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Sealed with a kick: Chacha’s boot on Madam’s foot

March 13: Tomorrow marks the 10th anniversary of an unusual event in Congress history: Sitaram Kesri so far forgetting himself as to kick his loyal Pomeranian, Ruchi.

The party, however, will be marking 10 years of a different kick — one dealt to Kesri himself a few hours earlier.

March 14, 1998, was the day the Congress had, through a “constitutional coup”, ousted Kesri as its 60th president and anointed Sonia Gandhi, flagging off a new era for the then 113-year-old party.

Both kicks had caught their recipients equally unprepared.

The ailing Kesri, then 79, had arrived at the Congress Working Committee meeting at 24 Akbar Road convinced that a party president could not be forced out.

He did not know that before the 11am meeting, most CWC members had gathered at Pranab Mukherjee’s home to endorse two crucial statements.

The first was an ultimatum asking Kesri to step down; the second a resolution replacing him with Sonia.

As soon as Kesri, party chief since 1996, stepped into the hall he could sense the mood: loyalist Tariq Anwar was the only one who stood up to greet him.

As Kesri sat cross-legged, Pranab began reading out a resolution “thanking” him for his services and invoking clause J of article 19 of the Congress constitution. A dumbstruck Kesri listened to its provisions: the CWC could act beyond its constitutional powers in “special situations” as long as it got the decision ratified by the All India Congress Committee within six months.

Arre yeh kya kah rahe ho (hey, what are you saying)!” was all Kesri could say when he found his voice. He looked round: his colleagues’ faces were shining with glee.

Kesri railed at the “unconstitutional” meeting and screamed that he was still the Congress chief. But Jitendra Prasada, a party vice-president, was already announcing amid thunderous applause that “madam Sonia Gandhi” was the new leader.

The axed president stormed out, followed by Anwar. He spent over an hour in his office calling up his advisers, but it was already getting difficult to hear them amid the crackers and slogans welcoming Sonia.

When Kesri stepped out of the room, his nameplate was missing, replaced by a computer printout that said: “Congress president Sonia Gandhi”.

Within minutes, the Special Protection Group moved into the party headquarters. By the time Sonia arrived for the day’s second CWC meeting, party leaders who used to drive in had been told to get off their cars on the street and walk in.

When Kesri reached his Purana Qila residence, he was in no mood for Ruchi’s joyous welcome. Eyewitnesses, however, say that the moment he kicked her, he was overwhelmed with remorse.

The finest of biscuits — presented to Kesri during his tenure — were offered to a puzzled Ruchi.

The arriving journalists found the Congress veteran calmer. He began bad-mouthing Pranab, Prasada and Arjun Singh but the ingrained reverence for the Family prevented him from attacking Sonia.

Kesri later told this correspondent he was hoping for “correction” from Sonia after his ouster.

When the new party chief arrived a few hours later to comfort him, Kesri rushed to greet her. Neither mentioned the “coup”.

Sonia sought Kesri’s blessings and guidance and the old man puffed up with pleasure. By 7pm, he was singing paeans to the Nehru-Gandhis while promising to get even with Pranab, Prasada and Arjun.

The Congress had become disillusioned with “chacha” Kesri after the 1998 general election, when it tallied only 142 seats. The party had asked “nephews” Ahmad Patel and Ghulam Nabi Azad to persuade the old man to quit but Kesri refused.

Then Manmohan Singh, Pranab and A.K. Antony called on Kesri and got him to meet Sonia. On March 9, Kesri announced he would resign to make way for Sonia but soon changed tack. He said he wanted a meeting of the 1,300-member AICC, which needs over a month to arrange, before quitting.

On March 13, Prasada hosted a lunch where 13 of the 17 CWC members signed a political death warrant for Kesri.

Patel, Prasada, Pranab, R.K. Dhawan, Arjun, Azad, Sharad Pawar, Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy, Antony, Manmohan, Meira Kumar, Oscar Fernandes and Madhavsinh Solanki all signed the ultimatum to Kesri. Later, J.B. Patnaik and Lalthanhawla approved it.

The March 14 resolution mentioned Kesri’s March 9 announcement and said the “confusion and state of uncertainty” had brought “organisational work to a standstill”.

During the two more years that he lived, Kesri would often say: “Congress leadership tapte hue suraj ke saman hai. Bahut pas jaoge to jal jaoge aur bahut door rahoge to thand se mar jaoge (the Congress leadership is like the blazing sun. Get too close and you’ll be burnt, stay too far and you’ll freeze to death).”

Kesri died of cardio-respiratory failure on October 24, 2000, aged 81. Ruchi died the same evening.

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