Political window-dressing

Print edition : February 22, 2013

At the AICC session in Jaipur on January 20, Rahul Gandhi, whose election as party vice-president the previous night the meeting endorsed, with mother and party presdient Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

Newly elected BJP president Rajnath Singh(second from right) with senior leaders L.K. Advani, Sushma Swaraj and M. Venkaiah Naidu at the party headquarters in New Delhi on January 23. Photo: VIJAY KUMAR JOSHI/PTI

Bereft of a comprehensive political vision that can capture the popular imagination, the two mainstream national parties resort to cosmetic image reconstruction with leadership changes ahead of an election year.

THE recent developments in the ruling Congress and the principal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including the changes in their top leaderships, have in essence a common political thrust. Primarily, the effort of both the mainstream parties is to streamline their politics and organisation for the next round of general elections, which are due in 2014. On the face of it, the developments in the two parties appear to be starkly different. The formal elevation of Rahul Gandhi to the post of vice-president and official No.2 in the Congress was naturally a “smooth” affair because it basically entailed putting the stamp of official approval on a hierarchy that had been prevailing in the party for a considerable period of time. On the other hand, the election of Rajnath Singh as the BJP president took place against the background of tumultuous happenings involving the party leadership as well as the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fountainhead of the Hindutva-oriented Sangh Parivar.

However, a closer analysis of the events reveals that both the parties were grappling with the same qualitative problems, and the effort of the leaderships on both sides was to address them as best as possible. The net outcome of these developments also seeks to emphasise that in the absence of a comprehensive social and political vision, the “best” that was possible for these two mainstream parties was only a cosmetic reconstruction of image with no substantive policy dimensions. The leaders of both the BJP and the Congress had, in the course of these very events, referred to the problems that they were impelled to address in the current political milieu. These included corruption charges against leaders at various levels; administrative and governance misdemeanours by the Ministries run by the two parties at different tiers of polity; the rising anger of the people against these trends and its diverse manifestations, including the spontaneous protests launched by young people across the country on a number of questions; and the overall credibility deficit caused by these and related factors.

The Congress’ premise was that nominating Rahul Gandhi to a position, which de facto had been his for a long time, would generate new trust and hope in the party leadership. The BJP sought to take the moral high ground by compelling Nitin Gadkari, who faced several allegations of corruption, to resign as party president and bringing back Rajnath Singh to that position.

Initial responses to these moves from the larger political firmament as well as from within the parties suggest that they have had only limited success. Rahul Gandhi’s formal elevation has enthused a section of the Congress leadership and the rank and file amid hopes that he will give prominence to younger and newer activists in the party, leading to a structural change in the organisational set-up. Some sections also believe that the young leader will be more appealing as the face of a national campaign in the next elections. But, this belief is not shared uniformly within the party.

There are many who argue that Rahul Gandhi’s elevation will not in itself lead to greater political and electoral gains for the party. His repeated inability to “seize a right political opportunity” as well as his dismal track record in very many elections in the country as a campaigner have contributed significantly to this lack of belief. “Right now we are going through a phase of guarded hope and it is entirely up to Rahul Gandhi to concretise this at the earliest,” a senior Congress leader said, summing up the mood in the party.

In the BJP, too, the leadership change has caused no great enthusiasm. The overwhelming view in the party is that Rajnath Singh’s return to the top organisational position is no guarantee for greater political and electoral gains. The fact that he emerged as a compromise candidate in the tussle between the Sangh Parivar groups supporting and opposing Nitin Gadkari makes his task cumbersome. The one tangible gain for the BJP in the return of Rajnath Singh is that it has a president who does not face charges of corruption or Income Tax raids. That was indeed some relief, a senior BJP leader said.

