|JITENDRA PRASADA |
With the death of Jitendra Prasada in a Delhi hospital on January 16 following cerebral haemorrhage, the Indian National Congress lost the last of its front-ranking leaders who showed the grit to challenge the leadership of Sonia Gandhi. In 1999, Sharad Pawar, P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar rebelled against her because they felt the Italian-born widow of Rajiv Gandhi could not make the grade as a potential prime minister due to her inexperience and her nationality problem. They were promptly shown the door. In their absence, the flag of rebellion passed into the hands of Rajesh Pilot and Prasada, both of whom came into the arc-lit zone of leadership in the post-Indira Gandhi period. And both were gasping in a dynastic order that threatened to stifle merit.
Prasada, 62, was the older of the duo. Hardly had they begun a campaign to wrest control of the party from Sonia and her supporters than Pilot died in a car accident last summer. Quite alone, and pushed to the corner, Prasada still battled on. He contested the party election for presidentship against Sonia in November last but was miserably outmanoeuvred and outnumbered by the ruling coterie. Of the 7,542 valid votes, he polled a pitiful 94. At the 25th anniversary party of India Today in December 2000, Prasada, a man of wit and understatement, whispered to this correspondent at the sight of Sonia breezing in: "After giving me an innings defeat, my sight possibly makes her (Sonia) feel reassured. The match was fixed behind my back, but I don't claim that I would have won if she'd played it straight."
Scion of a Brahmin landlord family from Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh with marital connections as rich and diverse as the Tagores of Bengal and the Kapurthala house in Punjab, Prasada grew up in an era when the landed aristocracy was losing its social primacy. As the Zamindari Abolition Act came into force, his father, Kunwar Jyoti Prasada, advised him to be a trained agriculturist and till the residual land not vested in the state. Prasada took a degree from the Agriculture Institute in Allahabad, bought a tractor which was a novelty at the time, and drove it often at night to his holdings in the interiors because the family's loyal former subjects would not allow their young "Babasaheb" to work in the fields.
The landlord's son surely would have become a gentleman farmer if the late H.N. Bahuguna, the powerful Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh, hadn't spotted him and given him a ticket for Indira Gandhi's famous "garibi hatao" general elections in 1971. Yet another young talent given a Congress ticket by Bahuguna that year was Vishwanath Pratap Singh.
After finding his feet in the Congress, Prasada remained an organisation man till his last. In 1977, when Bahuguna left the party with Jagjivan Ram to join the Jayaprakash Narayan-inspired Janata Party, Prasada declined his mentor's solicitation to join the rebel group with the words: "I will quit politics if you ask me to do so. But I shall not leave the Congress as long as I am in politics."
Prasada, with his aristocratic mien, social graces and youthfulness, appealed to Rajiv Gandhi who, in the early years of his prime ministership (1984-89), was arguably tired of old fogeys and "power brokers". He made Prasada an AICC general secretary in 1985 and, later, his political secretary in the party. In 1991, when P.V. Narasimha Rao became prime minister and took charge of the party, he retained Prasada as his political secretary.
Ensconced in the intrigue-prone back rooms of 10 Janpath, the coterie around Sonia-notably Arjun Singh-did not approve of Prasada's continuance in the new regime. It is said that Prasada spurned a request from the coterie to provide assistance in its efforts, way back in 1992, to remove Rao from presidentship of the party and install Sonia in the post. Nor did he respond to Arjun Singh's invitation when he split the party in 1994 to form the Congress (T), apparently a pro-Sonia rump.
Though fiercely loyal to the party, Prasada held his head high in all situations. When Rao's court was filled with the likes of Chandraswamy, the tantrik, it got Prasada fuming. While most ministers bowed to the godman in the pmo corridors and ingratiated themselves with him, Prasada would walk on without lowering an inch of his 6 ft 3 inch frame, a scowl of scornful disregard on his face.
As the baton of the Congress changed hands in the second half of the 1990s, from Rao to Sitaram Kesri to Sonia, and the party's electoral space shrank, Prasada got restless. Yet he would not be disloyal to the party. He turned down the call of Pawar, a close friend, to join him in 1999 on pretty much the same ground that he declined Bahuguna's invitation many years ago.
Prasada was a disciplined man. He would drink three bottles of water every morning before a walk and would eat the heated rind of a guava every night, a natural cure, as he believed, against bodyache. Though he was in fine physical health till he was felled by a brain stroke, his mind was heavy with a sense of defeat after the Congress organisational elections. But he was too decent a dissident to wear it on his sleeves.
By Sumit Mitra