Strategic alliances and the NDA's unrealistic campaign help the Congress and its allies come up with an improved tally in the Lok Sabha, but several challenges await the party's first-ever coalition government at the Centre.in New Delhi
IT was a performance that surpassed all estimates and defied all predictions. The Congress not only increased its individual tally from 114 Lok Sabha seats in 1999 to 145, but with its allies won over 220 seats in the House. The party's vote share stands at a little over 26 per cent, 5 per cent more than that of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Although still short of a majority, with the crucial support extended by the Left parties, who put up their best performance ever, it is all set to run its first-ever coalition at the Centre. "The commitment to provide a purposeful, effective government focussed on accelerating employment, growth and investment unites all of us in the coalition," party president Sonia Gandhi said after taking over as the Congress Parliamentary Party leader on May 15.
However, the prospect of running a government with the support of the Left becomes all the more challenging for the Congress as it has been pitted against the former in Kerala and West Bengal for decades. The crucial difference of opinion between the Left and the Congress relates to economic issues. The Left parties have been critical of the Congress for espousing policies of liberalisation and privatisation. They point out that the policies have not necessarily resulted in the improvement of the living conditions of the poor and instead have given rise to unemployment and further misery. Similarly, on labour reforms, the Left parties, which control several strong trade unions, are opposed to the Congress' "anti-labour" views. Regarding the public distribution system too the Left and the Congress hold distinct views. Instead of the open market system, the Left advocates a system of government-controlled distribution mechanism in order to ensure that the poor are provided essential commodities at reasonable prices.
According to Jairam Ramesh, secretary of the Congress' economic affairs cell, areas of concern in running a government with the Left could be "food security, the public distribution system as to how it should be run, labour reforms, disinvestment and privatisation". He added: "Cohabitation could be difficult, lots of adjustments would have to be made. We just hope the common minimum programme works out better with the emphasis being more on `programme' and not on `minimum' as was the case in the 1996-98 United Front government experiment." Just how difficult things could be was evident when the party had to ask former Finance Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh to address the media following the stock market crash on May 14. The media reasoned that the crash was triggered by the CPI(M)'s reported statement that the Disinvestment Ministry be wound up. However, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechury clarified that the Left had a more nuanced approach to the issue of disinvestment.
Another challenge before the Congress is to draft a common minimum programme that reflects the interest of all the alliance partners. It means accommodating Ram Vilas Paswan's demand to make the right to work a fundamental right, Laloo Prasad Yadav's demand to open cases of corruption against NDA Ministers, especially those from Bihar, the Telengana Rashtra Samithi's demand for a separate Telengana State and the Left's views on disinvestment and privatisation.
Equally important are the challenges facing the Congress on the political front. It will be a daunting task to run a rainbow coalition government, with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and, possibly, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The political maturity and sagacity that Sonia Gandhi displayed in forging alliances before the elections and in running her party's campaign alone might not be sufficient to run the government. All the more so because the administrative capability of Sonia Gandhi is to be tested.
However, Congress leaders are aware that without such alliances, the party could never have made it to power. Party spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy said: "If I were to give one most important factor responsible for our victory, it would be our alliances. Wherever we had an alliance we swept the election, as in Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Jharkhand. Where we did not have alliances, we failed, as in Uttar Pradesh." In his opinion, the dependence on allies would make the government function better because the party would be cautious in running such a government. Jaipal Reddy said: "I am of the opinion that if a government has no majority and is dependent on others for survival, it lasts its full term. I think the NDA government would not have survived but for the allies. Had the BJP formed the government with a majority, they would not have completed their term."
Another factor that helped the Congress perform well was the BJP's inability to come up with a campaign that appealed to the masses. According to senior Congress leader Kamal Nath, who defeated Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Uma Bharati's personal choice Prahlad Patel in Chhindwara, campaigns backed by unrealistic claims distanced the voters from the BJP. This, coupled with the constant harping on the "foreign origin" issue and personal attacks on Sonia Gandhi and her children Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra, turned the voters away from the NDA, he said. Jaipal Reddy added: "Besides, the yearning for the good old days of benevolent politics, without the rancour as is visible today, brought the voters closer to the Congress. Look at what happened in Tamil Nadu. Although the alliance was primarily responsible for the good showing, Jayalalithaa's style of campaigning angered voters and they turned to the Congress in sympathy. The same thing happened in Gujarat."
Meanwhile, the Congress president has so far displayed a rare maturity in handling the party's pre-election allies. She has made no statements without consulting the allies and invited them to join the government. She realises that maintaining a rapport with the allies will again pay the party dividends. "Even as we provide the pivot for the coalition, it will be our earnest endeavour to respect and work closely with our allies and partners," she said in her speech on May 15. Sonia Gandhi's accommodative attitude worked as the party's allies and the Left parties extended support to a coalition government led by her. Even the Sharad Pawar-led NCP extended support to her on the grounds that the people had rejected the "foreign origin" issue.
A significant post-election concern for the party would be to revive its fortunes in Uttar Pradesh where even the charisma of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra failed to work beyond Amethi and Rae Bareli. Senior party leader Mohsina Kidwai said: "We need to overhaul the organisation in Uttar Pradesh. Now we are in a position to stand on our own feet there so we need not go begging for support from either the S.P. or the BSP." In her opinion, a youthful leadership that could deliver and guidance from senior leaders could revive the party's fortunes in Uttar Pradesh.
Perhaps such a concern underlay the party's decision not to take the initiative to invite the S.P. or the BSP to join the coalition. Although BSP leader Mayawati announced her unconditional support to Sonia Gandhi soon after the results came in, there was no further progress on her part to make the party join the coalition. Similar is the case with the S.P. Sonia Gandhi may have been referring to Uttar Pradesh when she said on May 15: "There is now a momentum generated by our revival - let us not squander it. We must utilise it as a catalyst for change and progress within our own organisation."