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At a crossroads

Print edition : Apr 25, 1998 T+T-

The new Congress president now faces the litmus test of leadership in a party which has no vision, very little ideology and few political moorings.

EVER since Sonia Gandhi declared on December 29, 1997 that she would campaign for the Indian National Congress, the leaders of India's oldest - and still the largest, in terms of the vote share at the national level - political party have been through one huge, prolonged bout of self-delusion. They have permitted themselves the luxury of believing that the Congress(I) would somehow be able to recover the considerable ground it has lost over the years and re-emerge as the "natural" party of governance on its own; that the Nehru-Gandhi family's appeal would at least help it convert a higher share of its vote into Lok Sabha seats, and make a bid for power through a coalition it leads; and that organisationally, at the minimum, the party would undergo a metamorphosis once Sonia Gandhi takes over its leadership.

None of this has happened. The Congress(I) has lost a little over three percentage points of its national vote, and now is ahead of the BJP by less than one-half of one per cent. Its seat tally has remained unchanged. There are few signs of a revival of the strong support the party had among the social groups that constituted its traditional base in the 1950s and 1960s - the "core minorities" of Dalits, Muslims and Adivasis plus a combination of upper castes and assorted intermediate layers.

Even more important, the party's geographical base has further shrunk. In 1996, it represented as many as 26 of India's States and Union Territories (UTs) in the Lok Sabha, while the BJP won seats in only 12 units. Today, the Congress has MPs from 17 States and three UTs - less than the BJP's tally of 17 States and four UTs. The Congress(I) has been all but wiped out in Uttar Pradesh, in terms of votes and seats. It has lost substantially in as wide a range of States as Bihar, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Punjab. In many districts and regions, its cadre has vanished, and the once-powerful party machine has ceased to exist.

Sonia Gandhi's campaign, it is now clear, produced somewhat indifferent, inconsistent, results in the party's favour. It lost in as many as 86 of the 137 constituencies where she addressed public meetings. It lost more than half of the 56 constituencies held by it in the 11th Lok Sabha; she campaigned in these constituencies. Her campaign won 25 seats for the party from among the 81 non-Congress-held constituencies which she visited. It is possible - even likely - that the Congress(I) would have done considerably worse had Sonia Gandhi not campaigned for it. But it is clear that she was not able to fetch the party too many votes.

Generally, the "Sonia factor" made very little difference in constituencies where the party was in poor shape to start with and had few hopes of winning (constituencies in U.P., for instance). She may have, again, only contributed marginally, where the party was anyway better placed (Maharashtra, for instance) to improve on its 1996 performance even before her decision to campaign.

Thus, right coalition- and alliance-building was the key to the Congress(I)'s success, especially outside the northern States. For instance, in Maharashtra, where it modestly admitted that it could not do too well on its own and formed alliances with the Republican Party and the Samajwadi Party, it did well, isolating the BJP and the Shiv Sena and recovering much of the vote it had earlier lost owing to factionalism and the setting up of "rebel" candidates. (In 1996, the official and "rebel" candidates together polled more votes than those of the BJP-Sena combine).

THE "Sonia factor", then, has not produced an electoral miracle. Perhaps the Congress(I)'s biggest gain from Sonia Gandhi's entry into active politics would seem to be the curbing of factionalism and the almost universal acceptance of her authority in the true Congress tradition of deference to the dynasty and the supposed - in reality, fading - charisma of the Nehru-Gandhi family. The second biggest gain would seem to be the "feel-good" factor that many Congress(I) leaders probably experience with Sonia Gandhi - if only because the available alternatives seem so unattractive, exhausted, old, and without a future. In this sense, she may have put some life into the Congress.

But even these gains might be lost if Sonia Gandhi fails the litmus test of leadership in a party which has no vision, very little ideology, and few political moorings namely, the ability of the leader to fetch votes and, ultimately, state power. P. V. Narasimha Rao failed the test comprehensively and repeatedly, in successive Assembly elections since 1991, and, finally, in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections. Sitaram Kesri was scarcely expected to pass the test with flying colours. Sonia Gandhi holds out a different kind of hope, but she is yet to be fully tested.

There are few signs that Sonia Gandhi understands the intricacies of politics, especially, practical, grassroots politics, or knows her party particularly well, well enough to be its strategist. Her takeover as Congress president - and the crude manner in which Kesri was thrown out of that post almost overnight - has strengthened the worst forms of sycophancy and servility in an already effete party that is devoted to politics based on patronage - various kinds and whole hierarchies of patronage.

This sycophancy could act as an obstacle, indeed a soporific, just when the Congress(I) is in dire need of organisational decentralisation and political radicalisation. The party may thus be tempted to put on hold any serious effort to evaluate why it has been going downhill for so long, how its right-wing economic policies, its corrupt ways, and its repeated compromises with communalism have cost it much of its social base, and what could be done to stem and reverse this process. The fact that Sonia Gandhi was "elected" chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Party when she is not even a member of Parliament, nor intends to be, speaks of the party's preference for substitutionism; substitute a supposedly charismatic leader for real policies and programmes, and hope that will do the trick!

THE Congress(I) today starts with a series of disadvantages. First and foremost, it has been unable to deal with and relate to some of the most important processes that have reshaped Indian society and politics over the past decade and more. On the positive side, these include the politicisation of plebeian layers who had for long been disenfranchised; the "forward march of the Backwards" or the upsurge of the Other Backward Classes, especially in the Hindi belt; the transformation of caste identities from a ritual hierarchical status to political communities, in the Gangetic plains; the self-assertion of Dalits; and movement towards social reform, secularisation and modernisation among Muslims.

