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When valets catch ambition - The Indian Express

T. V. R. Shenoy ()
March 14, 1998

Title: When valets catch ambition
Author: T. V. R. Shenoy
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: March 14, 1998

Wanted: A president for the Indian National Congress. Excellent
pay. Free housing for life. Corruption and Communism no bar.
Experience as a doormat absolutely essential." No, I haven't
(yet) seen such an advertisement in the employment pages. But
everybody knows that there is a vacancy in Akbar Road.

In his now famous remarks at the Press conference where he spoke
of resigning the Congress presidency, Sitaram Kesri spoke of his
office as an "institution". Well, so it was before Independence,
when Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel and Subhas Chandra Bose held
it. But, beginning with Nehru's unchallenged sway over the party
after Sardar Patel's death, that seat has been little more than a
footstool for the Nehru-Gandhis for many years now.

The prototype of the family's ideal Congressman became clear 60
years ago when the Congress announced its list of candidates for
the U.P. Legislative Assembly. It included a certain Hari.
Hari's sole contribution to the freedom struggle up to that point
was to be appointed Jawaharlal Nehru's valet! You can't say the
Nehru-Gandhis didn't make their intentions crystal clear.
Congressmen, even MPs and MLAs, are little more than domestic
servants in their scheme of things. Some grumbling in the lower
ranks can be ignored regally. But the slightest hint of
independence is ruthlessly crushed if the sinner is a senior

In 1950, Purushottam Das Tandon was elected to the party
presidency in the teeth of Nehru's opposition; a year later he
was out of office. Then Nehru's daughter manoeuvred Kamaraj out
of his chair. A year ago, Narasimha Rao was squeezed out, with
Kesri acting as 10. Janpath's lever. These were duly elected
presidents, not Nehru-Gandhi nominees. But that probably
increased the enormity of their crime in the Family's eyes. Only
puppets like U.N. Dhebar or Sanjivayya could negotiate the shoals
of presidency safely.

Why, then, is Kesri so surprised at his treatment? Why did he
exclaim at a Press conference, "You have seen what has been
happening for the last two months? How can anyone with self-
respect bear all this?" Quite frankly, self-respect isn't part of
the deal when someone joins the Congress. No, I have no tears to
spare for Kesri who is merely getting a taste of the medicine he
prescribed for Rao just last year. But I am a little curious as
to why Sonia Gandhi is suddenly becoming so brazen in her quest
for power.

Partly, I believe, it is because of a well-founded suspicion that
Sharad Pawar is growing too big for his boots. The Maharashtra
strongrnan is making ill-disguised attempts to form a non-BJP
government in which, of course, he himself shall feature
prominently. Sonia Gandhi saw what happened when a relative
nonentity like Rao was raised to Prime Ministership. Having
someone like Pawar in that capacity would be ten times worse.

But the main reason for Sonia Gandhi's urgency goes back to
something this column discussed four weeks ago - the continuing
saga of Bofors. I noted that the Jain Commission became an issue
just two days after Letters Rogatory were sent to the Channel
Islands and other tax havens.

Is it a coincidence that the Congress presidency became an issue
just after 10, Janpath heard that a two-man CBI team was leaving
for the Channel Islands? It indicates the Bofors investigation
may have reached a crucial stage. The money paid by Bofors to
Ottavio Quattrocchi was traced from his Swiss account to the
Channel Islands. It is this track that the CBI team was pursuing.
Inder Kumar Gujral claimed in his poll campaign that it was his
ministry's decision to clear the CBI request for Letter Rogatory
to various tax-havens that led to the Congress withdrawing
support. Strictly speaking, it was the courts that gave the green
signal. But the principle holds.

Of course, the results of the subsequent election hold little
comfort for the Congress, in spite of an increasingly shrill
campaign by Sonia Gandhi herself. Today, the lady is
uncomfortably aware that a BJP-led government won't be as
amenable as one existing on Congress support. If the mere hint of
a Vajpayee ministry emboldens the CBI to leave for the Channel
Islands, how much farther will investigators go once the BJP
leader is firmly in the saddle? More to the point, will
Congressmen continue to sing Sonia Gandhi's praises once the true
facts of the Bofors scandal begin to come out?

The deity in 10, Janpath prefers to take no chances. It wants to
tighten the Nehru-Gandhis' grip on the party before it is too
late. Many commentators noted that the Congress desperately
needed Sonia Gandhi to campaign if the party tally weren't to
drop to two figures in the General Election. It is no less true
to say that she needs all those MPs to speak for her today.

I predict that Sonia Gandhi's devotees are already preparing to
accuse the BJP of "political vendetta". They are also erasing
their memory banks of Sonia Gandhi's own now notorious challenge
to release the Bofors papers received from the Swiss. After all,
if they can suffer amnesia about the Jain Commission (the
immediate excuse for these polls), they can forget other
inconvenient details equally easily!

When I speak of "devotees", my definition includes much more than
Congressmen alone. Amongst Sonia Gandhi's most prominent non-
Congress supporters shall, I believe, be the Yodavs - Mulayam
Singh and Laloo Prasad. No principles are involved, it is simply
a case of ,'you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours"

It is actually quite comical, considering what they were saying
just yesterday. When Sonia Gandhi announced she would hit the
election trail, Laloo Yadav advised her to sit at home and
Mulayam Singh said he would definitely put up a candidate in
Amethi! Both Yadavs have far too many skeletons in their own
cupboards to go point fingers. at others. Neither can afford to
have Vajpayee assume office any more than Sonia Gandhi can. Which
explains why Laloo Yadav avows that only the Congress has a
mandate to form the government, something even that party doesn't
dare claim!

"The cannon-fodder of the Treasury benches" was a famous jibe
flung at the vast mass of silent Conservatives in the House of
Commons who renounced conscience for the whip. Given the issues
in volved - Bofors and the Fodder Seam - we can revive the phrase
today for MPs from the Congress, the Samajwadi Party, and the
Rashtriya Janata Dal.

Last year, Indians were urged to follow the freedom fighters'
example. I am happy to report that Hari's devotion continues to
inspire the Congress!

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