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Mahajot as political suicide

Print edition : Apr 29, 2000 T+T-

The Congress(I) will embark on a self-destructive course if it gets close to any components of the National Democratic Alliance in West Bengal, or embraces nuclear deterrence.

FOR the Indian National Congress, crisis or confusion is nothing new; it is a way of life. But perhaps never before (at least in living memory) has the party been so utterly divided, directionless and incoherent as it is today on issues which can affect its identity, indeed survival. Take nuclear weapons and the question whether India should have a "minimum credible nuclear deterrent".

After some initial vacillation - for example, congratulating the scientists involved - the party opposed nuclearisation. Its prominent and responsible leaders, including Manmohan Singh, articulated this stand eloquently in Parliament during debates in 19 98 and last year. There was much talk of reviving the 1988 Rajiv Gandhi Plan for global nuclear disarmament. A range of leaders from Sonia Gandhi to Mani Shankar Aiyar were clear that nuclear weapons or a "minimum deterrent" will not give India real secu rity. One heard discordant voices (for instance, Arjun Singh's) from time to time. But that did not alter the assessment that the Congress(I)'s dominant line broadly opposes overt nuclearisation.

However, what has happened since the visit of U.S. President Bill Clinton defies any such simple description. According to Pranab Mukherjee, Sonia Gandhi told Clinton that India had "the right" to a minimum deterrent. The Congress(I) had never said this before. Many people assumed that Pranab Mukherjee reported what transpired accurately. Having been Foreign Minister, he surely knows the difference between a nuclear deterrent and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). He was present at the Sonia Gand hi-Clinton meeting. But soon he was contradicted by Congress(I) spokesperson Ajit Jogi, by Mani Shankar Aiyar and then again, by Anil Shastri. Meanwhile, Atal Behari Vajpayee added to the confusion by accusing the Congress(I) of negativism "from Pokhran to Kargil", and Sonia Gandhi of speaking in two voices on the nuclear issue. A "senior" Congress(I) leader briefing the media (April 17), put his own spin on the matter, calling for a reassessment of the party's nuclear policy, and saying that it should take a stand only after the shape of the deterrent is defined on the ground.

Congressmen are bewildered. On all available evidence, Sonia Gandhi did not say what Pranab Mukherjee alleges she said. But "sources close to her" have failed to refute the allegation convincingly. If Pranab Mukherjee distorted the truth, then he has got away lightly. It is known that he is hawkish on the nuclear issue. In December 1995, he, unlike Manmohan Singh and P.V. Narasimha Rao, was keen on a nuclear test. But within the Congress(I), he was too much of a lightweight to have the gumption to contr adict the top leadership's stand, until recently. Yet, such is the ventriloquism practised in the party - whose senior leaders rarely discuss policy issues seriously and whose Central Parliamentary Board has remained unconstituted for years - that chaos prevails and Pranab Mukherjee is not reprimanded. Indeed, on April 19, the "minutes" of an informal discussion of the Congress(I)'s new foreign policy cell were leaked to the media in order to strengthen the hawks' hands.

If Congressmen are at all serious about the 1988 Rajiv Gandhi Plan, they ought to recognise that a so-called Indian nuclear deterrent is incompatible with its spirit. It goes without saying that the Plan needs to be updated. But if the three-phase sequen tial course envisioned in it towards nuclear abolition has any meaning - and is to retain it in any contemporary version - then the very first phase must involve a freeze on the Indian and Pakistani nuclear programmes at the threshold, along with restrai nt by other states. The idea that India (and Pakistan) would actually build and deploy nuclear weapons violates the Plan's spirit of step-by-step nuclear restraint, reduction and elimination.

Many Congressmen are hesitant to take an unambiguous, principled, stand against nuclear weapons. Some of them privately talk about the need to "build a national consensus" (read, let's all agree on some small number of nuclear weapons). This is not surpr ising. Nuclear nationalism seems like a "safe" position to take - like anti-Pakistan posturing. And many Congressmen have come under that national-chauvinist spell. What is surprising is that the party's top leadership, in particular Sonia Gandhi, is squ andering an opportunity to assert itself at a critical juncture - before nuclear weapons are fully manufactured, inducted and deployed, that is, before it becomes even more difficult to undo the damage perpetrated by the tests. It is a measure of the leadership's failure that it has not even discussed the issue within the Congress Working Committee at length to hammer out a cogent position.

EVEN more ungainly is the confusion in the Congress(I) over alliances in West Bengal in the coming local body polls and in the Assembly elections next year. The confusion has been brewing since the run-up to the Rajya Sabha elections in March, during whi ch there was cross-voting by Congresspersons in many States. In West Bengal this took the form of the official candidate (D.P. Roy) being defeated through an understanding between the Trinamul Congress and "rebel" MLAs who were encouraged by some central Congress(I) leaders. This strange collusion resulted in an aggregation of the vote of the "parent" party, that is, Trinamul's 26 per cent, plus the Congress(I)'s 13. The Congress(I)'s weakness in the Rajya Sabha polls reflected Sonia Gandhi's inability in West Bengal to boost the party's vote share between 1998 and 1999. The share fell in West Bengal from 15 to 13 per cent, while nationally it rose by almost three percentage points.

