Troubled party

Print edition : February 10, 2006

As Congress leaders meet for the AICC plenary in Hyderabad, a series of mistakes and miscalculations raise doubts about their sagacity to survive in the era of coalition politics.

in New Delhi

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi at the party's plenary in Hyderabad.-A. MAHESH KUMAR/AP

THE major topic of discussion at a year-end gathering in the house of a senior Congress leader in New Delhi was the silver jubilee conference of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) being held in Mumbai. The clutch of Congress leaders, Ministers and middle-level activists made no effort to conceal their glee at the developments in the BJP conference, which was characterised by confusion in terms of ideological and organisational initiatives as well as by personality-oriented power play.

Commenting on the happenings, a senior Congress leader from South India predicted that the principal Opposition party would slide down to new depths both politically and organisationally. He also maintained that this would help the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre to have a smooth sailing and that it would facilitate the reorganisation of the party as well as the building up of a strong second-line leadership. He also predicted that the All India Congress Committee (AICC) plenary, which was to take place in January in Hyderabad, would herald the launching of new schemes and action plans, starting with the elevation of Rahul Gandhi, now representing Amethi in the Lok Sabha, to the Congress Steering Committee (CSC).

It was indeed an eloquent expression of confidence at the party's future prospects. But at another level it also betrayed a sense of over-confidence and complacency. A number of non-Congress, non-activist people at the gathering made this observation to some of the leaders present, but it was brushed away. Indeed, hardly three weeks later, as many of these leaders headed for the party plenary, the observation about over-confidence and complacency seemed to acquire deeper and more meaningful dimensions.

A series of events relating to issues ranging from administration to political strategy have highlighted the sense of complacency and drift. Specifically, there were allegations about snooping on political rivals, revelations about help given to a businessman who is an accused in a payoff scandal, and gross mistakes in reading an emerging crisis in the coalition government the party headed in Karnataka.

In the process, the UPA government's credibility has taken a beating and the moral authority of its leadership has been called into question. It has also accentuated the doubts about the capacity of the Congress to adapt to the country's `coalition-oriented' political reality. In many ways, the developments in the first two weeks of the new year added strength to apprehensions that the Congress cannot hide or do away with its authoritarianism, corruption and misgovernance.

The events started with the allegations from Samajwadi Party (S.P.) leader Amar Singh that the Congress leadership had engineered the tapping of his residential telephone lines (see separate story). Even as the truth of this allegation was being looked into, the government was rocked by the revelation that the Union Law Ministry had initiated proceedings to allow courts in the United Kingdom to de-freeze the bank accounts of the Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, allegedly the prime beneficiary of the payoffs in the Bofors howitzer gun deal.

The payoffs allegedly involved in the deal had virtually triggered off a political turmoil in the 1980s, leading to the downfall of the government led by Rajiv Gandhi, the husband of Congress president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. The fact that Quattrocchi was a close family friend of Sonia Gandhi added fuel to the revelation.

In concrete terms, the revelation was that Additional Solicitor-General B. Dutta had visited the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) of the U.K. on December 22, with the request to de-freeze two bank accounts in BSI AG Bank in London. The Department of Personnel and Training under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had approved Dutta's trip on November 25.

The revelation led to a series of flip-flops from the government as well as the Congress leadership. Both Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi stated repeatedly that they were not aware of Dutta's trip. As the flip-flops continued, the credibility of the country's premier investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), also took a beating. Its leadership had first publicly opposed the Additional Solicitor-General's move but later said that it had indeed authorised the action of de-freezing the accounts. That this volte-face came after Manmohan Singh put the blame on the CBI clearly points to an afterthought in the investigating agency.

Even so, the Congress maintained that its leadership, particularly Sonia Gandhi, had nothing to do with the de-freezing of the Quattrocchi accounts. Interestingly, the arguments advanced in support of the claim merely affirmed that the malady of sycophancy continued to inflict the party. One argument put forward by sections of the party was that the whole episode was the result of the political insecurities of Law Minister Hans Raj Bharadwaj. The Minister's term in the Rajya Sabha ends in the next two months and he wanted to ensure re-entry into Parliament and the Ministry, it says.

In his own wisdom, the Congress sources say, Bharadwaj embarked on the U.K. mission thinking that this way he would become more acceptable to the Congress president than others in the contention for the Rajya Sabha seat. (Other claimants include heavyweights such as Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh.) Those who spread this story were apparently convinced that they were helping Sonia Gandhi, but the `contradictory' impact is evident.

