Credibility crisis

Print edition : February 10, 2006

The crisis the Congress faces has its roots in the way it has treated its alliance partners in its keenness to strengthen its own base.

PURNIMA S. TRIPATHI in Hyderabad

THE Congress was holding its 82nd plenary session in Hyderabad in the midst of many crises. The party has to contend with a political crisis, factors contributing to it coming from within and from its partners in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Internal disturbances such as the one caused by the Volcker controversy may be managed with damage control exercises. However, the challenges posed by its UPA partners are more serious.

One such challenge emanated from Hyderabad itself. The Telengana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) president and Union Labour Minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao announced on the eve of the plenary that he would quit the UPA if the Congress did not keep its promise on the creation of a Telengana State within the next two or three months. Chandrashekhar Rao may have come to be known as the "deadline man", but this time his threat carried a special significance because it coincided with the plenary and the crisis looming in Karnataka. The Congress, however, dismissed the TRS threat as a mere bubble, even as it put the ball in Deve Gowda's court in Karnataka by blaming him for harming secular forces.

The fact that Chandrashekhar Rao is drumming up support for his cause among the other alliance partners could seriously damage the Congress before long if corrective steps are not taken immediately. Chandrashekhar Rao, talking to Frontline, on the eve of the plenary, accused the Congress of being a "betrayer" of the people's mandate by not taking steps for the creation of Telengana. "My sole agenda is a separate State of Telengana. Once they joined hands with me, it meant their agenda too was the same, and the people of Telengana gave them the mandate in both the Assembly and the Lok Sabha elections. Now, except for promises and hollow words, nothing has come. What prevents the Congress from taking the initiative when even the President in his joint address and the Prime Minister in his first press conference committed themselves to the creation of Telengana?" he asked.

Chandrashekhar Rao is frustrated with the Congress' " dilly-dallying" and declared that "there is a limit to my patience and I am beginning to feel that the Congress is not serious about fulfilling its promise. I have given them two months' time for the last time now so that they can announce their stated position, otherwise I'll quit," he warned. He said he would leave no stone unturned to build pressure on the Congress before he finally quits the UPA. "I'll consult all the non-Congress, non-Left UPA partners. I have the support of 26 parties," he said, reiterating, "it is either exit TRS or exit Telengana [birth of Telengana] this time." He stressed that if he quit the UPA, he would ensure that the "Congress cuts a sorry figure in the next election".

Whether he carries out the threat or not, one thing is obvious: the contempt with which the Congress treats its alliance partners. Reacting to the TRS threat, senior Congress leaders dismissed the entire issue as unworthy of comment, while the State leaders boasted that the TRS could go whichever way it wanted. "We are not dependent on them," said Andhra Pradesh PCC president K. Kesava Rao. According to Kesava Rao, the TRS was nothing more than a small nuisance for them, having no real damage potential. "If we are still trying to go along with him, it is because we don't want to give wrong signals to others at the Centre. Otherwise, he is on an absolutely losing wicket. Our partners should not try to misuse our politeness," Kesava Rao said.

This is not the first time the Congress has left an alliance partner feeling cheated. In Jharkhand, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leader Shibu Soren was left licking his wounds when his hasty decision to stake his claim to form the government, which of course was the Congress game plan, led to his downfall. Once the Soren saga backfired and he became an embarrassment, the Congress washed its hands off; it even went to the extent of declaring that the Prime Minister and the Congress chief had "no hand in it". The misfired political coup in Jharkhand has kept Soren still in the wilderness, and it is no wonder that he is keen to join hands with the TRS in order to expose "the Congress' poor track record in keeping promises". Chandrashekhar Rao said Shibu Soren had agreed to join a rally organised by him in the first week of February to expose the Congress.

In Bihar, Ram Vilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party, has his own list of complaints against the Congress. On the day the results of the Bihar Assembly election were announced, and Nitish Kumar was about to hold the reins of power, Paswan held the Congress responsible for the victory of communal forces in Bihar. "If they had not taken me for a ride and supported me, there would have been a secular government in Bihar today and there would not have been another round of elections," he said. In Maharashtra, too, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) is another not-so-happy partner. The way the Congress arm-twisted the NCP after the Maharashtra Assembly elections to grab the Chief Minister's post although the NCP had won more seats still has NCP leaders smarting. According to Chandrashekhar Rao, NCP leader Sharad Pawar too has extended his support to him.

In Uttar Pradesh, the State with the largest number of Lok Sabha seats, the ruling Samajwadi Party (S.P.) has taken up the cudgels against the Congress. Chief Minister and S.P. president Mulayam Singh Yadav has accused the Congress of not only hatching a conspiracy to dismiss his government, but trying to kill him.

According to political observers, the crisis that the Congress now faces is that of credibility with its alliance partners and the dichotomy of keeping its partners in good humour along with executing strategies to expand its own base. As a senior Congress leader admitted, it is a tightrope walk.

The big brother attitude was reflected in the political resolution it passed at the plenary on January 22. While patting its own back for fulfilling its responsibility towards coalition politics, the Congress reminded its allies that they should also set a "limit" and maintain "discipline". The resolution says: "A coalition means that all parties in partnership follow a basic discipline, especially in public. In their anxiety to protect and project their own individual party line if any coalition partner crosses or is seen to be crossing the limits of constructive criticism, then the coalition is weakened and its public credibility eroded. There is a thing called collective responsibility in a coalition that must be adhered to at all times."

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