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Congress must correct course or perish

March 10, 2012 10:55 IST

Praful Bidwai deciphers the recent election verdict's real meaning.

People in five states comprising one-fifth of India's population have delivered a devastating blow to the Congress party in the just-concluded assembly elections. That's the main message from the verdict, although its precise thrust varies from state to state. The results have altered India's political landscape and put the United Progressive Alliance at a disadvantage in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

The Congress faced a humiliating rout in India's biggest state, Uttar Pradesh, where it was reduced to the fourth position, adding just six seats to its poor 2007 tally of 22. This performance more or less reverses the gains the party made in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, when it won the equivalent of 90-100 assembly segments (of a total of 403) and got an opportunity to rebuild its organisation after a prolonged decline.

The Congress lost the anti-incumbency advantage it enjoyed in Punjab, where it was so confident of forming the next government that its chief ministerial nominee Amarinder Singh met the state's governor a day before the results were announced. In Uttarakhand, the Congress barely emerged as the largest party, although it failed to win a majority. It suffered a stunning defeat in Goa. None of this is compensated by its victory in Manipur, where the opposition has disintegrated, and where crude realpolitik and money power ensured easy wins.  

The Congress leadership must reflect self-critically and painfully candidly on why the party has performed poorly at the hustings in recent months, including the West Bengal elections, the Maharashtra municipal elections, by-elections in other states, and now these five states. Politically, the party is clearly set on a downward course. If it looks for facile and superficial solutions, it will only accelerate its decline and make course correction impossible.

The UP election result has changed the political complexion of the Hindi belt, if not all of India. The staggering victory achieved by the father-son duo of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav sets a record: the Samajwadi Party won the largest number of seats bagged by any party in two decades, pushing the Bahujan Samaj Party to a distant second.

Some commentators have attributed the UP result to fundamental changes in electoral dynamics and growing irrelevance of identities such as caste and religion. They argue that Indian society has become more respectful of meritocracy and a new kind politics is emerging. "India has changed. It will vote for those who understand, respect and embrace this change." Some others hold that voters are now choosing "the future over the past, performance over rhetoric, sincerity over cynicism,… measured realism over flights of fantasy."

Yet others say the result is explained by a severe erosion of the BSP's social base. Not only Muslims and many upper-caste Hindus, but many Dalits too moved out of its fold because they got nothing but symbolic patronage, not substantive empowerment, from her. Her arrogance and hubris, and her inaccessibility, also contributed to her poor showing.

Another factor, they speculate, was the emergence of Akhilesh Yadav as a suave and affable campaigner. He has tried to transform the SP's image by disassociating it from musclemen, and projected it as a modern party not opposed to the English language and computers. The SP, it's claimed, might even have attracted some Dalit votes.

It's undeniable that many upper-caste Hindus who had strongly supported the BSP to defeat the SP in 2007 got disillusioned and deserted the BSP because it had nothing to offer them. Many Muslims gravitated to the SP once they realised that the Bharatiya Janata Party wasn't a threat and the BSP was unlikely to win. Some were tempted by the SP's promise of an 18 percent quota for them in government jobs

However, there's no convincing evidence that significant numbers of Dalits moved away from the BSP. The party's estimated vote-share declined from 30.4 to 25.9 percent. This doesn't suggest much erosion of its Dalit base, which by most accounts got consolidated during the campaign.

Although the BSP's sarvajan platform of a broad social coalition including the savarnas (upper castes) didn't work, BSP candidates drew huge crowds, largely composed of Dalits and Most Backward Classes. It defies credulity that any Dalits would rally behind the SP, a party of the Yadavs, their traditional oppressors.

The primary explanation for the SP's stunning victory lies in an identity-related factor: consolidation of an anti-Dalit sentiment among the savarnas. This had little to do with poor governance or Mayawati's hubris. In fact, she ran a passable administration by UP standards. She was pretty strong on law and order, and sent a number of notorious criminals to jail, such as Raja Bhaiyya. Her last tenure saw less corruption than under many previous chief ministers.