In the public eye, the administrative misdemeanours involved in the Quattrocchi issue as well as the campaign built up around the phone tapping issue were clearly working against the optimism shown by the senior South Indian leader.

The BJP, which had displayed an overwhelming sense of demoralisation through its silver jubilee celebrations, found two new potent issues. And along with it came some organisational vibrancy too. The party leadership launched a number of agitations against the "authoritarian, fascist methods of the Congress reminiscent of Emergency days" and its "track-record of corruption, which can not be hidden". The BJP rank and file could indeed believe that the new president, Rajnath Singh, had brought some luck, at least on the campaign front, for the party.

But within days the Congress proved that the BJP's luck was not confined to campaign issues. The developments in Karnataka leading to the crisis in the Dharam Singh-led Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition government proved that the principal secular party of the country was keen to surrender the advantage to its main rival, even in terms of power (see separate story).

There is little doubt that the predicament in Karnataka was largely the creation of a section of the JD(S), which wanted a greater say in the government and was ready to acquire it at the cost of any ideological and political compromise. But the fact that the Congress leadership in the State as well at the Centre facilitated such a departure by a coalition partner cannot be wished away. According to sources in the JD(S), its leader and former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda had warned sections of the Congress leadership about an impending crisis and sought corrective steps. But, all he met with was silence. The Congress president apparently could not even find time to meet the former Prime Minister.

Interestingly, when Sonia Gandhi restructured the CSC prior to the Hyderabad plenary, she gave the maximum representation to Karnataka, with six of its 20 members coming from the State, including veterans such as Oscar Fernandes and B.K. Hariprasad. And yet, none of them could gauge the trouble. According to many Congress leaders themselves, the appointments had no rationale as four of these Karnataka CSC members belong to one district and, more significantly, none of them represented the dominant Lingayat or Vokkaliga communities in the State.

By all indications, what goaded the Congress to adopt the "don't care" attitude towards Deve Gowda was its success in the recent local body elections. The party had an alliance with the charismatic Other Backward Classes (OBC) leader Siddaramaiah, who left the JD(S) last year to resurrect the All India Janata Dal, and emerged as the single-largest winner pushing the JD(S) to a distant second and the BJP to a poor third. This success imparted a feeling in the Congress that it would make major gains in a mid-term poll to the Assembly.

It remains to be seen how far this hope will be realised. However, there are sections in the State party that are questioning a short-term strategy for a coalition on the basis of such medium-term projections. A middle-level Congress worker asked Frontline rather rhetorically: "What will happen if a JD(S) rebel-BJP government completes its full term and does reasonably good work?"

Clearly, the Congress has not been able to hide its spots, even with regard to its political mistakes. Seven years ago, when the Congress had its brainstorming session at Pachmarhi in Madhya Pradesh, the party took a position against coalition politics, which of course was corrected five years later at the Shimla conclave. It was at the Shimla conclave that the party first accepted that coalition politics was the predominant factor in the country's political firmament. Following that, Sonia Gandhi herself took the lead in forging alliances with various parties, including the one with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), with which the Congress had major differences. This sagacious move helped the Congress regain power in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.

Political observers expected a creative pursuit of coalition politics from the Congress following the 2004 victory and the formation of the UPA government. However, the party has shown periodically that it is more interested in pursuing its own sectarian interests at the cost of coalition dharma. This was evident from the very first election that the UPA faced - for the Maharashtra Assembly - after the formation of the government at the Centre. Although the Congress won fewer seats than its ally, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), it forced the NCP to give up the Chief Minister's position. Similar violations of coalition dharma followed in Jharkhand and Bihar too, helping the BJP gain electoral victories in spite of the deep-set ideological and organisational confusion in the Hindutva party. All this has led to the development of widespread resentment, albeit in varying degrees, against the Congress, even among UPA partners such as the NCP and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).

The discussions with the United States on the proposals for the separation of civilian and military nuclear facilities have raised many eyebrows as the Indian proposal has been widely circulated in the U.S. among legislators and academics even though they remain a secret in India, even for Parliament. This has led to protests even among the supporters of the UPA government, including the Left parties.

In this context, the political foibles and administrative faults are goading many non-Congress, non-BJP centrist parties, including some in the UPA, to think in terms of a grand alliance against the Congress. So far, the support of the Left parties as well as the restraining influence the Left has on parties such as the S.P. and the RJD have helped the UPA survive. But the moot question is how far the Left will be able to persist with the survival-inspiring act, especially if the Congress refuses to change its style of functioning.

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