The two parties achieved this “sense of relief” or “guarded hope” by employing starkly different methods and organisational manoeuvres. The Congress went to town with the grand spectacle of a Chintan Shivir (brainstorming conclave) in Jaipur to anoint the heir apparent. The conclave was billed as a “gathering to brainstorm on grave issues confronting the nation and the party and come up with solutions”, but, in the end, the party leadership seemed to suggest that the elevation of Rahul Gandhi was the panacea to all problems.

The BJP and the RSS went through a different kind of experience, which laid bare the intense differences and personality clashes in the two organisations. The BJP’s claims to being a “party with a difference” had been questioned before, but the developments this time around unravelled the dissensions within the RSS, too, which was generally considered a cohesive monolith.

Divergent ‘spectacles’

One theme that the leaderships of the two parties harped on in the course of these divergent “spectacles” was initiating corrective measures in their political practices and organisational systems. This, they argued, was necessary in the face of the growing disillusionment with the political class, particularly in the younger generation.

At the Congress conclave, Rahul Gandhi made a dramatic reference to this theme in his part-impassioned, part-introspective, part-philosophical speech at the concluding session. “Why is our youth angry? Why are they out on the street? They are angry because they are alienated and excluded from the political class. They watch from the sidelines as the powerful drive around in their lal battis [red beacon vehicles]. Why are the women suffering? Because their voice is being trampled upon by people with arbitrary power over their lives. Why are the poor confined to powerlessness and poverty? Because decisions regarding their lives and the services they need are decided by people far away, answerable to them only in theory. Until we start to respect and empower people for their knowledge and understanding, we can’t change anything in this country. All our public systems—administration, justice, education, political systems—all of them are designed to keep people with knowledge out. They are all closed systems. Their design promotes mediocrity and mediocrity dominates discussion while the voices of insight and thought are crushed by the loudness of those who possess neither understanding nor compassion.” Rahul Gandhi clubbed together many such rousing statements in his speech.

He sought to champion the democratisation of the party and give people a voice in the power structure. He also evoked his legacy as a member of a political family that has made big sacrifices, including with life, for the country and suggested that he had the credentials to be the agent of change.

Campaign by Advani & Co.

On the BJP’s side, the same theme was advanced by veteran leader L.K. Advani in a nuanced manner, but with immediate results within the organisation. He carried out this campaign mainly through channels in the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, while some of his colleagues, such as Yashwant Sinha, took public positions on the issue. The central thrust of this spirited campaign was that Gadkari should not be given a second term as the corruption charges against the leader from Maharashtra would become a burden on the party in an election year. Advani asserted that Gadkari’s continuation would severely compromise the BJP’s position and leave the party with no strength to highlight the corruption cases against Congress and other United Progressive Alliance (UPA) leaders.

In this campaign, Advani took on Mohan Bhagwat, the powerful RSS sarsangachalak, who had pushed for a second term for Gadkari and in the process got the political arm of the Sangh Parivar to change its constitution so that the re-election of his favourite was legitimised. The campaign by Advani and his associates had its reverberations in the RSS, too, as the organisation’s other top leaders, such as Suresh Soni, Dattatreya Hosabele and Krishna Gopal, saw merit in his arguments and opposed Bhagwat’s support to Gadkari.

It was this multidimensional campaign that ultimately convinced Bhagwat to withdraw his ardent patronage of Gadkari. However, while Bhagwat made sure he had a role in choosing the alternative to Gadkari, Advani and his associates did not dare take their fight to that level too, given the BJP’s ideological and organisational dependence on the RSS.

Silence on policy course correction

That all these changes and the consideration of issues relating to them were merely within the framework of the next general elections was borne out by the silence of both parties on policy course correction. This limitation was most glaring at the Congress’ Chintan Shivir.

The brainstorming at the conclave supposedly covered a variety of issues ranging from “emerging political challenges, socio-economic challenges, women’s empowerment, India’s place in the world and organisational strength”. The leaders divided themselves into five groups to debate these issues intensely, but the 56-point Jaipur Declaration that came out of this exercise was replete with generalised observations that failed to spell out any concrete plan of action. Many of the points had an ironic twist in the context of the functions of the Congress-led government.

