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Back to the old loyalty test

Coteries have existed in Cong and will continue to exist. But decisions taken by leaders of substance are based on their experiences and the feedbacks from different quarters, writes Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: May 11, 2008 23:32 IST
Pankaj Vohra

Two events — comments made by former minister Akhilesh Das against AICC general secretary Rahul Gandhi and the statements of HRD Minister Arjun Singh about his experiences and beliefs — show what is happening within the Congress. It is no surprise that a fierce power play has started within the party just months before the assembly and parliamentary polls. Das’s statement, if seen in the context of Congress politics, indicates that he is the frontman of a strong group that is seeking to keep Rahul away from the decision-making process just before the polls.

Das’s group is worried that if Rahul’s influence spreads or if he takes more interest in the decision-making mechanism of the party, the existing power equations, which are advantageous to some, may alter and some leaders who call the shots now may have to take a backseat. In other words, by attacking the so-called coterie around Rahul, Das has tried to serve the interests of the so-called coterie around Congress President Sonia Gandhi. While this realisation is pronounced within the party, no leader is going to admit on record that coteries do exist around Rahul and Sonia. A coterie — minus the negative connotations — includes those who use their proximity to leaders to influence their decisions. Coteries have existed and will continue to exist. But decisions taken by leaders of substance are based on their experiences, understanding and the feedback they receive from different quarters.

It is clear that some influential Congressmen would be unhappy at the turn of events if Rahul starts exerting greater influence on the decision-making mechanism. So far as Das is concerned, he had no option but to leave the Congress and join the BSP. But what needs to be ascertained is that who within the Congress helped him make up his mind about leaving the party. It will also be interesting to find out who first recommended his name to the Congress President and Prime Minister for inclusion in the council of ministers, given that he was a Rajya Sabha MP from UP, a state where the party needs to strengthen its base among those who get directly elected. One also finds it difficult to believe that Das, son of a former UP Chief Minister, Banarsi Das, and who runs a number of businesses in the state, would come out in the open against Rahul on his own. The matter is not as straight as it seems. In fact, it is linked to the power play within the Congress.

Similarly, Arjun Singh’s observations on the Nehru-Gandhi family and other matters also have a direct relation to the Congress’s internal politics. He seems to be playing on the other side of the one that is represented by Akhilesh Das in the Congress’s version of the 20-20 Premier League. Since he is the more experienced of the two, he uses spin, googly, pace and flight to reach his objectives. He raised these issues at a function held outside the precincts of Rashtrapati Bhawan, where the President received the first copy of a book on his experiences and interviews. Significantly, the PM was also present. However, many Congress leaders decided to skip the function, preferring to watch the game unfold on their TV sets and in the newspapers.

The simplest way of interpreting Arjun Singh’s observations could be that he is building pressure on the Congress leadership before the assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh and parliamentary polls to ensure that his supporters get tickets and his son is accommodated honourably. He’ll probably achieve his objective because no one in the Congress would like to join issue with him on this. His comments were not rebutted firmly though R.K. Dhawan, a trusted aide of late PM , made a strong attempt to put to rest any speculation regarding what he said about the Emergency. Dhawan and Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi’s political advisor, M.L. Fotedar, have always defended the Nehru-Gandhis and so far as both of them are concerned, their loyalty has never been in doubt.

But if Arjun Singh’s comments are viewed and examined objectively, one must understand who it is intended for, especially when he talks about loyalists and those who pretend to be loyalists — given that the wily minister never bowls a single ball without it being in the block hole. He has acknowledged that the Nehru-Gandhis have this ability of recognising loyalists and well-wishers. And even if he did not mention Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi at the function, his reference to the Nehru-Gandhis included them as well.

The veteran leader was trying to point fingers at those Congress leaders who despite the fact that they were extremely close to Congress presidents, who were not from the Nehru-Gandhi clan like P.V. Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri, still enjoy important positions and wield considerable influence in the party. He recognises that times and situations change but loyalty is something that is tested in adverse circumstances.

Arjun Singh is a born politician and can nuance his comments with clever and appropriate words. His comments about the decision-making mechanism have found great resonance within the party, even though no one will say it openly. There are many who believe that the decision-making structure in the party needs to be broad-based and should not remain confined to a very limited number, and in many cases, the same people. Arjun Singh is not against the Congress leadership but is seeking his pound of flesh. On the other hand, Das is seeking to protect the status quo. Through its actions, each side is trying to send a message to Sonia Gandhi. The matter is yet to end and the power play within the party may get reflected in a more pronounced form in the coming days. Between us.