Monday, Dec 29, 2003
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By Harish Khare
At Mumbai today, Ms. Gandhi was careful not to use the word "prime ministerial candidate" or "prime ministerial leadership;" she merely stated the reasonable proposition that since the Congress was not keen on interfering in the internal affairs of other parties, it was only fair that the other parties should return the favour. No political party would have any problem conceding the Congress the right to choose anybody as its leader. The issue, however, is not of leadership of this or that party. The strategic dilemma before the non-NDA political parties is how to marshal their resources and mobilise their votes on a common platform, assuming all these parties do want to defeat the BJP and its alliance partners in the next Lok Sabha election. What Ms. Gandhi has said at Mumbai could only be a very slight tactical change in so far as she seemed to be inviting the potential alliance partners to get on first with the primary job of ensuring the BJP's defeat and then to worry or quarrel about the prime ministership. This is an unrealistic as well as unhelpful approach. Ms. Gandhi and her advisers have to come to terms with the fact that the BJP managers are going to pursue vigorously the "Atal" factor. The BJP has redefined the politics of personality cult. No Congress leader can possibly object to this politics of personality cult; the BJP is only following the Congress tradition and current practices. Nor can a Congress strategist hope to ignore the obvious fact that the BJP would want to convert the next Lok Sabha poll into a prime ministerial contest. This is what happened in 1999 and yielded good electoral dividends, and there is no reason to believe that the BJP managers would not want to replicate this successful formula. The secular parties assuming all the non-NDA parties can be deemed to be on the same side of ideological divide would still want to join hands with the Congress only if they are given a reason to believe that the Congress would be a winning combination. In other words, the Congress will have to show it is willing to change and is ready to package itself in terms of leadership, ideas, issues and organisational innovation so as to attract electoral allies; and, the potential allies would gravitate towards the Congress only if they judge for themselves whether the Congress has a formula to beat the NDA PLUS ATAL sales pitch. Ms. Gandhi has not done or said anything in Mumbai to make the Congress attractive to the "secular" parties. For the non-Congress parties, as also for the vast middle classes, Ms. Gandhi's leadership remains the rub. The non-Congress parties are under no obligation or delusion to give in to Sonia Gandhi's deification. Except for the Left parties which can take on the BJP/NDA with or without support from the Congress in West Bengal, no other "secular" party believes that Ms. Gandhi as a prime ministerial mascot would help advance the secular cause in the polity.
Ms. Gandhi would have to concede much more ground before she can hope to excite the non-NDA political voices, individuals and parties to come together with the Congress.
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