A difficult legacy

Print edition : January 24, 1998

Sonia Gandhi would have to go beyond her present decorative role and actually exercise organisational power in order to retain the allegiance of important faction leaders in a durable sense - a task for which she seems ill-equipped and ill-prepared.

IT is commonplace now to hear that the key to the durability of the Congress(I) as a political institution lies in its unique process of mobilisation. This entails a dual understanding of the Congress - as both a party and a process. Being the principal vehicle of Indian nationalism, the Congress attracted, and for long retained, the allegiance of the more influential social classes in the country. Over years of competitive politics, these classes served as the nuclei around which others gravitated.

An appropriate description for the process would be "factional agglutination". The dynamics of electoral competition at the local level created a broad convergence of political interests between particular sections. This underwrote the consolidation of an electoral coalition between social classes, which dominated the realm of representative politics. Aside from the grand slogans that it embodied at various times, the key to the Congress' success was its ability to remain awake to local political situations and coopt the interest groups that seemed likely to exercise a determinant influence in any electoral contest.

The recent times have been relatively less successful for the Congress(I) because the social factions that at various points congregated under its banner have deserted it - partly because dynastic political succession ensures the survival of neither commitment nor vision, and partly because it establishes a principle of political legitimacy that is exempt from the imperatives of electoral success. Rajiv Gandhi, to the extent that he had a distinct political persona, stood in a rather pale comparison to Jawaharlal Nehru's nationalist legitimacy and Indira Gandhi's populist credibility. And whatever possibility there was to learn on the job was undermined by his own sense of insecurity, his dependence on a coterie with little exposure to political realities, and his churlish refusal to surrender the prerogative that his leadership role brought with it. He subjected the entire party to the caprices of the supreme leader.

THE first flurry of Sonia Gandhi's political campaigning reintroduces the old question - how far can the Rajiv legacy be credibly reconstructed as an instrument of the Congress' advancement? It is apparent that there has been an improvement in the morale of the party workers, who had just a week prior to Sonia's entry been voting with their feet for an alternative dispensation. But aside from this purely contingent development, there is little that can now be said about the long-term implications of her entry for the well-being of the Congress(I).

Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia during an election walkabout. The first flurry of Sonia's campaigning reintroduces the question of how far the Rajiv legacy can be credibly reconstructed as an instrument of the Congress' advancement.-PABLO BARTHOLOMEW / GAMMA

Two planks provided the foundation for the Congress(I)'s electoral appeal. First, it ensured stability in governance and secondly, it held out the populist assurance, however illusory, of material advancement for the underprivileged. Neither plank would seem to survive today. The Congress' record of governance has been undistinguished - successive governments in the States have completed their full tenures in office, but failed to contain the turbulent factional battles that have effectively undermined the task of governance. And the populist plank - of advocacy of the cause of the disadvantaged - has also been lost to various forces that stand to the left of the Congress(I) in the political spectrum.

THE Congress organisation, which was the key to its ability to recruit loyalties at the local level, is today a shambles. Although the P.V. Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri dispensations will be remembered for having accelerated the decline of the Congress(I), the beginnings clearly lie in the Rajiv raj. The grand gesture came easily to Rajiv, but the substance was often lacking. Organisational elections, which had been promised early in his tenure as Congress president, were never conducted all through the seven years that he was at the helm. The All India Congress Committee, in fact, met no more than thrice in that period, and on all these occasions confined itself to ritualistic statements of loyalty to the leader.

Discussion and debate on fundamental issues of strategy and ideology became an alien ethos during the Rajiv raj. The electoral defeat of 1989 only heightened the sense of insecurity. Rather than admit that organisational elections could no longer be postponed except at further risk to the party's credibility, Rajiv turned his attention towards weeding out bogus membership. A tighter regime of entry was introduced for members and the demand of a ginger group known as the Congress Forum for Action - that interim elections be conducted to clean up the party apparatus - was denounced as an effort to weaken the organisation.

Neither of the Congress(I) presidents since Rajiv has chosen to dispense with the unique prerogatives that were established under him. Sitaram Kesri did go through the motions of organisational elections, partly under the duress of a directive from the Election Commission. But the rapid dissolution of the loyalties that he seemed to have firmly brought in line only shows how hollow the pretence was. Kesri's election, after a supposed contest, was the outcome of an arrangement of mutual convenience with various regional leaders of the party. Mutual respect for one another's zone of influence was the unwritten condition behind these deals; it was an effective ceding of the Congress(I)'s regional units to the overlordship of individuals with no proven capacity to manage the party's traditional diversity of factional loyalties.

One respect in which the Congress organisation since Rajiv has differed from the pattern established then is in the power wielded by the regional bosses. The dynastic principle had been instituted on the specific understanding that it would not tolerate any alternative centres of power. Regional leaders who threatened to establish a distinctive political identity were quashed with little regard for long-term consequences. The crucial States of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh had two individuals alternating in brief spells as Chief Minister during Rajiv's five-year tenure as Prime Minister. Bihar, similarly, had three different Chief Ministers, Maharashtra four, Gujarat, Haryana and Rajasthan two each. In fact, no Congress Chief Minister, with the exception of J.B. Patnaik in Orissa - whose claims to the office were less than compelling - was allowed to complete a full five-year term.

SAGGERE RAMASWAMY

Even the electoral debacles of 1989 and 1990 did not alter this pattern of behaviour. Between then and his demise in 1991, Rajiv managed to effect chief ministerial changes in the two significant States that the Congress managed to win in that period of gloom - Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

THE implications for the Congress' unique style of coalition building are now becoming apparent. No individual leader in any region was able to construct a durable alliance of factions that could serve the party as the basis for electoral mobilisation. The party's electoral appeal came uniquely to be dependent upon the discrete charms of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. And with Rajiv himself turning his back on the core values of the Congress - such as secularism and economic populism - the allure of the dynasty itself began to pall significantly.

The Congress' lack of a basic kernel of political allegiance became increasingly apparent in subsequent years - in the rampant nepotism that came to mark the distribution of the party ticket, aptly characterised as the "Indian theory of relativism". It would now seem extremely doubtful whether Sonia can restore the dynamics of the Congress' near-extinct system of faction management. For all that has been said about her, she is even more alien to the basic ethos of the Congress(I) than her husband was. And even if she is willing to lend her supposed charisma as a decorative prop to the party's campaign, she has little ability or aptitude to get involved in the gritty business of ticket distribution and campaigning that has been the winning style for the Congress in earlier years.

Sonia's arrival would have the effect, of course, of arresting the drift of important faction leaders away from the Congress(I). This remains at the moment a holding operation - little can be said about how far she will be able to retain their allegiance in a durable sense. This would depend on her ability to go beyond the decorative role and actually exercise organisational power - a task for which she seems ill-equipped and ill-prepared. Her steadfast refusal to take on organisational responsibilities in the Congress, despite all the overtures that were made, may have been read as a sign of modesty. The truth perhaps, is that she has ample reasons for modesty.

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