Home > News > Columnists > Ashwin Mahesh
Lose the Ladyship
April 18, 2003
The upcoming round of assembly elections will be the semi-final, the BJP says, before the great race begins in earnest. Party stalwarts claim that victory in Gujarat -- the quarter-final -- has revitalised the organisation, after a string of electoral losses during the life of this Lok Sabha. From here, it's on to the heartland with Hindutva front and center, and thereafter onward to the final prize -- another turn at the central government. Every other week, one leading spokesman or another repeats this expectation, and it is fairly plain that come election time in Jaipur and Bhopal, we will see great exhortations of the faithful along these lines.
Congress hopes are similarly two-stepped; however the party is quick to add its own interpretation of recent events. Namely, that whatever momentum Gujarat may have lent the BJP, that was quickly squashed in the most recent round in the hill states. This post-quarter-final quarter final, Sonia Gandhi points out, is conveniently overlooked, as though voices in Shimla and Shillong are mere ghosts in the political wilderness. Moreover, the fourteen-or-so states presided over by Congress chiefs are the real indicators of Indian voter preferences -- how can a single election in one medium-sized state compare against the evidence of the 400 million who live under Congress rule? It's a semi-final, alright; we'll win convincingly, and come 2004, repeat the tarring for good measure.
You can take your pick of these theories, or -- like I do -- you can dismiss these as mere straws in a shifting wind. It is possible that state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi will clear some of the fog, but it is just as likely that voters will pick one party for the Vidhan Sabhas and another for Parliament. At this time, what matters more is not an early pigeon-holing of party platforms and the favor they find with voters. Instead, we should look at something far more revealing -- why do the parties view the scheduled assembly elections the way they do?
Here, the BJP's position is easier to take at face value. Whatever the after-effects of elections in Gujarat, it remains true that since Atal Bihari Vajpayee was last sworn in as the prime minister, there has not been much occasion for electoral cheer. The losses have far outnumbered the victories. This explains the extraordinary emphasis on what Gujarat means; the BJP must make the most it can of the little that is available. The positive re-interpretation of assembly elections during the last four years requires that the compelling political victory in Gujarat be treated as the only one that matters. Little elections in tiny states simply don't count, especially when lost.
But who won? The Congress electoral strategy for the Lok Sabha hinges almost singularly around this question. On that side of the battlefield, the semi-final is not a pre-election test of the voters' intent. Instead it is a wary cat-and-mouse game between the high command and a restive bunch of local chieftains, each harboring an ambition beyond his own fiefdom. The closer Sonia Gandhi can get to the ballot-wire without overt challenges to her position, the more likely that party parliamentarians and allies will back her for the PM's job when the counting stops. The leadership in New Delhi prefers that the unresolved question -- can we be led by a 'foreigner'? -- remain unasked until it is absolutely necessary, at which point it will insist there can be only one response -- yes.
But in fact, the truth is -- and has always been -- that Sonia Gandhi's position is vastly compromised. Congress' failure is not the inability to accept this answer, but its refusal to ask the more compelling question. Shall Mrs Gandhi lead by the widely accepted affirmation of the many, or her opportune anointment by the few? This question should concern us regardless of our own political preferences; every citizen has an interest in bringing the best possible slate of choices to the ballot.
But that isn't all; even the calculated self-interest of the party should have led to a dilution of Sonia's power long ago. The Sonia Gandhi leadership is indefensible, except from the optimism that she might help the party recapture power. Any other claim -- skill of leadership, visionary policy, administrative dexterity -- cannot be made with sufficient evidence. The question 'why should Sonia Gandhi be leader of the party?' is mostly answered thus -- 'because there is no one else who can win.' Perhaps, but that presupposes that winnability is inherent in being a telegenic Gandhi. Without that presumption, there is no reason why Her Ladyship can treat chief ministers as though they serve at her pleasure, and not at the instance of the voters in individual states.
