Seeking strength in numbers

Print edition : January 24, 1998

The Congress(I) realises that a single-party Congress government at the Centre is not possible and that it will have to get together with other parties to gain some share in power.

IN every general election barring the present one, the Congress(I) has campaigned for "stability" and single-party rule; it has also always put forward a prime ministerial candidate in its campaign. In every past general election other than that of 1996, the prime ministerial candidate was a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family and was presented as personifying the political stability promised by the party. Congress campaigns lampooned the Opposition for not being able to promise single-party rule or present the people with a prime ministerial candidate in the course of its campaign.

Times have changed. Although the party still pays lip service to "stability" and single-party rule, in almost every State it is desperate to form alliances with regional parties and State units of national parties. More significantly, despite the emergence of Sonia Gandhi as its star campaigner, the party is facing elections, for the first time in its history, without a prime ministerial candidate.

The Congress(I) has now realised that a single-party Congress government at the Centre is no longer possible. Nor is it confident that the next Prime Minister will be a Congressperson. The general perception within the party is that although Sonia Gandhi's campaign may help stem defections from the party or improve the party's strength in the Lok Sabha marginally, it will still have to get together with other parties to gain some share in power.

The most important contribution to the overall decline of the Congress(I) comes from the state of affairs in the party in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar after 1989. Its decline in these States had devastating consequences for the party in the elections of 1996. What caused this decline was the depletion of its traditional electoral base, a combination of upper-caste communities such as Brahmins and Thakurs, the minority Muslim community, some backward caste communities and Dalits. In general, upper-caste voters shifted from the Congress(I) to the BJP, and Muslim, Dalit, and backward caste voters shifted their support to parties such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and what has now become the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).

Bihar and Uttar Pradesh account for more than one-fifth of the total seats in the Lok Sabha; the Congress(I) could not make up for the losses it suffered in these two States. Its losses in U.P. and Bihar had a knock-on effect, especially in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, where the BJP and its allies, such as the Shiv Sena, have a strong electoral base. Although the Congress has a better organisational structure and a bigger mass following in these States than in U.P. or Bihar, the overall political trend in these States is also one of decline. The Congress has managed to hold its ground in Kerala and to some extent in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka as well as in Orissa. However, the organisation in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal have been weakened greatly after the formation of the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) and the Trinamul Congress.

In this situation, if the Congress(I) is to achieve some kind of revival, it has to improve its current position in U.P., Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Before Sonia Gandhi's decision to campaign for the party was announced, Kesri and other leaders had worked out a plan to attempt to do so by joining hands with various regional forces. The idea was to ally with the RJD in Bihar, the Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP) in Gujarat, the S.P. in U.P. and Maharashtra and the BSP in Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and, if possible, in Uttar Pradesh.

When Sonia Gandhi announced her decision to campaign, there were worries within the party about whether all these proposed alliances would come crumbling down. The impression in some sections of the party, especially among the Kesri group, was that Sonia Gandhi was so preoccupied with the Jain Commission that she would not understand the need to identify with the social-justice-oriented slogans of the Congress(I)'s proposed allies. However, Sonia Gandhi's first few election meetings and the meetings that she has had with the party leadership during this period appear to have dispelled these doubts.

It appears that Sonia Gandhi has not only given the party and the State units the green signal with respect to forming the alliances they deem fit, but has also offered to negotiate with some of the proposed allies. According to Congress(I) insiders, she has had discussions with S.P. leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and Telugu Desam Party (NTR) leader Lakshmi Parvati about alliances in U.P. and Andhra Pradesh. Although the discussions did not succeed immediately, indications are that efforts are on to work out some kind of understanding with both parties. Lakshmi Parvati's blow-hot-blow-cold attitude towards the BJP is considered to be the result of the discussions Sonia Gandhi had with her.

Now that Sonia Gandhi has cleared the way, the Congress(I) intends to continue with its original plan on electoral alliances. Seat adjustments have been finalised in Gujarat and Punjab with the RJP and the BSP. Discussions with the RJD in Bihar are at an advanced stage. Talks with the BSP in Madhya Pradesh are stalled because of internal problems in the Congress(I).

However, Sonia Gandhi's emergence has not altered the Congress(I)'s electoral game plan dramatically. Alliances with regional and other forces continue to be central to the plan. CWC member Tariq Anwar said that the party hopes to emerge stronger than the United Front, and to do so by forming these various alliances and by doing better than the U.F. in the southern States. The reckoning is that if this plan succeeds, the party will gain leverage after the elections. The ultimate aim of the party is to have a Congress(I) Prime Minister at the head of a government of forces opposed to the BJP and its allies. But if the present mood in the Congress(I) hierarchy is anything to go by, the party is ready to accept a non-Congress Prime Minister as long as it gets a share in power.

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