Congress(I)'s follow-on innings

Print edition : January 16, 2004

The Congress(I) can overcome its humiliating recent setbacks only if it adopts a clear left-of-centre programme, recomposes its eroding social base, revamps its apex leadership and builds policy-based alliances with secular parties.

THE Indian National Congress is in deep, serious, grave trouble. It faces the most trying crisis in its history, and has few resources to resolve it. It sustained the delusion that it is the "natural" party of governance long after it ceased to be one. But that myth has been rudely shattered by its rout in the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The Congress(I) is in ideological disarray and in the grip of organisational dissonance and factionalism in unit after state unit.

Only a few years ago, the Congress(I) seemed to be on the ascendant, especially when it won a slew of Assembly elections and came to rule in half of all Indian States impressive showing for a party in long-term or historic decline. The party has since shrunk and shrivelled and resumed the downward trend. But this time around, the decline could prove terminal unless the party pulls itself up by the bootstraps and makes a credible bid for victory in the next Lok Sabha elections. To borrow a cricket analogy, the Congress(I) is in a follow-on situation.

This is not an alarmist proposition. The Congress(I) has serious problems both at its apex and its base. Its present leadership has proved inadequate to steer the party towards success and to instil hope and confidence among its rank and file. Its stewardship of the party in the latest round of elections was incompetent. It failed in chalking out a strategy, in building coalitions, in choosing candidates, and in campaign tactics.

The crisis at the base is even grimmer. Quite simply, the party's social base has been eroding at an alarming rate. Originally, in the 1950s and 1960s, the base consisted of savarnas and combined with "core minorities" (Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis). Even as this weakened, the Congress(I) stopped representing emerging social groups like the Other Backward Classes and certain Dalit strata in specific states. But it still retained its hold among Adivasis, the urban poor and certain caste groups, including sections of the savarnas, in different regions. The latest elections suggest that some of these sections, especially the Adivasis, are moving away from the Congress(I).

This erosion is serious and impinges on the political character of the party. The Congress(I)'s appeal has always been rooted in its umbrella or broad-church nature and function. Traditionally, it attracted diverse social groups and balanced their interests. If these groups find little or meagre articulation of their interests in the party, and if the leadership fails to accommodate their (often competing) aspirations, they will desert the Congress(I). Leaders who represent their interests will also leave.

If this process accelerates, then beyond a point, the Congress(I) will not be able to generate the critical mass necessary for its survival as a major national-level party. It will split and disintegrate. Such a point will probably come with the next Lok Sabha elections.

CAN the Congress(I) turn things around? It should be self-evident that there are not many strings to its bow. In normal circumstances, it will not transit from the present state of defeat and hopelessness to one of confidence and dynamism. However, four things could galvanise the party: a programmatic shift towards an unambiguous, categorical, left-of-centre stance; strategic alliances with secular parties well in advance of the Lok Sabha elections; a revamp of leadership structures; and induction of youthful figures like Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as campaigners. A rejuvenated buoyant Congress(I) could then undertake the tactical manoeuvres necessary to project the right image, run an efficient electoral machine and ably micro-manage its campaign.

Congressmen, by their very nature, would be reluctant to make radical shifts. They prefer the line of least resistance such as inducting Priyanka. This would be perfectly in keeping with their faith in the Nehru-Gandhi family mystique, however, (in)effective that might now be. But that would essentially be a shortcut. It might halt the Congress(I)'s decline only temporarily although it might enthuse party cadres. It might even do it harm by making it appear to be totally on the defensive.

What the party needs is a major realignment with India's social reality after more than a decade of rightward drift. The central aspect of that reality is the state of underdevelopment, deprivation, poverty and ignorance in which the bulk of the population lives even as it aspires to a life with freedom and dignity. This locates India's "natural" political centre of gravity on the Left. Only a left-wing programme charged by egalitarianism and progressive social policies can address the needs of the mass of the population.

So far, the Congress(I) has tried to compete with the Bharatiya Janata Party on its own right-wing turf whether in pursuing soft-Hindutva, quibbling over the same package of neoliberal economic policies, or competing over nationalism, but largely within the niche of its militant, aggressive chauvinistic variant. As was only to be expected, it failed.

In India, despite recent shifts among social classes under globalisation and liberalisation, the space for conservative right-wing politics remains relatively small. The Congress(I) would be ill-advised to compete with the BJP within that space. It must demarcate itself clearly, visibly and unambiguously not just through catchy slogans (although these are important), but through programmes and policies on macro and micro issues too. A left-of-centre Congress(I) will have immense appeal.

Alliance-building is an equally high priority. It is not enough for the Congress(I) to profess a commitment to the Shimla resolution on coalitions and then carry on behaving as if alliances did not matter. This is exactly what it did in Madhya Pradesh (where the Bahujan Samaj Party was more than willing to ally with it), Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.

While considering alliance formation, the Congress(I) must note a salient fact. There are only two political forces in the national spectrum that can transfer their supporters' votes to an ally. They are the Left parties and the BSP. The BSP has a significant presence or following in an estimated 180 Lok Sabha constituencies spread over different States, where it may command seven to 15 per cent of the vote. The Left usually wins in about 60 constituencies, but has a committed 3 to 5 per cent vote in perhaps another 70 or 90 constituencies.

