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The Congress time warp
December 16, 2003
It is remarkable how election results prompt an onrush of post-facto enlightenment. Till the morning of December 4, the dispossessed remnants of the ancien regime were expectantly awaiting a verdict that would reduce Atal Bihari Vajpayee to a lame-duck prime minister and elevate Sonia Gandhi to a prime minister-in-waiting.
The much-hyped semi-final encounter was intended to set the ground rules for the Lok Sabha polls in 2004. If the Congress continued its victory roll, even taking into account a defeat in Madhya Pradesh, it would open the floodgates of dissension among the NDA partners, embolden the BJP hardliners to re-discover the party's core values and inform a fickle and politicised bureaucracy to rekindle its links with the dynasty.
The Congress had carefully prepared the ground to put Vajpayee on notice and project Sonia's triumph. Therefore, when the electorate turned contrarian, it was Vajpayee who emerged a few inches taller while Sonia was pelted with verbal missiles.
Like Marxist revolutionaries of yore who invariably blamed the collapse of every crazy insurrection on the betrayal by the party leadership, the card-carrying secularists couldn't conceal their anger at Sonia. She has been blamed for uninspiring leadership, bad campaign strategies, inability to forge alliances and for perpetuating the grip of a rootless coterie on the Congress. So intense is the devastation that many Congressmen are preparing for another long spell in the wilderness.
Like most expressions of instant punditry, this despondency overstates the point. Except in Chhattisgarh where Ajit Jogi crossed all bounds, the Congress campaign in the assembly election was sober, dignified and completely in line with the party's preoccupation with development. It was such a campaign that won it Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal in the past and lost it Gujarat. Sonia drew good crowds in most places as did the incumbent chief ministers. She may not have inspired or amused but at least she got a patient hearing.
At best, it could be said that the BJP had a more captivating audio-visual campaign that consolidated its support in the final week of the campaign. The Congress campaign by contrast lacked any spark. Anyone who watched the television promos of a glamorous Vasundhara Raje and compare it to the stodgy portrayal of Ashok Gehlot will gauge the difference.
Yet, despite the shortcomings of the campaign, as the CSDS-Hindu post-election surveys indicate, the Congress held on to its core support base. Like in the past, it outpolled the BJP among Dalits, adivasis and the poor. This was true even in Madhya Pradesh where the Congress vote fell by a staggering 8.8 per cent compared to 1998. Among Muslim voters, of course, the BJP was nowhere in the race.
However, the BJP has successfully narrowed the traditional Congress lead among women voters. These findings are in tune with a pattern that was clearly evident in the general elections of 1998 and 1999. The Congress, it would seem, has lost its umbrella character and has become the party of the aged and those who are on the margins of the development process. Its social profile corresponds to the era of shortages rather than the excitement of the market economy.
When the economic mood is buoyant or when there is a countervailing emotive pull, the Congress finds itself reduced to its core. Its ability to attract an incremental vote, as happened in Delhi where it won the support of the middle classes and the young, depends on either a negative vote or its ability to appropriate parts of the BJP plank.
However, this is precisely the area where the Congress has been wanting. Having lost a share of the Dalit vote to the BSP, it has taken no worthwhile steps to attract the support of either the backward classes or the middle classes. Its symbolism has remained stuck in the 1980s and it has been unable to connect with the aspirations of those who see opportunities from the market economy. The party still remains wedded to a handout culture, an approach that corresponds to the dynasty's belief that politics is a case of noblesse oblige.
Which is why it was amusing to see Sonia go on a tirade about the BJP's assault on secularism, at a function in Aligarh Muslim University last week. Secularism as a poll issue may strike a chord among Muslims -- who now nurture the view that there is an international conspiracy against Islam -- but Muslims aren't the only community that votes.
The younger generation are quite unmoved by this contrived outrage at the singing of Vande Mataram and the recitation of Saraswati Vandana. This is not because the young are bigoted and intolerant of the 'other' but because few can relate to the sanctimonious tone and the profound anti-Hindu bias of the English-language media.
That is where Sonia's Italian origin plays a role. The secularism she espouses is so much at odds with the self-pride generated by India's economic successes that it is seen to run counter to Indian nationalism. This is something the Congress-minded intellectuals just cannot appreciate.
Nothing will suit the BJP more than to allow the Congress and its leader to make secularism the poll plank for 2004.
Yet, it does not make sense to pin the blame for last week's debacle on Sonia alone. Sonia sees herself as the guardian of an inheritance. The problem is that the Gandhi-Nehru legacy has been overtaken by the realities of contemporary life. To endure, the Congress may well need a new leader but above all it needs a redefinition, comparable in scale to the transformation effected by Mahatma Gandhi after 1920.
As things stand today, the Congress is like the Left and stuck in a time warp.