The considered wisdom is that Congress is unable to raise its vote-share because a significant portion of the population will not vote for a foreign-born leader. This argument, however, has come chiefly from outside the party, and from the one person within -- Sharad Pawar -- who believed the leadership was sufficiently within his reach that a vigorous attempt to capture it must be made. The 20 to 30 per cent of voters who have stayed within the Congress fold haven't been greatly swayed by this split. Outside Pawar's own dominion, the old order retains its original claim to governance, or we wouldn't see this many chief ministers of the Congress persuasion.
Still the few who do desert the Congress purely from their opposition to Sonia matter. The first-past-the-post system in a multiparty democracy exaggerates the political power of each supportive subgroup. This is especially damaging to the Congress party, whose constituent subgroups are many, unlike the more homogeneous cluster that forms the BJP's base. Without the active and purposeful support of each constituent group, the Congress will remain unable to reach the plateau from which its position as the natural party of government becomes obvious once again. The wide distribution of its popularity has also paralysed it, preventing the genesis of new ideas that all constituent groups can embrace, and generating widespread disaffection.
Earlier, in examining the temporary confluence of interests between two different ideological streams in India, we observed how the electoral arithmetic is altered by New Left voters casting their ballots for the BJP. An inevitable consequence of that cross-over is that in order to keep the humanist progressives from accepting the crumbs of political gain they see in the New Right, the Congress will have to make a clearer separation between itself and the BJP on an ideological basis. Since the Right is firmly occupied by the BJP and its allies, the simplest path to such distinction lies in lurching left. But this time, rather than a return to the discredited welfare state, Congress must cast its lot with the constitutional nature of the Republic, for it is here that its opportunity for uniqueness lies.
That uniqueness, though, cannot tolerate blessed inheritance. The obstacles are self-evident, but in many respects they are all traceable to a founding flaw. Sonia Gandhi does not have the standing to restrain disaffection at her questionable ascension. This does not mean that the Congress should get rid of her -- hardly! She remains a significant political asset, able to draw voters in some instances, and is a reasonable representation of the party's connection to a storied past. What she is not, however, is someone of such overarching stature and accomplishment that her pre-eminence at the top of the Congress hierarchy is necessary. Indeed, the essence of pluralism, secularism, and all the other -isms that support the party's professed political image demands that no single view shall be dominant within the organisation to the point of expelling dissent.
Any dreams of return to the throne at Delhi must recognise this; without it those Cabinet roles Congress leaders now imagine themselves in will vaporise into the dust of same-old-servitude. This means a return to a meaningful Congress Working Committee, a greater embrace of collective responsibility and authority, and the genuine independence of local leaders. This also means a commitment to core welfare issues -- health, education and shelter for the needy -- demonstrated by increased funding for them and founded upon rational ideas that appear defensible beyond the first examination. Indeed, Congress's success in state governments demonstrates this amply; where local leaders rely on their own strengths to a considerable degree, and wield Sonia as the important vote-fetching tool she is, the party has fared well.
The lady still counts, but the ladyship doesn't. Her pre-ordained eminence remains the single biggest obstacle to a potentially unified Congress that can bring meaningful leadership -- or opposition -- to Parliament. True, there is more to the failures than this alone; the party remains tainted by the broad brush of excessive corruption, for one. But those other limitations can be overcome, in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, for eg, local Congress chiefs have mustered sufficient organisational and other skills to sever the connection to the disdained past. In Sonia Gandhi, however, that unwelcome link is born again, for she is heir not only to the imagination of India that the old Congress provided, but also to the memory of how awfully wrong that dream turned.
To Sonia Gandhi's own political aspirations, it may seem helpful to postpone the tussle over her role, one that will likely lead to a dilution of her power. She may hope that the numerical juggling that has passed for representation in recent years will -- this time -- be sufficient to gain her the ultimate prize. Electoral politics being what it is, one cannot rule this out! But India cannot be continually hostage to the ambitions of a few who dare not love the nation more than themselves. Indeed, it is in reconnecting to the imagination of a past leadership that truly loved India that one finds Congress' visage of historical significance, and a rightful claim to be the natural party of government. The first step in that direction is also the biggest one -- downgrade the monarchy. To be first among equals in government should be sufficient reward for any political pursuit.
Lose the ladyship, do it now.