The Congress(I) must build national-level alliances with these two on the basis of an agreed people-oriented programme. This will involve some tight-rope walking because the Left and the Congress(I) cannot be allies at the State level they must oppose each other, especially where they have been traditional adversaries: West Bengal, Tripura, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, and so on. But without their support at the national level, the Congress(I) cannot get the ideological-political ballast, the credibility or the voting block it needs to win an election, even to emerge as a serious contender for power.

At the same time, the Congress(I) must build State-level alliances with a number of regional parties; for instance, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, the Gondvana Gana Parishad in Madhya Pradesh, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and even the Lok Jan Shakti in Bihar, possibly the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, and the Janata Dal (Secular)/Janata factions wherever possible. The strategy must be such as to include as many parties as possible, in an explicit alliance or a seat-sharing arrangement, or other forms of cooperation. Trustworthy parties that agree to a common programme can be brought into the coalition. But seat arrangements with others should not be excluded, especially in Uttar Prades and Bihar, which hold 120 Lok Sabha seats between them.

The BJP is eying these very two States. Until December 24, it did not have a strategy to overcome its isolation in Uttar Pradesh. But the meeting on that day between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Kalyan Singh might represent just such a strategy. By the time this appears in print, Kalyan Singh, Hindutva's most important OBC leader who at one time personified a unique combination of Mandal and kamandal (the affirmative action platform and the temple movement) may well have returned to the BJP.

The BJP leadership reckons that Kalyan Singh's return would help rejuvenate the organisation, and attract OBC groups, besides bringing in Lodhi-Rajput votes. This is Kalyan Singh's caste. It accounts for 3 per cent of Uttar Pradesh's total votes. Kalyan Singh has lost a good deal of his shine over the past five years. Nor does the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh fully trust him because of his denunciation of Hindutva and the BJP's devious role in the temple movement before the M.S. Liberhan Commission. But the important thing is to deny the BJP a wide political space in the crucial States of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. So the Congress(I) would do well even to get a dialogue with Ram Vilas Paswan going.

The Congress(I) must be at least as flexible as the BJP has been in building alliances with different parties and in demonstrating the broadest social pluralism, with different faces in its coalition representing women, Dalits, OBCs, Adivasis, and so on.

THE Congress(I) cannot even begin to do any of this unless it sends a good deal of the present coterie surrounding Sonia Gandhi packing. Many of them (for instance, Pranab Mukherjee, Kamal Nath and Ambika Soni) have no political base anywhere. They have played a questionable role in distributing the party ticket, or assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the party's campaign strategies. Some coterie members play down the danger from communalism and militant nationalism and are inclined to compromise with Hindutva. Yet others are committed neoliberals.

Sonia Gandhi needs to set up a collegial team of leaders from different States who can inform and advise her. Equally, she needs to hear non-party voices of people from different social constituencies and walks of life. Only a critical assessment of the party's policies, its functioning and its strategies can generate the inputs necessary to transform its politics and leadership.

The process must go beyond the five-member committee headed by Pranab Mukherjee, which is to look into the Congress(I)' recent electoral debacle. According to reports, the committee has heard and recorded a lot of critical comments from State and district leaders about the weak party organisation, failure to strike strategic alliances, poor poll management, and over-dependence on Chief Ministers. The feedback says the party organisation was non-existent in Chhattisgarh. In Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan it was "substantially weakened"; several district and block committees existed only on paper.

This self-criticism is fine at the organisational level. But it misses the larger issue of policies and programmes, and the reasons for the Congress(I)'s declining image among its traditional constituencies. It is not clear if Pranab Mukherjee's report will review the party's performance in the light of the earlier A.K. Antony report. But strategic political assessments cannot stop at the organisational or tactical level.

It is only if the Congress(I) goes through such painstakingly honest reappraisal and policy reorientation that vigorous campaigning by some of its potentially charismatic leaders can have an impact. Charisma is about the relationship between a leader and her/his followers. It has to do with substance and clarity as to what the leader stands for on a variety of issues. Today, the critical issues are unemployment, grotesque disparities, privatisation, reviving collapsing public services, affirmative action, reservations in the private sector, making government accountable, fighting global hegemonism while making peace in the neighbourhood... The Congress(I) has to show how it differs from the BJP on these. The choice before it is radical reorientation, or suicide.

Postscript: Sonia Gandhi's Mumbai rally on December 27 was a tremendous success and a huge morale-booster for the party. It showed the Congress can mobilise lakhs of people even after humiliating defeats. It more than filled Shivaji Park something even Bal Thackeray has not been able to do for years in his Dadar stronghold. Yet, Sonai Gandhi was weak on substance. It is good that she tried to counter the BJP's "feel-good" propaganda and raised issues like unemployment and disinvestment, which have long fallen off the Congress(I)'s campaign agenda. But she did not say what it intends to do about them and what its own vision is. The answers are yet to come.

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