sri Lanka mess is certainly no shining asset in an election campaign, and so too the tension with Nepal. The impact of the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana is fast petering out and the Panchayati Raj legislation is not going to galvanise the Congress-I to romp home to victory.

It’s certainly the declining curve for Rajiv Gandhi as the election date comes nearer. Does he realise this himself?

One wonders.

(Mainstream, August 5, 1989)

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