Tue, 23 May 2000

Gandhi faces leadership challenge

By Abhik Kumar Chanda

NEW DELHI (AFP): Sonia Gandhi, the head of India's opposition Congress party, is facing a growing challenge from senior party leaders who accuse her of being incompetent, autocratic and insensitive.

The widow of former premier Rajiv Gandhi -- a scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty which ruled India for four decades and monopolized the Congress party -- is under increasing pressure for failing to revive India's oldest political grouping.

The latest broadside was fired by senior Congress leader Vithal Gadgil, considered a loyalist, last Friday when he accused her of mediocrity.

"To expect a person to perform beyond his capacity is unfair to that person and he is bound to fail. In Western management jargon it is called the Peter Principle. We forgot that the Peter Principle works in politics also," Gadgil said.

He conceded, however, that Gandhi, who lived a Garboesque life until she was virtually forced by the Congress leadership to take up the party presidency two years ago, was not the only one to blame for their declining fortunes.

"We are the people who practically forced her to come to politics. She was very reluctant. At least personally, she repeatedly said: 'I don't understand politics. I have no knowledge of it.'

"We expected that she would not only be a crowd puller but also a vote catcher."

Congress spokesman Jairam Ramesh recently stirred up a hornet's nest by apparently telling a magazine the Congress would not return to power for 50 years if Gandhi remained president.

Ramesh apologized and said he had been quoted out of context.

Several senior party officials have resigned from the Congress recently, expressing dissatisfaction with Gandhi.

N. Bhaskar Rao, director of the Center for Media Studies, said Gandhi's time was clearly up.

"It is the tip of the iceberg ... An explosion in the party is in the offing. It will show up in the Nov. 3 elections to elect the Congress president and Sonia faces an ouster."

"Her biggest advantage now is TINA (There Is No Alternative). But six senior Congressmen are trying to find a leader to contest the elections. There will be stiff competition."

Rao said Gandhi had "committed mistake after mistake," alienating the Congress rank-and-file. "She is imperious, has a total lack of understanding and her advisers are zero. And everything is highly centralized.

"Her mother-in-law (and former premier) Indira Gandhi had a low-key approach. Sonia visited western India recently and, despite a prevailing drought, took two planes with her.

"One plane was filled with her entourage, a person to hold an umbrella over madam's head, another to pass her water."

The Italian-born Gandhi has been embarrassed several times before.

Two years ago she made an abortive bid for power after hung elections by mistakenly assuming she could garner a parliamentary majority.

She had to sack three senior leaders who said a foreign-born national could not become prime minister. And last year, she led the Congress to its worst electoral defeat in parliamentary elections.

The party has also been wracked by factionalism and allegations of corruption.

Gadgil said the party has also erred in failing to tackle Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist-led coalition government over its mistakes and by alienating India's overwhelming Hindu majority.

Gadgil said the Hindu fundamentalist organization RSS, a parent body of Vajpayee's BJP party, was acting more like the main opposition party.

"The Hindus do feel that the Congress is not protecting their interests. I (have) said ... if all the minorities vote for the Congress, the party will get only 18 percent votes.

"To survive, the Congress needs the substantial 82 percent of the Hindu votes. You cannot ignore the interest of the Hindus in this Hindu-majority country," Gadgil said.

Congress spokesman Anil Shastri, however, claimed the rumblings of dissent were basically "from old leaders who were being shunted out.

"She is young and she finds people of her age or younger more compatible to her way of working or thinking. There is no problem."