The document stated as follows: “Indian National Congress will continue to be at the forefront of fighting corruption at all levels, especially corruption at the bureaucratic and political levels. The Congress-led UPA government has already got the Lok Pal Bill passed in the Lok Sabha and has also undertaken a series of measures to improve transparency and accountability in governance and to fight corruption.” But it said nothing about the five-point plan that Congress president Sonia Gandhi had delineated two years ago at the Burari All India Congress Committee (AICC) session.

The five-point plan had called for reinforcing the idea of state funding of elections; fast-tracking of all cases against public servants, including politicians; ensuring transparency in public procurement; evolving an open, competitive system for industrial and commercial exploitation of natural resources; and shedding of discretionary powers by the Chief Ministers and all Ministers, including those at the Centre, particularly in land allotment. Neither the document nor the briefings about the deliberations carried any reference to this plan, not to speak of an Action Taken Report.

Referring to the agricultural sector, the Jaipur Declaration stated as follows: “Indian National Congress is especially mindful of the significance of the agriculture sector. The prosperity of the Indian farmer is our foremost concern. We will offer a fair and remunerative Minimum Support Price (MSP) for critical farm products and support programmes to increase productivity and profitability of agriculture, horticulture, livestock, aquaculture and other farm-related sectors.” Even as this statement found place in the declaration, the deliberations witnessed studied indifference to the pleas of some Congress leaders, including Vayalar Ravi, the Union Minister for Overseas Affairs, and Ramesh Chennithala, the Kerala Pradesh Congress president, not to dilute the subsidies in the agricultural sector.

Significantly, the document as well as the speeches made by Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh complimented the economic policy direction taken by the UPA government, though there were references to inflation and the burden it had inflicted on the common people. Several leaders and observers had looked forward to some serious reconsideration of economic policy at the Chintan Shivir, but that was not to be. “Clearly, the party has submitted completely to the Manmohan Singh-Chidambaram doctrine that growth-driven neoliberal reforms are essential even to advance new social welfare schemes such as Direct Cash Transfer,” a senior leader known for his advocacy of Nehruvian ideals said.

Congress' new thrust

This assertion of the neoliberal economic plank was followed by an aggressive pitch to enhance the party’s support base in the middle class. The Jaipur Declaration advanced this idea when it delineated the party’s election plank as follows: The Congress will go to the people on the basis of the performance of the UPA government, the promise of stability and good governance, and a restatement of its core values and ideology—secularism, nationalism, social justice, social cohesion, and economic growth for all, especially the aam aadmi representing the poor and the middle class.

The inclusion of the middle class in the categorisation of the aam aadmi left no one in doubt about the new thrust. Sonia Gandhi also made a call to the party to reach out to the middle class, saying that the party must recognise the new changing India, increasingly peopled by youth who are getting more assertive and who want their voices to be heard.

Rajnath Singh, too, stated that his return to the top organisational position did not entail changes in the economic policy parameters advanced by the BJP so far. He said that his primary objective would be to clear the credibility deficit faced by political parties as a whole. Again, it was not clear how he planned to go about it. Rajnath Singh will not have the kind of comprehensive control of the party structure that Rahul Gandhi enjoys in the Congress. He will have to walk the tightrope between the various factions in the BJP and the RSS. At the level of leadership, the shadow of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, too, will be on him constantly. All this adds to the woes of the former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister’s role as BJP president.

Thus, amid the manifold ambiguities in terms of political path, organisational direction and policy orientation, the manoeuvres of the two big parties remain just half-baked measures aimed at stemming the rot in their party structures and making them competent to face the election. The inadequacies of these cosmetic changes are bound to get more and more pronounced in the face of realpolitik questions that are bound to increase in the course of the next few months as the country prepares for a series of Assembly elections, which could also register the rise of smaller and regional parties that challenge the two big parties.