That is when Mamata Banerjee and L.K. Advani, both fired by an intense, visceral, hatred of the Left, invented the concept of the mahajot, an omnibus alliance involving the Trinamul, the Congress(I) and the Bharatiya Janata Party directed against the Le ft Front. Today, several West Bengal Congress(I) leaders such as A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury, Somen Mitra, and S. S. Ray, seem inclined to join the mahajot - at the risk of splitting the party. Ghani Khan Chowdhury has been defiantly insistent upon joini ng hands with the Trinamul. So has Somen Mitra who once drove Mamata Banerjee out of the Congress(I). Sonia Gandhi has been trying in an awkward and contradictory way to reach a compromise with them. In the process, she has only weakened herself. The lat est compromise formula is to put up Congress(I) candidates against the BJP but ally with the Trinamul nevertheless - a messy mahajot.

The mahajot idea is wholly devoid of a democratic mandate. The Congress(I) fought the last two elections in West Bengal against the BJP-Trinamul alliance. Crude arithmetic says that with the addition of the BJP's 11.2 per cent vote, the Trinamul's and Co ngress(I)'s joint 39.3 per cent could exceed the Left Front's 46.7 per cent. But the Congress(I) and BJP bases are not mutually complementary. And a gang-up against the Left, which helps the BJP, is likely to put off thousands of undecided voters who, wh ile disenchanted with the ruling Front, oppose any compromise with the BJP or the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The BJP's social base, strongly influenced by recent Hindu refugees from Bangladesh, is markedly different from that of the Congress(I), and to an extent, even the Trinamul. Some leaders and cadres of the Congress(I) will in no circumstances agree to help the NDA or the Trinamul. So the arithmetic is unlikely to work out in an easy, smooth, way.

However, short-term pragmatic considerations apart, it would be political suicidal for the Congress(I) in the long run to join hands with the BJP in any opportunist mahajot. The last thing the Congress(I) can afford is the stigma of compromising with, or going soft on, communalism. The BJP is without a doubt itsprincipal enemy. It is in contradistinction to that party's hegemonic ideology and political project that the Congress(I) must define itself - if it wants to compete in today's arena as a major force.

The Congress(I) has its differences with the Left parties (and the latter with it), but these are nowhere as basic and deep as those with the BJP. The BJP belongs to a political current which seeks to transform radically this society and politics along c ommunal lines. It alone among the major formations rejects India's basic identity as a highly plural, diverse, heterogeneous society. It roots itself in Hindutva's "cultural nationalism". Parties as disparate as the Congress(I), Samajwadi Party, the Telu gu Desam Party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Communist Party of India (Marxist) differ a great deal in their character, orientation, programme and social base, but not on the fundamental, foundationally secular-pluralist framework in which th ey conceive politics.

It is tragic that parties like the TDP and the DMK have joined hands with the BJP and given it political respectability - purely out of opportunist motives and considerations of power based upon regional preoccupations. It would be much worse, indeed col ossally shameful, for the Congress(I) to reduce itself to such narrow, shrunken, regional forms. Effectively, that would mean vacating the secular space within the political spectrum in a manner that is even more egregious than the de facto unders tanding that Narasimha Rao had reached with the BJP between 1991 and 1994. That not only furnished the conditions for the Babri Masjid demolition, but also cost the Congress(I) extremely dearly. Today, when the Congress(I) is barely in revival/recovery m ode - itself hesitant, halting and reversible - any similar compromise will set it back decisively.

That is why Sonia Gandhi would be singularly ill-advised to try to prevent a split in the West Bengal unit of her party by allowing it to ally with the Trinamul. Such an alliance would leave the Congress(I) divided and weakened. It would be preferable to bring about a split (if a split is unavoidable) on terms that favour secular politics. Sonia Gandhi can at least control those terms. But that means taking hard decisions.

WITHOUT hard decisions, the Congress(I) cannot grow, perhaps not even carry on. It is organisationally and politically in an ugly mess, being in the grip of small-group dynamics as distinct from broad-based politics. The dynamics of small groups are qual itatively different. Indarbari politics, individuals count more because of their personal equations, talent and skills such as the ability to communicate, and less because of their ability to discern broad social trends and build caste and class c oalitions in line with these. Today, Sonia Gandhi faces disaffection from people as varied as Pranab Mukherjee and Rajesh Pilot, and Manmohan Singh and K. Vijayabhaskara Reddy. Instead of building a collective leadership, and giving the party direction, she is allowing the Congress(I) to drift in all kinds of ways.

Today it is hard to say what the Congress(I) stands for on the economy, on foreign policy, on Kashmir, minority rights, gender issues, social agendas, or relations with Pakistan. If the party still retains some ambition to be a serious contender for powe r, even in a coalition, it must develop alternative perspectives, policies and positions. It cannot delude itself that it can afford to be all things to all people, and infinitely accommodating of fanatical free-marketeers and left-leaning centrists, of soft-Hindutva types and hard secularists.

In its best period in power, the Congress(I) was an umbrella party harbouring different classes, interest groups and lobbies. But it had at its core a definite character, an overarching ideology and a programme. In today's polarised, fragmented, politics , the need for an ideology and a programme is even greater. The Congress(I) cannot afford the luxury of drifting or of speaking in different voices: mahajot in West Bengal and anti-BJP coordination in the Lok Sabha. That option is closed.