Unclear responses

Print edition : July 18, 1998

The Congress(I)'s reaction to most of the key events of the BJP raj suggests nothing so strongly as a crisis of leadership.

A MEASURE of confusion was to be expected right across the political spectrum in the immediate aftermath of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government's decision to go in for a series of nuclear tests. Only practised foreign policy hands like I.K. Gujral managed to come up with reactions that were careful in their attention to nuances. Within the Congress(I), foreign policy experts Mani Shankar Aiyar and K. Natwar Singh sought to separate the scientific achievements of the tests from the political context in which they had been conducted.

Within a few days of the tests, it became clear that the BJP was compounding nuclear adventurism with verbal intemperance. After the initial disorientation, it appeared that the Congress(I) could finally regain the initiative. A clearly formulated offensive needed to be undertaken: one that focussed on the BJP's patent inability to grapple with the level of political sophistication required to enunciate a nuclear weapons doctrine. This, some of the Congress(I)'s foreign policy experts were convinced, would turn the tide of public opinion against the BJP.

As Congress(I) president, however, Sonia Gandhi opted for the course of extreme prudence. Subjecting the BJP to a searching public scrutiny could well have impelled it to raise further the pitch of the chauvinist rhetoric that had been its stock-in-trade since the nuclear tests. This was a factor that had intimidated even the hoary political veterans of the Opposition into silence or extreme caution. Sonia Gandhi was especially vulnerable on grounds of her foreign origins. If pushed into a corner, the BJP showed every likelihood of bringing the question into the political discourse. A party seeking to simulate a sense of siege in the national mood was unlikely to suffer any scruples about whipping up a sense of xenophobia. For various reasons, this was a strategic recourse that the Congress(I) was anxious to see the BJP avoid.

At Parliament House. The Congress(I)'s response to many of the key events of the BJP-led Government's policies and pronouncements has been marked by equivocation and political confusion.-V. SUDERSHAN

FOR one reason or the other, the Congress(I)'s reaction to most of the key events of the BJP raj has been less than convincing. In the sum of their implications, the nuclear tests have tended to loom larger than all other policy decisions of the Atal Behari Vajpayee Government. But most other key episodes in the Government's erratic course have been met with the same measure of equivocation. Unable to take an aggressive posture in Opposition, the Congress(I) betrays the extreme ethical and political confusion that it is legatee to from the days of Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao.

Illustratively, when media reports indicated that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) was, in seeming oblivion of all judicial restraints, proceeding with the fabrication work for a temple at the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Sonia was quick to despatch a letter of inquiry to Prime Minister Vajpayee. The Prime Minister, in turn, responded with the formal reiteration of the Government's determination to enforce the rule of law. Considering the BJP's record on this issue, there seemed ample opportunity to put it further on the defensive and compel it to disavow formally the activities of its militant affiliate, the VHP.

Matters seemed to be heading in this direction when the Opposition raised a storm of protest in the Lok Sabha. There was, for a while, the very real possibility that the Opposition would press for an adjournment motion to put further pressure on the Government. The Left parties and other constituent parties of the erstwhile United Front made it clear that their posture would be contingent upon the Congress(I)'s willingness to make common cause with them. At the decisive moment, the Congress(I) failed to get the go-ahead from its leadership. The legacy of vacillation and equivocation on Ayodhya proved too powerful an influence.

SILENCE has again been the governing virtue of the Congress(I)'s stand on the hotly debated constitutional provision of Article 356. The background to the current controversies is the Congress(I)'s own record of trigger-happy recourse to this provision in order to get rid of State governments controlled by Opposition parties. If the standards and scruples established by the Congress(I) were to be applied today, at least three State governments would long since have vanished, victim to the BJP-alliance's conflicting priorities.

As the leader of the main Opposition party, Sonia Gandhi has been unable to articulate any kind of position on the application of Article 356. Her rather clumsy effort towards the end of June did no more than affirm that the provision existed and remained a matter of discretion of the Central Government in its application.

THE Union Budget presented by Yashwant Sinha on June 1 seemed to suggest a government stretched out on a rack, unable to reconcile the imperatives of industrial revival with the reality of a fiscal apparatus that is badly askew. The Congress(I)'s response, as articulated by its principal economic policy thinker, Manmohan Singh, was to characterise the Budget as a recipe for stagflation - one that does little to snap the economy out of its current gloom and yet threatens to stoke the flames of inflation, making livelihood concerns for the common man ever more dire.

That perhaps was an accurate reading. But it is unlikely that Manmohan Singh will look very hard for the roots of the current dilemma in economic policy. Yashwant Sinha's is the third in a sequence of budgetary exercises by non-Congress Finance Ministers. Yet it does not make a serious effort to break the mould that was set under five years of Manmohan Singh's stewardship of the Finance Ministry.

Several critics have argued that recession was inherent in the fiscal recipe that Manmohan Singh implemented with little opposition or dissent from the Congress(I). The investment famine in vital infrastructural sectors, the burgeoning of the revenue account deficit and the dependence on an unproven and theoretically dubious fiscal assumption that lower rates will result in higher revenues, are ingrained features of economic policy since Manmohan Singh's times. To say that the economic downturn is a creation of the BJP-led Government may be politically the only course open to the Congress(I). But whether this will carry much conviction is another matter. Whether the Congress(I) will be able to pose a credible alternative is still another.

The Congress(I) response to most of the key events of the Atal Behari Vajpayee raj suggests nothing so strongly as a crisis of leadership. Sonia Gandhi saved the Congress(I) from the certain prospect of disintegration by stepping in to campaign for it in the last general elections. But her campaign was characterised by repeated invocations of sentiment and emotion, rather than by an effort to pose a substantive political alternative before the electorate. In unambiguous opposition now, the Congress(I) has a better opportunity to work towards posing an alternative vision of governance. That would require a disavowal in deed, if not in word, of some of the more baneful aspects of the Rajiv Gandhi legacy. But this is option that the current leadership, for reasons connected to the very sources of its legitimacy, is unlikely to embrace.

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