The wages of disunity

Print edition : March 25, 2005

The reverses suffered by the constituents of the Congress-led UPA in the Assembly elections can be traced back to their inability to forge a united front against the BJP-led NDA.

in New Delhi

Congress president Sonia Gandhi.-SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP

"AAP ney sab kuch bigaad diya" (You have messed up everything). Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) president Lalu Prasad was evidently full of reproach as he virtually screamed the words over the telephone to Jharkhand Mukthi Morcha (JMM) leader Shibu Soren barely 24 hours after the counting of votes in the Bihar and Jharkhand Assembly elections was over. The RJD president was holding his customary durbar at his residence in Patna, and a throng of supporters and mediapersons were present when Soren's call came. As the conversation progressed, the gathering could make out that Soren had called to seek the support of the RJD to form a JMM-led government in Jharkhand. Lalu Prasad responded positively to the request, but not before giving a piece of his mind to the JMM leader.

The gist of Lalu Prasad's harangue at his partner in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the Centre was that Bihar and Jharkhand would not have had a hung verdict if the JMM and the Congress had understood the core political issue involved in the electoral battle. Lalu Prasad explained that he had tried to tell Soren and the Congress leadership that the central issue in the elections to the three Assemblies was the fight against communal forces and for that all secular forces had to stay united. "But the JMM and the Congress did not listen and saw the elections as an opportunity to strengthen themselves and grasp power on their own," he said.

According to the RJD leader, it was such an imprudent pursuit of political goals that ultimately helped the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), comprising the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Janata Dal (United), achieve the kind of electoral gains even they had not hoped to make at the beginning of the election process in Bihar and Jharkhand. Although he was essentially referring to the election results in the two States, his statement could well be treated as a commentary on all the political initiatives the Congress, as the leader of the UPA, had taken in the context of the crucial Assembly elections.

The Congress' political senselessness practically snatched not merely defeat but disgrace too from the jaws of victory. If the run-up to the elections was characterised by a series of unilateral measures that completely violated the party's commitment to the concept of coalition dharma, the post-election situation was marked by another set of steps that challenged the fundamentals of democratic functioning. This, in turn, was followed by a number of moves aimed at damage control.

The bungling at the policy level was evident in Bihar and Jharkhand, where the party was humbled in the polls, and in Haryana, where the party sunk into organisational disorder despite achieving a landslide victory. The story was no different in Goa, where the Congress had toppled the BJP government only to find that it did not have the support of enough legislators to run a government. In Haryana, the party leadership was faced with a revolt when it chose Bhupinder Singh Hooda as Chief Minister over former Chief Minister Bhajan Lal. The former Chief Minister was later pacified, but it remains to be seen how long the inner-party peace will hold.

The net result is that the UPA, which was expected to consolidate its political identity and stature as an effective, well-structured secular combination by scoring gains in the Assembly elections, remained far from accomplishing the objective. The political ramifications of the exercise belied the promise held out by the UPA when it rose to power at the Centre ten months ago. As a senior Congress leader from Madhya Pradesh admitted to Frontline, the negative impact has been such that it even affected the morale of party workers, who would have been otherwise elated because of the landslide victory in Haryana and the public appreciation of the second Budget of the UPA government.

IT all began with the unilateral formation of an alliance with the JMM in Jharkhand, practically forcing the RJD and the Left parties out of the leading secular combination in the State and making them contest separately. The strategy was repeated in a nuanced manner in Bihar, when the Congress entered into a not-so-tacit alliance with the Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP), which was running a virulent campaign against the RJD, the leader of the secular coalition in the State during the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. As the results later bore out, the strategy split the secular vote in both the States, helping the NDA to make impressive gains.

RJD president Lalu Prasad.-RAMESH SHARMA

It is not as though the Congress embarked on the course of self-destruction unknowingly. In fact, as early as October last year, immediately after the elections to the Maharashtra Assembly, there were indications that sections of the party leadership were set out on such a path. A series of discussions in the Congress after the Maharashtra elections repeatedly emphasised the realpolitik of coalition politics as opposed to the principles of coalition dharma. Those who stressed this point lamented that the Sharad Pawar-led NCP made maximum gains in Maharashtra by banking on the positive image of Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. They were also convinced that the RJD would benefit similarly in Bihar and wanted to prevent it at any cost. The refrain was "it should be made known to these regional parties that they need us more than we need them". Slighting the RJD in Bihar and Jharkhand was perceived as the way to achieve this.

