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Will the Congress get its chemistry right?
July 14, 2003
Longtime readers of this column know that I am no fan of the Congress (I); nevertheless one must give credit where it is due. And at the recently concluded Shimla brainstorming session the Congress (I) seems to have taken three eminently sensible decisions -- which, if pursued in good faith, should go some way to restoring the party to health.
Why should that please us? Because, on general principle, it is a good thing for a ruling party to be kept on its toes by the thought of an alternative government waiting in the wings. The arrogance caused by lack of a viable substitute is good for neither the country nor the party. (I hope no citizen ever forgets the Congress regimes of 1971-1977 and 1984-1989.)
So, what were the three decisions? First, the Congress (I) has formally accepted the need for allies if it is ever to regain power in Delhi. Second, it seeks pre-poll alliances. Third, it has declared its intent to project Sonia Gandhi as the potential prime minister should it win a majority.
The first decision marks an absolute reversal of the stance adopted at Pachmarhi (when the party last held such a session). Then, it was still caught in the dream of a single-party government. I am not saying that coalitions are inherently better, but we are living in an era where coalitions are the rule -- and it is time that the Congress (I) faced facts.
The second resolution is good because it honours the intelligence of the Indian voter. Go to the people, state openly who you identify as friends and foes, and take their mandate. Post-poll patch-ups -- the United Front ministries of 1996-1998 come to mind -- have a habit of unraveling in an ugly fashion. Finally, if you are going so far, you may as well tell the people who their prime minister could be rather than impose an I K Gujral on them!
So far, so good, but it is at this point that matters become more tricky. Who exactly has the Congress (I) identified as potential allies? They are: a. the Left Front, b. the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, c. the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, d. the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra, e. the DMK or the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, and f. the traditional set in Kerala. This leaves a vast swathe -- Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Orissa, Assam -- out of the picture, but, presumably, the Congress (I) is confident of fighting on its own in these states. Let us now examine how the alliance could work out in individual states.
The Left Front is a force to reckon with in 64 Lok Sabha seats, spread over West Bengal (42), Kerala (20), and Tripura (2). Can the Congress (I) really afford a pre-poll alliance, and would the Left go along? I predict that in these states there will be no pre-poll alliance, only a pre-poll understanding -- namely that a post-poll coalition is a certainty!
Turn now to giant Uttar Pradesh. The price of forging a coalition with Mulayam Singh Yadav shall be a very heavy one -- the Congress (I) must be prepared to play second fiddle for the foreseeable future in India's largest state (and the home of the Nehru-Gandhis). The Congress (I) tried that trick in Tamil Nadu in 1971, and it has never since regained its former pre-eminence. Is the party ready to write off Uttar Pradesh? (And probably make some concessions to the Samajwadi Party in other states?)
There is no such problem in neighbouring Bihar, where the Congress (I) is already a member in the Rashtriya Janata Dal-led ministry. Some minor haggling over seats is inevitable, but that it shouldn't take long to resolve. What will be harder, however, is trying to explain elsewhere why the Congress (I) is embracing Laloo Prasad Yadav -- a byname for poor governance...
The Nationalist Congress Party has a unique record. It sits in government along with the Congress (I) in Maharashtra, but fought against it in Gujarat and still continues to oppose it in Kerala and Meghalaya. I suppose something can be worked out but only at the cost of Sharad Pawar's self-respect. He walked out on the issue of Sonia Gandhi's nationality; can he now accept her as the coalition candidate for prime minister?
In 1999, Sonia Gandhi proclaimed from Rashtrapati Bhavan that 272 Lok Sabha members supported her. That wasn't true. Add the number of seats in Uttar Pradesh (including Uttaranchal), Bihar (plus Jharkhand), Maharashtra, West Bengal, Kerala, and Tripura. It comes to just 251. The Congress (I) flunked its maths test in 1999, will it get its chemistry correct five years later?
T V R Shenoy