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Congress is still groping for strategy
February 02, 2006
Just when the Congress party seemed ready to re-enact a script originally written more than 20 years ago -- when Rajiv Gandhi was anointed Indira's successor -- Rahul Gandhi decided not to take up a leadership position in the organisation. He rejected pressures from sycophants who had been clamouring for his elevation to the Congress Working Committee, if not to a higher position, while glorifying him as the 'symbol of youth', 'light of the future' and a 'spark.' It's hard to say if his decision was based purely on humble self-perception -- 'I'm still learning' -- or a shrewd attempt to convert inexperience and diffidence into political virtue.
No matter what the motive, the decision is welcome. Rahul Gandhi's entry into the Congress' national leadership at this stage would have fanned disgusting forms of hero-worship and strengthened the widely prevalent self-delusion that the party is now ready to return to power at the national level on its own under the 'Nehru-Gandhi' leadership. The toadyism in full display at the Congress's Hyderabad plenary should leave nobody in doubt about the eagerness of party leaders to outdo one another in singing the glories of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi while presenting them as the saviours of the poor and underprivileged.
Thus, on the one hand, the Congress pledged to continue with its conservative and status quoist economic policies and to 'aggressively confront and fight the Left', especially in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, which are headed for assembly elections.
On the other hand, Congressmen also wanted their party projected as strongly Left-leaning. Information and Broadcasting Minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi described Congress as 'India's greatest Left party.' Not to be outdone, a junior functionary (M I Shahnawaz) heaped praise upon Ms Gandhi as an 'extreme Left leader.' And Kerala leader Vayalar Ravi projected her as the leader of 'all the poor countries of the world', like her mother-in-law, no less!
Similarly, the Congress, which had rightly -- and gratefully -- attributed its victory in the 2004 Lok Sabha election to its allies, now suddenly read the riot act to them. It reminded them of 'collective responsibility', and warned them against 'crossing the limits of constructive criticism' in pursuit of 'their own individual party lines', thus weakening the 'credibility' of the United Progressive Alliance. Gone was the earlier humility and desire for consensus.
This contradictory and dual-faced approach bears testimony to the fundamental confusion prevalent in the Congress about its self-identity. It also reveals the yawning gap between the party's ambition to free itself of the constraints of coalition politics, and its limited political base and present image, which by no means guarantee that it will win an absolute Parliamentary majority. The Congress's 'tryst with destiny', promised in the political resolution, remains a fond hope or illusion, not a reflection of ground-level trends.
In Hyderabad, the party only had to look next door, into Karnataka, to comprehend the magnitude of the hypocrisy of preaching 'coalition dharma' to its allies. In Karnataka, the ruling alliance between the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) was plunged into deep crisis primarily because the Congress decided to make common cause with the All-India Progressive Janata Dal (S) led by dissident S Siddaramaiah, who staged a revolt against JD (S) boss H D Deve Gowda and was expelled. The Congress allied with the AIPJD in local body elections. Then, matters got further muddied with Deve Gowda's son Kumaraswamy defecting from the JD(S) with 46 MLAs and joining hands with the BJP.
Similar factors were at work in Bihar, where the Congress, along with Laloo Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal, snatched defeat, so to speak, from the jaws of victory by not allowing Nitish Kumar to form a government last February. The latest Supreme Court judgment strongly indicts Governor Buta Singh for this. Had he not thwarted Nitish Kumar, a fresh election wouldn't have been necessary, which the RJD-led alliance lost to the JD(U)-BJP. Unless the Congress learns and internalises lessons from such self-inflicted tragicomedies, its claim to be inexorably 'destined' to return to power will sound hollow, indeed laughable.
The Congress must also reconcile its president's passionate appeal for austerity, hard work and selfless service, with its own record of lack of probity in public life. This has just been embarrassingly highlighted by the UPA government's deplorable decision to let Ottavio Quattrocchi take money out of his London bank accounts without being fully cleared in the Bofors investigation.
Even more important, the Congress has developed considerable smugness on issues of policy just when a change of direction is called for. Its four main resolutions -- on political matters; economic issues; external security and international affairs; and agriculture, employment and poverty alleviation -- all reflect complacency in some degree or other.
The two resolutions on economic issues, for instance, completely fail to recognise the magnitude of the widespread unemployment or the agrarian distress that plagues the country. From Andhra Pradesh to Maharashtra to Punjab, farmers are finding agriculture increasingly unremunerative, and the growing burden of debt utterly crushing.
In Punjab, they are leasing out their land under 'contract farming', or experimenting (usually unsuccessfully) with non-food crops -- thus suffering a loss of income. In Maharashtra, whole villages have put themselves up for 'sale'. In some villages, farmers have decided to sell their kidneys -- just to survive. Hundreds have committed suicide. In Andhra, more than 5,000 farmers have killed themselves. The spate of suicides hasn't abated after the Congress-TRS replaced Telugu Desam in government.
In such a situation, it's not enough to demand that food subsidies to the poor, and the quantity of foodgrains supplied to them, not be cut. Nor is it right to see the recently launched 'Bharat Nirman' programme as a panacea. Under it, there is only a marginal increase in allocations to irrigation and drinking water. It seeks to finance roads, power-generation and telecommunications expansion largely through reliance on so-called 'private-public partnerships.'
This lets the state off the hook of its responsibility to the public and imposes heavy tolls and high user-charges upon what should be low-priced services for the people. The ground-level economic scene in India is so dismal that "business-as-usual" approaches will not relieve the people's suffering.
On foreign policy and security, the Congress is at best mealy-mouthed, and at worst, disingenuous. For instance, it says India's relations with the United States, are based on reciprocity and transparency. This is complete and utter nonsense. The asymmetry of power between the two, and their recent unequal agreements, including the nuclear deal of July, call for a conscious Indian attempt to chart an independent trajectory. This has become imperative after US Ambassador David Mulford's latest 'vote against Iran, or else' bullying of India. The Congress expresses the pious hope that the impasse over Iran would be resolved through a 'mutually acceptable solution' in the interests of world peace.
This is unlikely to happen. So keen are the Western powers to drag Iran before the Security Council for sanctions that they don't want to negotiate a 'mutually acceptable' solution.
India could again come under pressure to vote against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (although this may not happen immediately). India will succumb to the pressure.
So long as the UPA persists with its basic pro-Western foreign policy orientation, India will be condemned to tail the US on all critical issues of the day: whether Iran, Iraq and Palestine, or terrorism, human rights and climate change.
In terms of the Congress's general vision, there is an uncanny and perhaps unfortunate parallel between now and 1983-1985, when the Congress confronted its penultimate leadership succession (Sonia Gandhi's rise to the party presidency being the last one). Then, Rajiv Gandhi talked of his dream of taking all of India into the 21st century.
Today, the Congress talks of making India an 'economic superpower' by consolidating the (neoliberal) 'reform process.' Rajiv Gandhi's dream remained just that until his tragic assassination in 1991. Similarly, being a superpower will mean nothing while hundreds of millions of Indians lack food security, assured access to drinking water, healthcare and education, as well as equality of social opportunity.
Coupled to this policy disconnect is the Congress's strategy disconnect. The party lacks programmatic clarity and hence has no discernible appeal for the poor and downtrodden. It has no clue as to how to mobilise political support. Its thinking about building winning social coalitions is blurred and hazy.
The Congress has failed to modernise and democratise itself organisationally. It is still praying for manna from heaven -- in the shape of leadership and charisma of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. But it should know that dynasties are no substitute for radical policy reform or for political strategising.