The savarna resentment arose from many class- and caste-related factors. The most important was that the BSP's was not just a pro-Dalit government or one led by a Dalit party; it was a Dalit government -- an abomination for savarnas. Among other factors was the relative success of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which has pushed up wages. Upper-caste landowners and employers resent this. Mayawati also started collecting electricity bills and the sales tax, which savarna shopkeepers rarely pay.   

Much has been made of the abuse of the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by the Dalits to harass savarnas. Much of such abuse took place at the behest of the upper castes who got FIRs filed against their rivals, which it's easier to do than under normal laws. In many respects, Mayawati's governance was certainly better than the goonda raj widely attributed to Yadav, with his links with shady businessmen and Bollywood stars.

It's true that Mayawati splurged hundreds of crores on Dalit theme parks, with statues and huge sandstone elephants. But as I found out during a recent visit to Lucknow, this is much less resented by many savarnas than imagined: they believe these monuments have brought a unique architectural distinction and novelty to the city. 

In any case, draining the state's exchequer to favour pet projects, business cronies and contractors isn't a BSP monopoly. It has been practised in UP for a long time -- and with a vengeance by the SP. Indeed, certain business groups with many skeletons in their cupboards are salivating at the prospect of lucrative infrastructure and other state-sponsored contracts under the SP.

The truth is, Mayawati was loathed, hated and resented because she is a successful Dalit leader, headed India's largest state, and is UP's first-ever chief minister to complete his/her term. Not least, she's a woman who is too independent-minded and angular, and too much of a maverick, to be amenable to pressure.

The SP was well-placed to exploit the anti-Dalit upper-caste backlash because it seemed best-geared of all of the BSP's rivals to dislodge it, and ran an energetic campaign. This, and the reconsolidation of the party's Muslim-Yadav core base, gave the SP a massive head-start. This base was shaken somewhat in 2009 because the SP inducted former BJP chief minister Kalyan Singh to attract Lodhi OBC votes. But Yadav stemmed the damage by apologising for this 'mistake'.

The Congress campaigned on the assumption that it could perform impressively on its own although it lacked a strong organisation or a platform that would distinguish it adequately from the SP. In the event, both targeted the BSP. But the SP reaped disproportionate gains from this because it already had a well-defined M-Y core, which was strengthened by support from savarnas, specifically Brahmins, whom the SP wooed during the campaign's last phase. Possibly, some MBCs -- unhappy that the Jatavs cornered most state jobs meant for the poor --also voted for the SP.

The Congress's poor performance in all these elections is closely related to UPA-2's failure to fulfil the promise of aam aadmi-oriented "inclusive growth", and its pursuit of pro-rich, pro-Big Business, pro-multinational policies that dispossess and further impoverish the poor. Dr Manmohan Singh's government has become synonymous with loot of natural resources, elitist projects, corruption scandals and lack of public accountability.

That's why the Congress lost, surrendered, or otherwise failed to capitalise on, the anti-incumbency advantage it enjoyed in Punjab and Uttarakhand arising from the ruling parties' astronomical corruption, nepotism and dhakkashahi (winner-takes-all-style rule by force, based on clan and family loyalties). 

The BJP too fared poorly, except in Goa. It lost four seats in UP, seven in Punjab, and four in Uttarakhand. In UP, two BJP stalwarts, state president Surya Pratap Shahi and former speaker Keshari Nath Tripathi, both lost. Nitin Gadkari has proved a poor national party president

The Congress must not fool itself that it still has an ace vote-puller in Rahul Gandhi. Gandhi failed to convert sympathy for the party into votes. Nor can the Congress succeed in the next Lok Sabha election with the existing government leadership and policy package. It must free itself of the Manmohan Singh burden and correct course. Or, it will perish.

Praful Bidwai