The Congress and its nemesis

Print edition : May 09, 1998

The question is not so much who sits in the various Congress committees as what is going to be the party's social base, regional reach and ability to relate to new social forces thrown up by a society in turmoil.

PERHAPS the most dramatic change that has occurred in the nature and functioning of the Indian polity in recent times is the rapid erosion of the Congress(I) as the centerpiece of the political system. Today the party faces a bleak future. It does not appear that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can take its place in the years to come; its current efforts to emerge as a party of the centre, leaving behind the extremist ideological stance while broadening its social base by drawing upon erstwhile neo-left, backward caste and regional formations, are not likely to take it further either in the "numbers game" or in producing a cohesive federal structure of power. The Congress(I) had provided a distinctive core to a political system that was unique in the annals of post-colonial polities, what I had once called the "Indian model" of politics.

Having pursued my empirical-cum-theoretical work on the Indian polity for close to 40 years now, laying out the "Indian model" of politics, I have for long argued that there has been a close correlation between the unfolding of the Congress party and the unfolding of the Indian nation through the first 50 years after Independence (1947-1996). This was a long era of consolidation through internal democratisation, which led me to conceptualise it as the "Congress system". This era was followed by an equally long period of "decline and fall" - until today when the party faces its most serious crisis of survival in the midst of a fast-changing social reality. The current efforts at revival through revamping the party organisation, having failed to carry the electorate by means of a dazzling campaign led by the vestiges of the Gandhi-Nehru family, paradoxically handing the whole effort at restoring to the Congress organisation its erstwhile standing and mission to the same person who had miserably failed at the hustings, are not likely to achieve anything tangible.

All this underscores the near bankruptcy of the party leadership at various levels despite some of its leaders having played a major role (Sharad Pawar being the most outstanding among them) in halting the precipitous decline that had set in during P. V. Narasimha Rao's reign, which saw a government filled by hired individuals and which had lived on borrowed time. Sitaram Kesri's effort to rule by offering "outside support" to two successive coalitions left not just those coalitions but the Congress itself badly mauled. Turning late in the day to the same dynasty that had lost out to other forces both within the Congress and outside for close to 10 years now is like shooting in the dark - nothing but darkness surrounds this once all-encompassing political force which was unique in the annals of post-colonial Third World polities.

The Congress' failure to turn massive turnouts at election meetings into electoral victories has led to the perception that its basic malady lies in organisational lapses and that the emphasis should now be on revamping the organisation "at all levels". Even for this revamping, the directions should come from the same quarters as had been the case earlier despite the fact that ever since the collapse of Indira Gandhi's winning coalition at the grassroots in 1982-83, barring the sympathy votes following the two assassinations (1984, 1991), the party has been losing ground while it is still suffering from the illusion that it can be rebuilt, in a top-down fashion, once again as a dominant "national" party.

Rajiv Gandhi addressing the Congress centenary session in Mumbai in 1985.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Even this is not working, given the continuing infighting in the various State units, which led to Sonia Gandhi's decision to delay the revamping exercise. Nor will the various suggestions coming from P.A. Sangma's Task Force, such as a change in the party constitution, trimming the All India Congress Committee (AICC) set-up or the setting up of "shadow cabinet" type committees following the British example lead to much real change. As for the new party president's bid to undertake yet another tour of various States with a view to arresting its dramatic decline, it did not produce anything better than did her whirlwind campaign during the elections. If anything, even the curiosity among the masses is fast dying out, as became clear at Sonia Gandhi's first post-election meeting at Motihari of Champaran fame.

What is not realised in all these efforts to restore to the Congress its erstwhile national stature is that, largely following the amnesia caused by the Narasimha Rao period, there has taken place a dramatic change in the socio-political conditions in which the Congress will have to steer its future course of action and its attempts at revival, or even survival. The various non-political fixes that have been tried so far (the technological fix of the Rajiv Gandhi period or the economic fix, through integration into the world economy, of the Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh period) have failed to bring the masses back to the Congress. On the contrary, the masses have moved further and further away from it.