This well-thought-out plan was being implemented when Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh unilaterally announced the alliance with the JMM in the first week of January. The calculation was that the JMM-Congress alliance would romp home in Jharkhand and the RJD would be made to depend on it to form a government in Bihar. The understanding with the LJP, the Congress leadership thought and even stated from public platforms, would bolster the movement of a section of upper-caste votes towards the party and ultimately boost the party's tally well beyond the 12 seats it had in the last Assembly. As is evident now, nothing worked and the Congress ended up with something it had never conceived would happen - a revival of the NDA.

Stung by the results in Bihar and Jharkhand, the party's strategy in the post-election situation was marked by a sort of desperation. In Jharkhand, the Congress bent over backwards to mend fences with the RJD, the Left parties and rebel JMM leader Stephen Marandi. In Bihar, the party went back from its tall claims and said that it was ready to support a government led by the RJD. But the series of events that followed the announcement of results in Jharkhand did not bring glory to the party.

A regrouping of parties and the swearing in of a coalition government under the leadership of Shibu Soren followed the change of stance of the Congress, but the Ministry got stuck in controversy the moment it assumed power. The NDA accused the Congress leaders in charge of party affairs in the State, especially Union Minister Priyaranjan Dasmunshi and former Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Ajit Jogi, of putting pressure on Governor Syed Sibte Razi to invite Shibu Soren to form the government. Later, when the NDA paraded 41 legislators that supported it in the 81-member Assembly before President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the charge that the Congress was returning to its old habit of politicising the office of the Governor gained strength.

The initial response of the Congress and the JMM was to assert that the two independent legislators with the NDA - Enos Ekka and Harinarayan Rai - were abducted by goons and forced to support the alliance. But, even political observers who found some merit in the allegation said that Governor Razi should have given the NDA the first opportunity to form the government as it evidently had the support of more legislators in the Assembly. (The BJP-Janata Dal (U) combine has 36 members in the Assembly, and the Congress-JMM 26.)

Terming the installation of Soren as "murder and rape of democracy", the NDA spread its agitation to Parliament, leading to persistent disruption of the proceedings in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. In such a context, the Congress leadership tried to distance itself from Razi's decision. A statement from party president Sonia Gandhi emphasised the need to stick to constitutional norms and propriety while deciding to invite a party or coalition to form the government. Obviously, the party was trying to rely on the positive personal image of the Congress president to regain lost ground.

Equally significant was another damage control initiative launched by the party. Making his first major political statement in the precincts of Parliament, Rahul Gandhi, Member of Parliament from Amethi and son of Sonia Gandhi, sat in a dharna with other first-time MPs of the party, Jitin Prasad, Sachin Pilot, Sandeep Dixit, Naveen Jindal and Ajay Maken, accusing the NDA of unnecessarily disrupting Parliament in the name of the developments in Jharkhand.

According to Hariraj Singh Tyagi, political analyst and former legislator in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly, the initiative could have attracted attention and gained political mileage for the Congress if only the timing was better. He said: "The Congress has obviously made too many mistakes in the present political context and the public will overwhelmingly perceive the Rahul Gandhi dharna as only a gimmick."

Tyagi said that what the Congress needed at present was a clear understanding to take the country's secular politics and functional governance forward. "One cannot say that the track record of the Manmohan Singh-led government is too bad on these counts, but the Congress and the UPA cannot afford to make the kind of mistakes that they committed in the context of the Assembly polls."

The mistakes have given a fresh lease of life to the NDA, particularly its leader, the BJP, which was floundering because of a leadership crisis in the past 10 months. Whether the Congress will get the message of the present political context and take corrective measures is, for the moment, in the realm of conjecture. But one thing is certain: if the Congress is to mend its ways, many of its leaders will have to get out of the conceptual time warp that makes them believe that any one party can dominate the country's politics.

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