Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Thursday, Aug 29, 2002
Can Sonia pick the Gujarat gauntlet?
At the dinner party organised by the CPI (M) MP, Mr Somnath Chatterjee (extreme left), in New Delhi, the Congress(I) president, Ms Sonia Gandhi, and the CPI(M) veteran, Mr Jyoti Basu... Is unity on the menu?
THE Gujarat Chief Minister, Mr Narendra Modi's detractors and the Congressmen have one thing in common. Both would like to believe that the Congress(I) is the party-in-waiting to form the government in the State. They would like to believe that disillusioned and disgusted with the Modi administration's involvement in the communal riots, many a disapproving Gujarati Hindu might actually vote against the BJP.
A Delhi-based editor and an admirer of the Sangh Parivar describes this as wishful thinking, adding wryly, "All those outside Gujarat, and belonging to the secular brigade are convinced that Mr Modi will lose this election for the BJP. But ask anybody in Gujarat and he will say that the Gujarat CM will have a comfortable victory."
While the final outcome of the poll is sure to surprise one side or the other, one thing that is certain is that the Congress(I) chief, Ms Sonia Gandhi, is going all out to wrest the State back from the BJP. She has not spared any opportunity to criticise the State Government, particularly its Chief Minister in the harshest possible language. She has not even spared the Prime Minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, for failing to take adequate measures to protect the minorities in the State and to ensure speedy relief and rehabilitation for the victims. She has visited Gujarat a couple of times, met the riot victims and said all the right things. She has even checkmated Mr Modi by appointing his bete noir and former buddy from the Sangh Parivar, Mr Sankarsinh Vaghela, as the PCC chief. In fact, so unnerved became Mr. Modi by this appointment that within a few days he hastily dissolved the Assembly, without taking out the time to convene a session of the House before the dissolution.
Had he done this, it would have bought him the required six months between two sessions.
That would have helped him hide better his fury against the Chief Election Commissioner, Mr J. M. Lyngdoh, and not make uncalled-for comments about his religious habits and his attending the church, dragging in also Ms Sonia Gandhi in his insinuations, before he was asked to mind his language and manners by the Prime Minister himself. Anyway, thanks to Mr Modi's efforts, the entire country is now familiar with the CEC's first and middle names James and Michael!
Coming back to the Congress(I) and its chief, Ms Sonia Gandhi has been quick to sense the possibility of an upset at the Gujarat polls and seems to be moving in for the kill. But as in most other States, the Gujarat unit of the party too is riddled with factionalism and internal bickering. Mr Vaghela's promotion as the PCC chief has caused much heartburn among local Congress satraps, and the resultant dissidence can affect the party's chances at the hustings. It is in this area that Ms Sonia Gandhi will have to get the better of her coterie, who at the best of times have been telling her that the party's chances in any election are great and that it can form a government on its own in any State.
The sooner she realises that the Congress(I) is in no position to form a government on its own, even with Mr Vaghela at the party helm, the better for her. An indication that she has accepted the reality on the ground was given by the Congress(I) chief on Tuesday when she turned up for the well-attended dinner conclave hosted by the CPI(M) leader, Mr Somnath Chatterjee, to discuss the Gujarat polls. The moving spirit behind the dinner was the Left veteran, Mr Jyoti Basu, and the former Prime Minister Mr V. P. Singh. Apart from Ms Sonia Gandhi, the top honchos of the Opposition who turned up for the dinner included two more former prime ministers, Mr Deve Gowda and Mr I. K. Gujral; the Rashtriya Janata Party chief, Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav; the CPI(M) General Secretary, Mr Harkishen Surjeet, the West Bengal Chief Minister, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, the CPI leader Mr A. B. Bardhan and Congress(I) leaders like Dr Manmohan Singh and Mr Shivraj Patil.