Mere rhetoric about giving a grassroots orientation to the party organisation when in fact the party leaders, barring a few, both the seniors and the newly groomed ones, have been at such a large remove from the grassroots is not likely to work. Particularly when there has taken place a massive increase in both corruption and criminalisation and the image of the Congress as a communally inclined, anti-minorities and generally anti-people party has grown. The loss of faith in it on the part of the minorities, Dalits and other oppressed communities came through in both the 1996 and 1998 elections when the party's vote slumped - from around 45 per cent for long to a pitiful 28.8 per cent in 1996 and 25.7 per cent in 1998.

Referring back to Rajiv Gandhi's Congress centenary oration or mimicking Indira Gandhi's style and stance in public appearances will not help restore the lost faith. The question is not so much who sits in the various Congress committees from the AICC to the Pradesh Congress Committee and the District Congress Committees (who are likely to be the new power brokers) as what is going to be the social base of the party, its regional reach and its capacity to relate to the leaders (and parties) thrown up by the caste, community and regional constituents of a civil society in deep turmoil, much of it desperately seeking a place under the sun. The call to "make the Congress an effective instrument to mobilise the people" by making it "work among the Dalits, tribals, youth, women and minorities," precisely those segments that have been systematically alienated by the party, is also not likely to carry conviction.

From the very beginning the Congress had failed to conceputalise socially the design of nation-building, a gross failure considering the enormous diversity and plurality of this society backed by an ancient civilisation. This worked as long as the effective political arena was limited to a relatively homogeneous social class that had emerged from the freedom movement and took charge of the new nation-state. As the political process seeped downwards and the categories of caste and community, region and locality, began to decide the fate of parties and candidates, the Congress leadership started gradually losing out to the new coalitions of power. Today, when the Congress seeks to reconstruct and rejuvenate itself within a "national" framework, it is destined to fail.

Sonia Gandhi's effort to follow in the footsteps of her mother-in-law is grossly misplaced. For while Indira Gandhi still had a national constituency to reach out to through her highly populist appeal of "garibi hatao", all the resolutions and speeches reiterating the same catchwords in a fundamentally transformed social and regional milieu will fail to "mobilise the people".

The failure began long back, starting with the Rajiv Gandhi regime, and continued under Narasimha Rao. Hence the greater appeal of a Jayaprakash Narayan, a Lohia, a V.P. Singh and, at a different level, a Mulayam, a Laloo, a Kanshi Ram or, within the Congress, taking advantage of Indira Gandhi's populist sweep, a Devraj Urs, a Zinabhai Darji or even for a while a Narasimha Rao, all of whom took the radical rhetoric of Indira Gandhi seriously and set about taking steps to implement land reforms and other progressive policies outlined in the 20-point programme. Ever since Indira Gandhi's populist appeal began to wear thin, particularly among Muslims and Dalits and to some extent the tribal people, neither the Congress nor the dynasty has really been able to keep pace with the changes taking place in the social arena.

THE other great failure in the Congress' conception of nation-building from the very beginning has been the illusion that a mere assertion of ideals and objectives would help carry them out in practice. It reflected the Indian cultural syndrome of word being seen as automatically leading to deed. From the Brahminic to the post-colonial period, Indian leadership has been given to high moralising, hoping that it could carry the society and the culture along, fooling itself and in consequence the people at large. There has been no clear strategy to reduce inequity, poverty and injustice, no real radical ideology to provide such a strategy, no properly trained and inspired cadre to carry it out.

The "Nehruvian consensus" was based on a normative and policy framework, a process of what I had once described as intermediate aggregation in relating the centre to the diverse peripheries, a faction-based turnover within and beyond the party, a sincere craving for legitimacy as the central concern of the leadership and a political culture of governance in which there was widespread acceptance of leadership rhetoric by the people at large without insisting on real performance. In carrying this through, Nehru was able to draw upon a whole variety of national and regional leaders of considerable standing - Vallabhbhai Patel, C. Rajagopalachari, G.B. Pant, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai, Morarji Desai, K. Kamaraj, Y.B. Chavan, C. Subramaniam, Jagjivan Ram, and even Charan Singh, many of whom may have disagreed with Nehru's thinking and "socialist" leanings but who nonetheless were part of the coalition of power presided over by him.

