Indira-Rajiv confidant M.L. Fotedar accused P.V. Narasimha Rao of initiating the process of “Tamilnaduisation of Congress” in the 1990s, when the party tied up with BSP and began its downslide in Uttar Pradesh. The party lost power in Tamil Nadu in 1967 and since is a part player in that state. Today there are no Congress MPs from TN. The experience in Andhra Pradesh, which stood by Congress in 1977 is similar. The party lost its deposit in all the 175 seats in the last Assembly elections.
It is not surgery but a makeover which is the need of the hour for Congress. While Narendra Modi’s “Congress-mukt Bharat” plan is moving as per trajectory, a “Parivar-mukt” Congress seems an incongruity. The first major split in the Congress in 1969 set in motion a process which has been described by Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph as “de-institutionalisation of party system”. Congressmen imbibed the habit of singing hallelujah post 1969: this has now been instituitionalised. The Parivar per se may not be to blame.
Unlike speculation “After Jawaharlal Nehru, who?” in the Indira Gandhi days, it became clear that Sanjay Gandhi and thereafter Rajiv Gandhi was the heir apparent. Post Rajiv Gandhi the party resolved to make Sonia Gandhi its chief; she declined. Sonia Gandhi however played a major role in the post-Rajiv succession. She had silently acquiesced in the choice of P.V. Narasimha Rao first as Congress president and later as Prime Minister. The withdrawal of Sharad Pawar from the race in 1991 is well-known. What is little known is why he did so. Resourceful Suresh Kalmadi had mobilised enormous wherewithal in a bid to make Pawar PM. A group of powerful industrialists known as the “Bombay Club” backed the endeavour. Kalmadi’s plan received a jolt when the then president of NSUI, Manish Tewari, who was perceived as a Pawar backer on the organisational front, issued a statement on the crucial morning, hailing Rao. A dipstick was put in motion. It revealed that a number of phone calls had emanated from 10 Janpath in the preceding days. Pawar thereafter took the initiative of proposing Rao as PM in the meeting.
Rao started his tenure on a positive note. A day after he took over, AICC secretary Ved Prakash visited me in my National Herald office. Printing of Congress election material was supervised by the newspaper to earn its keep. Prakash told me that Rao had desired that copies of Congress constitution be printed and kept ready. The second phase of the 1991 elections were on and the Congress manifesto had been revised post the assassination and was being reprinted. I sought to correct the AICC functionary: he insisted that it was the party constitution, which Rao wanted printed. Later that evening I ventured to enquire from Rao if he had desired the constitution and not the manifesto. Rao told me that he wanted the constitution to be printed and kept ready as the party had not held elections since 1972 and one of his first post Lok Sabha poll task would be to initiate the process of party elections.
Rao took this resolve to almost a point of culmination at the 1992 Tirupati AICC session. But he was overwhelmed when nine of the ten elected seats were bagged by those he perceived as detractors: Arjun Singh, Pawar et al. A panel apparently had swept the party poll. Rao denounced the result saying that no woman had been elected and weaker sections were not represented. Jitendra Prasada, who was the only non-panel winner, announced his resignation, authorising the Congress president to nominate all 20 members of CWC. All the other nine winners followed suit. Thus Rao’s refusal to honour one-man-one-post dictum coupled with his volte face in Tirupati put to naught the effort to reverse the de-institutionalisation of the party system. While parivar-mukt Congress is perhaps a lofty thought, the actions of two non-parivar Congress presidents, Rao and his successor, Sitaram Kesari did not do anything to reverse the juggernaut of de-institutionalisation. Congressmen trust the Family as there is mistrust among its other leaders.
The downfall of the Congress under Sonia Gandhi began with the decision to align, post-poll, in Maharashtra with the Pawar-led NCP in November 1999, six months after NCP walked out on the “foreigner” issue. Congress got Vilasrao Deshmukh as CM, but all plum portfolios went to the NCP kitty. Senior NCP leaders are now facing graft probes. The “Bofors” image of Congress was bolstered by these charges as their man was at the helm in Mumbai.
The decision to align with NCP showed that power, and not ideology or party pride, was the bottom line for Congress. This set in train a behavioural pattern due to which any charge of corruption levelled against Congress personalities gains currency swiftly. Congress stands divided among “Sonia Favourites” and “Team Rahul”. The mother-son duo is together; their respective factotums are at loggerheads.
Lalu Yadav said in Kolkata after Mamata’s swearing in that Congress should now be flexible on alliances. The Bihar pattern, in which Congress is a junior ruling coalition partner, seems to be the future looming ahead if an anti-BJP front ever succeeds.
Shubhabrata Bhattacharya is a former editor of Sunday and of National Herald.