A battle for leadership: Girilal Jain

Rao is not responsible for the rise of BJP as Arjun Singh would have us believe, says Girilal Jain


Mr P V Narasimha Rao’s leadership stands challenged openly and explicitly, leaving him no choice but to fight back to the bitter end. The days of so-called consensus politics in the Congress are over. Mr Rao has now to demonstrate that he is in command on his own strength. Or, his days in the office of Prime Minister would be numbered.

The situation is comparable to the one in 1969. The real issue then was not the choice of the Congress nominee for Rashtrapati Bhavan rendered vacant by the death of Dr Zakir Hussein; it was the status of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi versus the organisational bosses. The real issue now is not the one-man-one-post principle; it is the title of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao to formulate policy and command the loyalty of his cabinet colleagues.

Mr Arjun Singh had emerged as a challenge to Mr Rao’s leadership before the Tirupati session of the party last year. At Tirupati, he organised a loose coalition and defied Mr Rao on the question of elections to the party’s working committee. Since then he has not let any opportunity slip to discredit Mr Rao’s management of the country’s and the party’s affairs.

Even so, till last week Mr Singh had engaged in sniping and not in frontal assault. He finally moved over to direct confrontation on Sunday, when he issued a statement to say that in the past three months, that is since the demolition of the Babri structure in Ayodhya, ‘nothing meaningful has emerged as a strategy to fight the BJP-VHP combine’.

Mr Arjun Singh knows as well as anyone else that separation of the two offices of Prime Minister and Congress president can be of no help in fighting the Bharatiya Janata Party. If anything, it can only weaken the party further. The office of Congress president may be meaningful if the party is not in power, as in Mrs Indira Gandhi’s case in 1978-80.

When the party is in office in New Delhi, as now, the Congress president can either become a rival centre of authority, as Kamaraj did in 1967-69, or be reduced to a cypher, as in the Nehru era. Why then is he pressing the attack on this specific issue? Three explanations for his actions appear feasible .

First, it is possible that events have moved out of Mr Singh’s control. For one thing, the disgruntled elements he has collected around him or which have flocked around him could have pushed him into a more defiant posture.

For another, Mr Rao’s threat of disciplinary action last Saturday could have precipitated matters. Certainly, Mr Singh could not afford to be seen to waver in the face of the threat.

Secondly, Mr Singh could have decided to move to the brink in the cold calculation that, as in the past, Mr Rao will yield on the substantive issue of policy and do what he wants him to do, that is to take steps to prevent the Bharatiya Janata Party from contesting elections as a political party. This possibility cannot be ignored.

Indeed, it is conceivable that Mr Rao will either hold out such a promise at Faridabad in a bid to deny Mr Singh his main platform, or will move in that direction after Faridabad in the calculation that it will help him consolidate his ‘victory’.

A comparison with 1969 would again be valid. Mrs Indira Gandhi was no radical by conviction. But she adopted an ultra-radical platform in order to outbid her opponents in the party. From bank takeovers and coal nationalisation to dilution of foreign holdings in companies and absurdly low limits on the size of Indian industries to foodgrains trade takeover, she went on as if she was on the run. The cost of all that to the nation has been heavy. The cost of the present power struggle in the party could be heavier.

Finally, while it is still difficult to believe that Mr Arjun Singh has decided to risk a split in the party for the sake of an anti-BJP alliance with the National Front-Left combine, it is not possible to be sure that this is not the case. Mrs Gandhi was in contact with the communists when she decided to split the party in 1969 and she leaned on them heavily from then onwards till the time of the Emergency.

Mr Aijun Singh could be planning to follow in her footstep. His plank is no different from Mr V P Singh’s and there are others who could be egging him on.

There is catch, though, and a pretty big one at that. Mrs Gandhi was the boss of her faction and could move it in any direction she chose. Mr Singh can at best hope to head a group of disgruntled individuals who have nothing in common except their grievances against Mr Rao; Mr Singh is not their leader, he is their front man.

If he is expecting Mrs Sonia Gandhi to help out, he would in all probability be making a grave miscalculation.

Whatever Mr Singh’s calculations, however, respect for facts is not one his weaknesses.

As such it is not particularly surprising that in his desire to embarrass Mr Narasimha Rao, he should ignore the indisputable fact that it was not the Bharatiya Janata Party but Mr V P Singh who led the campaign against Mr Rajiv Gandhi on the Bofors payoff issue, that it was this campaign more than anything else which robbed Mr Gandhi of his halo as the golden boy of Indian politics, that this campaign was the basis of the anti-Congress alliance at the time of the 1989 elections, and this alliance was largely responsible for the rise in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s representation in the Lok Sabha.

One other event accounts for the clout that the Bharatiya Janata Party has acquired – the Faizabad court’s decision to order removal of the lock on the main gate to the Babri structure in 1986.

This enabled the BJP-supported Vishwa Hindu Parishad to mount the kind of campaign it did on the question of the construction of a Ram temple on the Janambhoomi site at Ayodhya, obliging the Rajiv government to perform the shilanyas near the site on November 9, 1989. This weakened his credentials in the eyes of Muslims which accounted substantially for the defeat at the polls that followed.

From whatever angle one reviews events since 1986, one cannot but agree that Mr Narasimha Rao has in no way been responsible for the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in this period.

Mr Narasimha Rao’s alleged ‘softness’ towards it too is a fabrication. Indeed, a powerful case can be made to show that before December 6, he had successfully persuaded the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership to pursue a course of action in Ayodhya which would have undermined its credibility with its supporters and that Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee and some other leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party still remain mesmerised by him.

The Observer of Business and Politics, 23 March 1993

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