On the negative side, there has been the consolidation of an upwardly mobile consumerist middle class elite that is increasingly turning rightwards and sections of which are getting communalised. Through the 1990s, the economy has been realigned and restructured to favour private enterprise and global capital. This has led to a distinct rightward shift too, and thrown up a new, predatory, self-confident class of entrepreneurs and professionals. Meanwhile, the process of administrative decay, corruption and misgovernance has advanced.

Unless the Congress(I) can relate to the positive components of these processes, and until it radicalises itself ideologically, it will not be able to grow. It is far from clear that its leadership is aware of the need for such a programmatic base. In some ways, unlike Narasimha Rao, Sitaram Kesri, for all his faults, could at least read the writing on the wall on the Mandal issue, as well as on communalism. His successor remains an unknown entity. Most of those close to her show few signs that they comprehend the strategic implications of these processes for the Congress and, more generally, for centrist politics.

The Congress(I)'s failure to relate to the positive side of the process and its tendency to accommodate to the negative side has meant that during the 1990s the party shifted rightwards on economic policy, on the issue of secularism and communalism, and on participatory governance. Its confirmed neo-liberal economic orientation has been in evidence throughout the 1990s, all the way to the economic policy resolution adopted at the 80th plenary session in Calcutta last August. It was reflected strongly in the latest election manifesto, which All India Congress(I) Committee joint secretary Jairam Ramesh proudly claims is probably the first manifesto of any party in which the word "privatisation" was mentioned. Indeed, with Manmohan Singh emerging more powerful and becoming the party's spokesman on economic affairs, this neo-liberal economic affinity seems to have got strengthened. Unless changed, this orientation could prolong the Congress(I)'s alienation from the bulk of the population and isolate it even further from the poor in a period of economic uncertainty and slowdown.

The Congress(I) has paid heavily for its soft line on Hindu communalism, but it is yet to own up responsibility for the growth of anti-secular forces over the past one and a half decades; the increasingly partisan role of the police and the bureaucracy in communal riots, under its rule; and its workers' own participation, for instance, in the anti-Sikh carnage of 1984. It has much to answer for as regards the Ayodhya movement and its horrible aftermath, especially in Mumbai. Its "apology" for the demolition of the Babri Masjid sounds less than sincere because it comes too late and is unaccompanied by either a policy shift or tangible change at the ground level. It is unrealistic to expect the Congress(I) to undertake active anti-communal mobilisation anywhere. Today, it simply does not have that spirit.

The Congress(I) will find it hard to live down its image as a party that seeks to bypass and exclude people from governance. The party is seen to be dominated and controlled by power-brokers and caciques, one that is incorrigibly corrupt, venal and manipulative, and which is too decadent to be able to practise a people-oriented politics. The stigma of numerous scandals, from Bofors, through the securities scam, to shady deals in telecom and fertilizers, remains a liability for the Congress(I).

Going by the special AICC session on April 6, Sonia Gandhi does not seem inclined to try to clean the Congress(I)'s Augean stables. She may weaken the hold of some seasoned manipulators such as K. Karunakaran, Jitendra Prasada, R. K. Dhawan or Pranab Mukerjee, and may induct young leaders into important posts. Admittedly, she did, on her own, offer a platform to a dissenter such as Rajesh Pilot. She could also raise women's representation in the party. But by all accounts, she is not even attempting what the Congress(I) needs the most: thorough, comprehensive, ideological, political, organisational cleansing, so it can sink roots among the people and convincingly demonstrate its commitment to a secular, democratic, broadly left-of-centre politics.

Had Sonia Gandhi been convinced of this need, she would not have appointed such staid, unimaginative, or compromised figures such as Sharad Pawar, Manmohan Singh and P. A. Sangma to a "task force" to "rejuvenate" the Congress(I). There is no reason to believe that these leaders are serious about learning lessons from the past and charting out a bold new path. In all probability, "rejuvenation" could come to mean what is has always meant in the Congress(I) lexicon: a few cosmetic alterations in slogans, change of personnel at the Pradesh Congress Committee levels, and a little tinkering here and there.

But it is precisely this that has been responsible for the party's steady decline. Narasimha Rao's soft Hindutva line ensured in much of the North that the upper castes went over to the BJP - which represented them more adequately and more "naturally" - Dalits walked over to parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and Muslims to the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and other secular organisations. At the same time, right-wing economic politics repelled the urban poor and other plebeian layers away from the Congress(I).

In the last analysis, the Congress(I) has to make a historic decision. Either it reinvents itself as a centre-left party, takes on the BJP, and works to strengthen the forces of secularism and participatory democracy, and expand the political space they represent. Or, it hovers unsteadily close to the right end of the spectrum, promotes elitism, deviously tries to play on religious identities, remains mired in manipulative politics, and effectively becomes the BJP's 'B' team.

In the first course lies hope. But it means doing hard work, taking unpleasant decisions, breaking old habits, and going back to the people. The second course offers easier choices. But it spells haemorrhage, ignominy and, ultimately, death. The Congress(I) should know one thing: there is no space in India for two large rightwing parties, but plenty of room for everybody on the left-hand side of the political centre.