Ms Sonia Gandhi arrived early and stayed on till the end, and apart from relishing the baked betki, a seafood delicacy for which Mr Chatterjee's dinners are famous, she appears to have listened closely to the participants' views on the need for the Opposition to present a united front in Gujarat. What Ms Sonia Gandhi badly needs to do is forget the Pachmarhi conclave where she had presented the grand vision of the Congress(I) staying away from coalition governments, and at least go half way in forging a united opposition front to take on the BJP in Gujarat.
This is not going to be easy because apart from pacifying its local leaders who will want the party ticket for their cronies, she will have to reckon with other champions of the minorities including the Samajwadi Party president, Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav. Hopefully, both have learnt a lesson from how they had to concede Uttar Pradesh to the BJP-BSP because they failed to forge an alliance in the UP elections. It is time Ms Sonia Gandhi puts behind her the bitter memories of how the SP chief played such a major role in preventing her from becoming the prime minister in April 1999.
If the Congress(I) can form an alliance with the main Opposition parties a tough call there might yet be a decent chance of preventing Mr Modi from becoming chief minister of Gujarat yet again. Of course, he has his own problems too from within his party. Not only is there dissidence and bickering among the top BJP leaders at the national level, at the State level too there is the disgruntled Mr Keshubhai Patel, who holds sway over the powerful and substantial Patel votes. He is still licking his wounds of the unceremonious ejection as the chief minister of Gujarat last year, and replacement with Mr Modi. Mr Keshubhai Patel has been openly saying that the party high command should take into consideration his failing health and not expect him to campaign vigorously for the Gujarat elections.
If the Gujarat communal divide has badly hurt its image, at the national level too the BJP's name has been tarred by the petrol pump scam. Leaders like Mr L. K. Advani, who had been over the last couple of years daring the media to name a single scam after the BJP came to power, have had to counter a Tehelka expose first, and now stomach the insult of jibes like the title of the BJPP (Bharatiya Janata Petrolpump Party).
There are fissures within its own ranks with the Divestment Minister, Mr Arun Shourie, at loggerheads with the Petroleum Minister, Mr Ram Naik, who is reluctant to see his petroleum empire being taken away through divestment in BPCL and HPCL. The party's smart new face, the Communications Minister, Mr Pramod Mahajan, has been accused by the absconding police officer R. K. Sharma's wife, Ms Madhu Sharma, of having had intimate communications with the murdered journalist Shivani Bhatnagar. And, Mr Arun Jaitley is said to be unhappy over losing his Cabinet berth to work for the party.
But if the BJP is a divided house, there will be that many more hurdles in the way of the Opposition in forging some kind of an alliance, so badly needed, to even think of defeating the BJP in Gujarat.
The Yadav duo from UP and Bihar have king size egos; the Left Parties will want a decent share of seats, and smaller parties like the Janata Dal and some of the minority outfits will have to be accommodated too. At the fulcrum of this tricky exercise is Ms Sonia Gandhi. If she can forge an impressive alliance, the minority vote will be available in a solid block without getting split. It will be surprising if even a miniscule number of Muslim votes in Gujarat go to the BJP in this election. Add to that the bad mouthing of Mr Lyngdoh by Mr. Modi, who repeatedly referred to his church going habit, the Christian vote will disappear too for the BJP.
Consolidating this vote, and convincing the silent majority of Hindus who surely disapprove of Mr Modi, if not the BJP, will be her challenge. Can her party provide a government that will take the disgraced State out of its depths and re-trigger economic and industrial activity is the question. Ms Sonia Gandhi has made a good beginning alright by distancing herself from the BJP on the poll reforms issue and coming out to state unequivocally that the Congress(I) is with the Supreme Court on the issue of poll reforms. In a signed statement issued on Tuesday, she said: "The Congress(I) is fully in concurrence with the SC that all candidates must disclose all relevant information called for, particularly regarding convictions and charges for offences, assets, bank balances, liabilities and overdues. We believe such information must be disclosed by all candidates at the time of filing nominations and prior to elections."
This is something ordinary Indians, totally disillusioned with their politicians, their antics and their crimes, will certainly welcome.
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