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Bow to the voter - The Indian Express

Editorial ()
March 4, 1998

Title: Bow to the voter
Author: Editorial
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: March 4, 1998

Whatever the other ambiguities. of the 1998 elections - and there
are many -- the Congress cannot complain of a lack of clarity
about its own verdict. The party has improved its tally from
1996, but the message clearly is for it to sit in opposition for
the term of this Lok Sabha. Any attempt to deny that and make
misguided attempts at forging a coalition with the United Front,
a force which has been far more unequivocally discredited than
the Congress, would be suicidal. It will make sure that the
further decline of the grand old party, just about arrested,
begins anew with accelerated momentum. It is heartening that
Congress stalwart Sharad Pawar, flush with his spectacular
victory in Maharashtra, has said that a tally of 245 or more for
the BJP and its allies implies that the prerogative to form the
government belongs to that grouping. But he needed to have gone
further. Whether or not the BJP and allies crossed the 245 mark,
the BJP still is clearly the single largest party, and the
Congress would take liberties with that fact at its own peril.
here is the other matter of convincing a party rank and file
desperate for power after nearly two years of deprivation and the
prospect of several more. But the Congress, if it is to survive
in any meaningful way, must make that effort. The electorate has
handed it an opportunity to win a new lease of life. This has
been the result of at least three factors: disgust with the UF,
disenchantment with the BJP and its allies in Maharashtra and
Rajasthan, and the one-time bonus of Sonia Gandhi's campaign.
Importantly, the Sonia "magic" has been seen to work not in a
vacuum but only where the party already had a strong
organisational presence. Where the incumbents fell from grace, it
became even more pronounced, such as in Maharashtra. What Sonia
has done is win a beleaguered party a much-needed reprieve. It
is now up to that party to use this reprieve to sit -
constructively for a change - in opposition, introspect and work
on itself. Or it can fritter its energies in trying to forge an
immoral coalition which in any case would be doomed to a short
life, and sign its own death warrant in the longer term.

The crux of the Congress' predicament is that looking to a
charismatic leader without party rejuvenation and programmatic
reinvention will do nothing for it. What is more. Sonia was a one-
trick pony and cannot come to its rescue any more. That would not
have been the case had she led it to victory. As it happens, she
has made a difference on the margin, but she has also finished
herself as the Congress' much-vaunted inspiration. The Congress'
fortunes apart, Sonia Gandhi's fortunes as the party's presiding
deity look none too good. And so, at a moment when the party can
sigh with relief at having escaped disaster while ruing Sonia's
failure to win it the country, the Congress will begin grappling
with its familiar leadership crisis. An obvious candidate is at
hand in Sharad Pawar after his new win. But given the Congress'
talent for torturing itself, the matter will not be resolved
painlessly. Yet the party, if it can suppress its short-term
ambition, has time on its side. If it accepts remaining in
opposition as long as it must, it can stop trying to lead or
dislodge governments and work on giving itself a future for the
21st century.

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