2005 marks the 30th anniversary of the year that a judgment by the Allahabad high court brought down Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Ironically, the party named in her honour -- the Congress (I) -- is now praying that another judgment by the high court will open the doors to its re-establishment in Uttar Pradesh.
The Congress of 2005 is a far cry from the glorious days of Indira Gandhi. Where she commanded invincible majorities in the Lok Sabha, the Congress has barely a quarter of the seats in the House. Where she made and unmade chief ministers at will, the last Congress chief minister in Lucknow was seen as far back as 1990. And there are two facts that everyone in the Congress agrees about: the absolute necessity to have a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family at its head, and the vital question of regaining its old stature in the crucial states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
A first halting step in that direction came when the Congress chieftains in Bihar were encouraged to speak out against the Rashtriya Janata Dal. Laloo Prasad Yadav was repeatedly humiliated, Sonia Gandhi refusing to meet him to discuss the distribution of seats and delegating lesser leaders to the job. The railway minister blustered about it for a few days but came to heel ultimately and agreed to meet Arjun Singh. The Congress president is clearly out to gain a measure -- but only a measure -- of revenge against the Rashtriya Janata Dal for giving it only five Lok Sabha constituencies to contest. (Bihar has 40 seats.)
The Congress will be content if it can prove that it is possible for the party to win seats even without the Rashtriya Janata Dal. The stakes are much higher in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. It is almost impossible for the party to gain absolute power in Delhi if it continues to lose ground in India's largest state. It will be tough to woo the committed voters who cast their ballots for the BJP or the Bahujan Samaj Party. That leaves Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party -- which also happens to be the single largest party in the state today. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh led his party so well in the general election that it won 39 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in the state. Sonia Gandhi needs those votes.
Technically, the Congress (I) supports the Mulayam Singh Yadav ministry in Lucknow. Technically, the Samajwadi Party backs the United Progressive Alliance in Delhi. But the Manmohan Singh ministry shall not totter should the Samajwadi Party withdraw its support. Is that also true of the government in Uttar Pradesh?
Mulayam Singh Yadav became chief minister of Uttar Pradesh for the third time on August 29, 2003. On September 8, he won a vote of confidence from the Vidhan Sabha, with 244 MLAs backing him in a House of 405. He would have a majority even if the 16 Congress MLAs voted against him or abstained. Or would he?
Mulayam Singh Yadav's majority depends on the 40 MLAs who defected from the Bahujan Samaj Party to join hands with him. Are those legislators guilty of defection? That is what the high court must decide very soon.
If the 40 MLAs are automatically disqualified from membership -- Mulayam Singh Yadav, equally automatically, loses his majority. And it is at this point that the Union government will impose President's Rule on the state.
The judicial verdict is crucial. The Congress wants to remove Mulayam Singh Yadav from power in Lucknow but -- and this is important -- it does not want the opprobrium of dismissing a 'secular' ministry. Nor does it want to face an assembly election in Uttar Pradesh before it has had the chance to rebuild itself in the state. Sonia Gandhi knows that her party cannot hope to come back to power on its own, but she hopes that it can emerge as a credible contender for the anti-BJP vote.
Joining hands with Mayawati is always an option. The Bahujan Samaj Party, thanks to its many alliances with the BJP, is simply not trusted by a section of the electorate. Nor can Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav stand each other. That leaves the door open to a Congress-BSP alliance -- and the Congress can always find some excuse to dump Mayawati at some convenient date.
The next six months will see a lot of action in Uttar Pradesh. But the Congress (I) can set its plans into motion only if the high court chooses to uphold the provisions of the Anti-Defection Act. Whether or not its gamble succeeds, a party that depends on judges rather than voters is a long way off from winning a mandate.