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Poverty of strategy

Print edition : Apr 27, 2002

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The Congress(I) Chief Ministers' conference in Guwahati fails to come up with a political strategy to rejuvenate the party in crucial States such as Uttar Pradesh in order to play the role of a secular alternative to the BJP, which it has assigned to itself.

AMIDST hype and hoopla and boasts that it is the only alternative to the Bharatiya Janata Party at the national level, the Congress(I), at the two-day conference of its Chief Ministers held in Guwahati on April 12 and 13, glossed over the fact that it lacks grass-roots support in many large States, which account for almost half the members of the Lok Sabha.

The conclave was expected not only to take stock of the performance of Congress Chief Ministers, but also to define a growth track for the party in States such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, where it has hardly any mass base. But the party leadership conveyed the impression that it believes that if one ignores a problem for a long enough period, it will go away on its own.

To the dismay of those who had been looking up to the Congress to provide an alternative to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the Guwahati conclave turned out to be merely an exercise in self-adulation. The event was virtually a jamboree, where the traditional Congress culture of prostrating oneself before the high command was in full display. Then there were barbs aimed at Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and the customary innuendo directed at the Sangh Parivar, without, however, any discussion of a logical strategy to counter the communal forces.

The party has evidently chosen to bury its head in sand, instead of addressing the problems that it is facing and taking remedial measures. It is also trying to wish away organisational problems in States where it has lost ground. This attitude was much in evidence at the press conference which Congress president Sonia Gandhi addressed soon after the meet. When she was asked pointedly how the Congress hoped to emerge as the only alternative to the BJP at the national level when it had almost no base in some very large States, she merely said that she was aware of the problem and hoped that the people would give the party a chance after having witnessed the deplorable performance of the NDA government. She gave no hint of any strategy that the party might have to pull itself out of the plight in which it finds itself in States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

When asked whether the party was in favour of forming a coalition government in case it fell short of the majority mark on its own after the next Lok Sabha elections, she first said it was a hypothetical question which did not merit an answer. Then she said, as an afterthought, that coalition governments had proved to be inefficient. This was enough indication for the non-BJP parties that if it came to the crunch, it could still be a repeat of 1999, when Sonia Gandhi rejected the idea of forming a coalition government and Mulayam Singh Yadav, in turn, refused to support a Congress-led government under Sonia Gandhi.

IT was expected that at the Guwahati conclave, which took place at a time when the NDA government appeared to be doddering, some of the problems that facilitated the formation of the BJP-led government in 1999 would be addressed. But the Congress president's view was that people would support the Congress as they were fed up with the NDA government's non-governance. Moreover, she claimed that the Congress was the only party that could provide a secular government and good governance.

However, the ground realities suggest otherwise. Despite the fact that the Congress rules in 14 States, it is nowhere in the race in a large part of the Hindi heartland, mainly in U.P. and Bihar. In Tamil Nadu and West Bengal it has been relegated to the sidelines. In U.P. and Bihar, caste and communal politics has polarised the polity to such an extent that the Congress has been rendered irrelevant. Parties that play on the caste factor, such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), occupy the anti-BJP political space. Therefore, any attempt at government formation in case the party falls short of a majority will require the support of these two parties. In Bihar, RJD chief Laloo Prasad Yadav is with the Congress; but it is unlikely that S.P. chief Mulayam Singh Yadav will support any Congress-led government at the Centre. In U.P., despite tall claims by Congress leaders, the party remains a fringe force. Nothing illustrates the party's predicament better than the fact that it lost its pocket borough, Amethi, to the BJP's Amita Singh in the recent Assembly elections. Amethi is part of Sonia Gandhi's parliamentary constituency. Yet there is no effort by the party to try and form alliances that could bring it back into the reckoning. In Bihar the party survives at the mercy of Laloo Prasad Yadav and seems unwilling to come out of his shadow.

In Tamil Nadu, the party is caught between the two Dravidian parties and lacks a strategy to rebuild itself. In West Bengal, the Left parties and to an extent the Trinamul Congress continue to call the shots. The Congress is still undecided on how to rebuild itself in the State.

In this situation, the brave words from Guwahati sound hollow. But the conclave had its positive points. In her inaugural address to the Chief Ministers, sidestepping the main issue of performance, Sonia Gandhi said: "My directive to you - I normally do not believe in giving directives, but I am making an exception this time - is that there should be no compromise under any circumstances in the Congress-ruled States with those practising the politics of hate." Without mincing words, she said: "Individuals and organisations practising the politics of hate and threatening the very existence of the country's secular fabric must be dealt with without fear or favour, according to law." This statement makes it clear that the Congress wants to position itself as a secular alternative to the BJP, which is seen to have compromised with the communal elements in Gujarat. Describing the situation in Gujarat as representing the "darkest period" in independent India, she said the nation was now looking up to the Congress and the party must "recognise the historic responsibility" that had devolved on it. However, it remains to be seen whether such statements of good intent will be followed by action on the ground.

The Congress has also indicated that there would be no compromise on the issue of governance. If there was any one point that was emphasised the most after secularism, it was that the Chief Ministers must deliver on their promises and prove that the Congress was the only party that could provide good governance. Warning the Chief Ministers against "resting on their laurels", Sonia Gandhi said that the agenda for good governance included proper utilisation of central funds for welfare measures, special attention to the tribal people, women and the weaker sections, emphasis on micro-credit financing, rural employment, housing, drinking water and sanitation, ensuring the welfare of the unorganised sector and the payment of minimum wages, and continuous monitoring and critical appraisal of their own performance. She advised the Chief Ministers to ensure that bureaucrats did not come between the people and the political leadership and that the commitments made to the people were fulfilled. "This is the only way to counter the anti-incumbency factor," she said. Concluding her address, she said: "The Congress governments must stand out as an ever-expanding silver lining in the dark clouds created by the BJP."

YET another message from the conclave seemed to be that the truce between Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Vajpayee was over. The days of bonhomie, when she was the first person to call up the Prime Minister after the terrorist attack on Parliament on December 16, a gesture that brought tears to the eyes of Vajpayee when he recounted it in Parliament, were over. Now it was time for war. At one point she even said that the Prime Minister was "losing his mental balance", a statement that she later regretted. She said that what she meant was that he was losing his cool more often, as was evident from his varying statements regarding Hindutva, Islamic fundamentalism and the communal carnage in Gujarat. Her comment was in response to the statement made by the Prime Minister in Goa during the BJP's National Executive meeting that a government in Delhi was like "sour grapes" for the Congress and that it was not trying to topple his government only because it was in no position to form one. Sonia Gandhi said that the Congress was not interested in toppling games; the NDA government would crumble under the weight of its own contradictions. Throwing the challenge back at Vajpayee, she declared that the Congress was ready to face elections any time.

The Guwahati conclave, basically a stock-taking of the performance of the Congress governments in 14 States, defined the role the party has enjoined upon itself. But the exercise fell short of defining its political strategy. The party realises that a "historic responsibility" has come its way, but it does not know how to fulfil this responsibility. It hopes that the anti-incumbency factor will shove the NDA government out and usher in Congress rule. And it is not clear about its relationship with other non-BJP parties in case it falls short of a majority on its own.

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