In the current hypnosis with what remains of the dynasty there has taken place a devaluation of the role of major leaders whose contributions varied - from Sardar Patel's integration of a far-flung land mass to Kamaraj's coming to the rescue of Nehru himself when he was in the dumps following the China debacle, or the role of C. Subramaniam in ushering in the Green Revolution and reducing the country's dependence on PL 480 imports - or for that matter of the likes of Rafi Ahmad Kidwai. Many others have also made contributions at both national and regional levels.

Of course there was for long after Independence a national - and nationalist - thrust. Both Nehru (and Lal Bahadur Shastri for a while) and Indira Gandhi in her early years as Prime Minister were able to carry the masses with the Congress. The sheer adventure of building a nation, engaging in the enticing project of "development", mass participation in the festivities associated with the novel exercise of voting every few years, with parties and candidates knocking at the doors of the poor and the humble, doing them the great honour of highly educated elites - barristers, doctors, businessmen - addressing illiterate village people and promising them a millennial future, proved too powerful a cocktail for the masses to ignore.

This was until they began to realise that while they had taken this combination of rhetoric and promised policy packages seriously, the real gains of "development" accrued to those with access to power and privilege, and later to markets and technology, and that they were left in the lurch. This is a phenomenon that has become further accentuated following the politics of depoliticisation and the economics of liberalisation and globalisation that started with Rajiv Gandhi and his computer boys and technology missions and continued under Narasimha Rao and his economic wizard, Dr. Manmohan Singh.

Sushil Kumar Shinde pays obeisance to P.V. Narasimha Rao at the AICC session in New Delhi in 1994.-ANU PUSHKARNA

Lacking a real response to the stirrings at the bottom following the spread of the democratic spirit among the people at large (for which the Congress party should be given due credit except for the short authoritarian lapse during the Emergency), the Congress has become a party of the status quo when the whole society has been yearning for change. (This is precisely where the BJP seems to have shown far greater sensitivity.) Neither the technological fixes of Rajiv Gandhi nor the globalising fixes of Narasimha Rao provided a real response to these stirrings.

The beginnings of a response came from the post-Bofors scandal dissent within the Congress led by V.P. Singh whose National Front Government of 1990-91 may have failed to deliver much but whose parting gifts to the nation in the form of the acceptance of the Mandal Commission Report on the one hand and the halting of the rath yatra of L.K. Advani from proceeding beyond Uttar Pradesh and Bihar on the other, as well as the massive reaction to these steps, produced a powerful aggregation of interests at and beyond the grassroots.

Both Mandal and Mandir have since dominated the political arena. True, the Mandalite "third force" failed to produce a genuine coalition representing the poor and the oppressed and the minorities and the BJP, realising that Mandir by itself could not bring it to power at the Centre, began to woo elements in the United Front coalition and broaden its base. I for one have no doubt that the politics of taking mass aspirations seriously, if necessary by moving beyond the prevailing political parties and drawing upon the enormous spaces provided by mass movements, will re-emerge, and not long from now. The BJP-led coalition, although composed of so many incompatible groups pulling in different directions and caught in mutual acrimonies, may still be able to hold for a while, lacking any real challenge in respect of its "numbers game" and given its own desperate effort to extricate itself from its past. But it cannot be more than a most uneasy and unstable transition based on rightists and rightward shifting forces to something far more radical and truly from the grassroots. For even as of 1998 the Congress and the BJP together account for not more than 50 per cent of the national vote. The challenge of real transformation will need to come from outside these two parties.

The Congress has had many insiders. Most of them could not rise above the game of power, of numbers, of cynical manipulation of events. Nearly all of them failed to relate adequately to the system with detachment and objectivity. The result was that while there was no lack of vision or commitments, at least to begin with, there has all along been a lack of the capacity to carry these out, and hence to stop the erosion when it finally began to hit hard. There has been too much preoccupation with just staying in power. In the case of the dynastic figures this has led to high degrees of centralisation and ruthlessness in the pursuit of power while in the case of the others it has produced opportunism in the choice of agents and allies and cynicism in the use of power and in the relationship to the state (a la Narasimha Rao).

In Indian politics, whether on the Left or on the Right, idealism has invariably resulted in an increasing resort to rhetoric than to real dedication to fundamental change. This is true of all parties and leaders that have tasted political power. But it is particularly true of the Congress leadership (dynastic and otherwise) which has for almost 25 years now defaulted on the challenge of history that had been bequeathed to it.

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