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High command, low expectations
December 12, 2003
When the middle rung in the state capitals is swept aside at the polls, the overlords in New Delhi cannot be seen for dust. While Digvijay Singh and Ashok Gehlot are left to ponder the course of their political lives, the Congress Working Committee -- or some other body of similar irrelevance -- will retreat into its den and gather around to discuss exactly what the election results mean.
If this conclave is true to form, after much deliberation the seasoned politicians will conclude that the chief culprit for this debacle is the anti-incumbency factor. People simply wanted to see a change, and that meant defeat for the Congress governments in Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh.
Right, but wrong too. In a nation as diverse as ours, one expects that all politics is local, and that voters in state elections assess only those who occupy important roles in the state administration. But in a system where local authority can be removed or instated by the decrees of other politicians in New Delhi, the state election must also be read as an assessment of the high command that waves the wand of governance in faraway capitals.
In the Hindi heartland, perhaps more than anywhere else in the nation, the leadership of the national parties is not so much chosen as anointed. It follows naturally that voter sentiment of local politicians is partly a comment on those at whose instance they serve.
That means that the results of the just-concluded election must be read as a thumbs-down for the high command in Delhi. But this message is difficult to get across to politicians who have isolated themselves from all meaningful intra-party dissent -- by first expelling all dissenters and thereafter erecting a wall of sycophants who dare not speak truth to their power.
As a result, a few irrelevant holdovers from the ancien regime now find themselves debating the message from the voters, deliberately oblivious to the fact that it is they who are to blame. Even at this late political hour, with the party's hopes for a return to power in New Delhi appearing more distant by the day, 'introspection' is directed towards convenient conclusions that will keep the same discredited faces at the helm of the organization.
Here, for instance, is Mani Shankar Aiyar, writing in The Indian Express. The next election, he says, will be more about arresting the march of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and less about victory itself! Aiyar has the high command's ear, and is more often than not its mouth too, so this view must be regarded partly as confession. But its honesty isn't inspiring. For even as he admits a different focus than victory -- hardly a rallying cry for the party faithful -- Aiyar is certain that the fulcrum of any alliance against the BJP must be the Congress. The rainbow coalition he urges is nonetheless marked by prominent stripes of Congress colours.
What's wrong with that, one may ask. The defeats notwithstanding, the Congress is the largest of the alternatives to the BJP, and that may well be reason to place the party at the core of a new alliance. In any event, any alliance that is formed must contend with questions of seat-sharing, where the numbers will inevitably come into play.
But wait, here's more -- now Aiyar wants potential partners to eschew the anti-Congressism on which they have flourished. Try making an alliance with that. In fact there is only one word of great significance to this new position, and perhaps inadvertently Aiyar picked it precisely. Flourished. That description of other parties, near the very end of his opinion, should hold the serious attention of the Congress. But rather than ask why anyone should flourish from anti-Congressism, he urges instead that potential partners abandon this stance to serve a larger interest that the Congress has identified! Any party that signs up to that bait-and-switch is unlikely to add very much to the Congress' electoral bottom line.
Perhaps the Congress is right to argue that a progressive secular alliance is needed to strongly compete with the newly invigorated BJP. In our first-past-the post system a few percentage points in voter support can make the difference between a total rout and stunning victory, and alliances can make a crucial difference. Ask Chandrababu Naidu, whose strength is largely derived from the small number of additional voters drawn to him from the BJP's support base. Or even the newly ousted chief ministers, who as Aiyar observes lost not because voters transferred their allegiance wholesale to the BJP, but because they simply transferred them away from the Congress towards other parties.
A rainbow coalition can be immensely competitive, especially if it can arrest the slide of such marginal votes into multiple directions that don't add up. But imagining such an alliance is easier than crafting it, especially if the Congress has already decided it must chart the course.
Any coalition that would predetermine the ascendancy of the Congress -- and especially that of the particular leadership the party now has -- can make no claim to being progressive or secular; moreover it is unlikely to rope in the many constituents needed to mount a fair challenge. Perhaps, to those who have long shouted their historical credentials from the rooftops, their rhetoric now appears as truth. Either the party no longer cares for the progressive secular view, or it has deluded itself into believing itself the sole guardian of it. How else to explain the call for an alliance of mutually reinforcing strengths mixed with the caveat that the course for such an alliance be determined by itself?
The bell for the last lap of this Lok Sabha has just rung, and the casualties on the Congress side have been significant thus far. The earlier Pawar-busting and Mamata-crushing rounds of self-deification required the survival of a few other politicians with meaningful regional or national following -- the Ashok Gehlots and Digvijay Singhs. The party's hopes for a return to power have always rested on this incoherent mix: the family connection to the storied past that Sonia Gandhi provides, plus politicians with strong local support in the provinces. But with at least two of them eliminated by the most recent elections, even this last route appears firmly blocked. Hence the feelers probing potential alliances with those who have 'flourished from anti-Congressism'.
To entrust the progressive view to personalities is contradictory, if nothing else. Above all, the positions of the centre-left must rest upon a respect for diversity, among the voters as well as among those entrusted to represent them. The umbrella organisation that accommodated a stunning array of Indian aspirations in the immediate aftermath of independence is a far cry from the calculating coterie that today advocates secularism and progressive politics. Alliances -- mutually advantageous or not -- will have to wait until the day the party rediscovers the vote in its internal workings and eschews dynasties, when it promotes universal education and health and other entrees off the progressive menu, when its politicians no longer curry favour with the right while taking the left for granted.
The progressive view can be many things, but above all it must include and articulate a vision of progress. The mindless servitude to the chosen few who then make empty gestures in the name of diversity, secularism or the working poor won't cut it anymore. If that's the best the high command can offer, we're in for a few more years of flourishing anti-Congressism.