The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Merit-over-money message in RS list

New Delhi, March 22: When Sonia Gandhi does not give R.P. Goenka, who is a businessman but who also is a traditional Congress supporter, an extension in the Rajya Sabha, political observers see in it a message.

The instance, where she chose party spokesman Abhishek Singhvi over Goenka, becomes more than just an oddity as none of the 16 candidates picked by Sonia for the Rajya Sabha is a businessman or a celebrity.

A party functionary familiar with the process of selection said: “She was keen on attributes such as diligence, knowledge of policies and their application during debates and discussions, and the potential for contribution to the Upper House rather than connections and wealth.”

If the reading is true, Sonia is returning to the message of the sermon she had given on January 23 in Hyderabad after appearing to depart from it in the ministry reshuffle that followed.

At the Congress plenary, she said: “The poor and the deprived have a lot of expectations from politics because it is one field where anybody can rise from the lowest rung of the social and economic ladder to positions of power and responsibility. But there are faults in the system. The control of money and muscle power must end.”

A week later, the ministry was reshuffled, raising questions in the party over a couple of entrants. One was reportedly close to the head of a divided corporate empire for which he was “rewarded” with the “right” ministry while the other was not only loaded but also flaunted his wealth.

But as the nominees for the Rajya Sabha biennial election were being decided over the last couple of weeks, it is believed that despite efforts to get in “Congress-friendly” film stars like Shah Rukh Khan, Sonia felt it was time to acknowledge the work of senior party members and “karyakartas” (workers) in the decade the party was in the Opposition.

“She wanted to dispel the myth that the Rajya Sabha is a club of the rich and the powerful wanting to buy a membership rather than earn it,” the functionary said.

Goenka’s renomination for a second term had appeared almost certain, though some Congress members wanted a younger person. Age might have gone against Goenka, but he has two sons, one of whom Sonia could have picked and did not.

Party colleagues also recalled how she did not give K.K. Birla, another senior industrialist of Gandhian Congress vintage, an extension despite the fact that both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi had kept renewing his tenure. Shobhana Bhartia, his daughter, did become a Rajya Sabha member, but not as a Congress candidate. She got in from the presidential quota.

Sources said Singhvi was nominated primarily for the reason that the Congress needed speakers in the House to counter the debating skills of Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Pramod Mahajan and Ravi Shankar Prasad of the BJP.

In Jharkhand, she went against the sentiments of the state party and battled the insinuation of favouring a Christian when she chose the outspoken Mabel Rebello over R.K. Anand, the lawyer.

Her move was described as bold because Anand, an old hand at manoeuvring legislators, could use his connections to outfox Mabel. For a while, it had looked so until the high command intervened.

With the BJP unable to agree on the candidates recommended by various leaders, businessmen have gone to regional parties to get an entry. Lal Krishna Advani wanted Rajesh Shah of the Mukand group to be nominated while another senior leader, Jaswant Singh, had proposed Kamal Morarka. But there was no agreement on either.

A similar fate befell Arun Jaitley’s candidate Mahendra Mohan, of the Jagran newspaper group, and Prabhu Chawla, who is not quite a businessman and prefers to be known as a journalist, whose backer was Pramod Mahajan.

One of those that have walked into the Rajya Sabha holding the hand of regional parties is Mahendra Prasad, alias “King Mahendra”, a pharmaceutical company owner from Bihar, who has been patronised by Nitish Kumar.

In Uttar Pradesh, Mahendra Mohan and businessmen Banwari Kanchal and Sudhanshu Mittal made it to the Samajwadi Party’s list. Ironically, all three had BJP connections.

Rajeev Chandrashekhar of BPL got the Janata Dal (Secular) and the BJP in Karnataka to support him.

Regional parties might become the sole vehicle for businessmen because, with the Congress shunning them, the BJP will find it difficult not to follow suit for fear of exposing itself to charges of dispensing favour to the moneyed.

In private, a couple of BJP leaders applauded Sonia for her decision, though they did point out how she blotted the copybook by keeping on elderly leaders like Arjun Singh.

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