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Is Sonia Gandhi up to the challenge?

December 17, 2010 10:50 IST
Hit by election defeats and several scams, the Congress plenary will meet in Delhi this weekend. Praful Bidwai surveys the challenges that confront Sonia Gandhi and her party.

How the mighty have fallen! The Congress party was so exuberant and confident after its Lok Sabha election victory last year that it imagined that it would be only a matter of time before it returns to the glorious past of one-party salience when it used to call the shots nationally and rule in all but a handful of states.

Barely one-and-a-half years later, the party is besieged by scandal after scandal, buffeted by defeats in the Bihar assembly elections, the Uttar Pradesh panchayat polls and various by-elections, politically confused, and organisationally demoralised. Suddenly, its return to power in 2014 no longer looks a near-certainty, as it did only some months ago.

Ironically, it is not a Congress leader, but the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's A Raja, who was responsible for the biggest of all recent financial scams, involving the 2G telecom spectrum, which was undersold by between Rs 57,000 crore (Rs 570 billion) and a mind-boggling Rs 1.76 lakh crore (Rs 1,760 billion), according to the Comptroller and Auditor General.

The United Progressive Alliance government under Dr Manmohan Singh allowed him to rig the sale by subverting the eligibility criteria, changing deadlines and giving away spectrum free to chosen companies. At the bottom of the scandal lies not just corruption, but the deeply flawed National Telecom Policy of 1999, which Dr Singh continued.

The Congress also bears responsibility for its handling of the 2G disclosures in the CAG report. It staunchly rejected the Opposition demand for a multi-party Joint Parliamentary Committee to investigate it and allowed Parliament to be disrupted for weeks. The Congress feared it would not have a majority in the JPC and would have to depend on the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party, whose support could prove unreliable.

The Congress feared the JPC would indulge in some grandstanding and summon Dr Singh before it to embarrass him. Its work could be prolonged to two to three years, casting an unfavourable shadow over the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

However, all these narrow and parochial reasons don't sit easy with the paramount consideration of getting to the bottom of the 2G scam through a credible investigation of the highest standards. The Congress has had to bully its partners, including the Trinamool Congress, Nationalist Congress Party and DMK, to oppose the JPC.

The Congress has a lot to answer for as regards the Commonwealth Games and Adarsh Housing Society scandals, and the appointment of Chief Vigilance Commissioner P J Thomas despite his tainted record in Kerala and the objections raised by Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj. Convention demands that such appointments are consensual.

It is not good enough for the Congress to argue that the Bharatiya Janata Party practised double standards in refusing to remove Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yedyurappa despite ample evidence of nepotism and corruption in a number of land allotments to relations and friends.

By contrast, the Congress did sack Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan. But that is because he was heavily implicated in the Adarsh scam in the first place. This doesn't show the Congress in a complimentary light.

Unless the Congress convincingly demonstrates its willingness to book all the culprits in numerous recent cases of corruption and other illegalities, it will suffer a severe loss of credibility in a climate of popular revulsion against corruption. That could trigger its speedy decline.

The Congress faces a crisis of programmatic identity and political strategy. In 2009, it rightly pitched its electoral flag on the aam aadmi (common man) platform. But it has delivered very little on revamping the healthcare system and the promised food security law, which would guarantee rice and wheat at Rs 3 and 2 a kg to the bulk of the poor.

In fact, as this column noted five weeks ago, the UPA has exerted heavy pressure on the National Advisory Council to dilute its recommendations in several ways: From a universal food distribution system to one targeted at the notoriously unreliable entity called below-poverty-line families, and a reduced quantity of, and higher prices for, foodgrains.

Worse, driven by Dr Singh's conservatism, the government has set up another committee headed by former Reserve Bank governor C Rangarajan to examine the NAC's report and dilute it further to save a few thousand crores. This slights the NAC, whose whole rationale is to offer independent advice on how the UPA should give concrete shape to the aam aadmi agenda and create universal entitlements to food, healthcare and education.

The NAC was meant to have a very different approach from the bean-counter babus who dominate the bureaucracy. It was to bring sensibilities, insights and experiences from another world, that of grassroots activists fighting to defend livelihoods and common property resources.

Under UPA-1, Sonia Gandhi had strongly endorsed the NAC's proposal on employment guarantee and ensured that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act would be passed. But now, she is yielding ground to Dr Singh and Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia.

The Congress must urgently give itself a pro-poor Left-leaning identity in contrast to its current pro-rich image. This image partly explains its disastrous performance in the Bihar elections, where it couldn't relate to any of the key groups involved in the process of social churning, especially the more underprivileged Dalits and OBCs. It pinned its hopes on Rahul Gandhi. But he failed abysmally. The Congress won in only one of the 22 constituencies where he campaigned.

The impression that Rahul is a successful vote-catcher who produced a dramatic upturn for the Congress in Uttar Pradesh in 2009 is mistaken. The Congress improved its seat tally from 10 to 21. But most of these victories came from areas where he didn't campaign. The Congress gained by default -- because many Muslims in north-western UP were disgusted with Mulayam Singh Yadav's decision to draft former BJP chief minister Kalyan Singh into his Samajwadi Party.

The Congress shouldn't delude itself that Nehru-Gandhi charisma will catapult it to victory without progressive policies, hard work among the masses, and organisational revival and democratisation.

The Congress's next great challenge is Andhra Pradesh, which contributed to it 33 MPs from 42 Lok Sabha seats, the party's best performance outside Delhi. This came about partly because of the cross-cutting of votes between the Telugu Desam Party and film star Chiranjeevi's Praja Rajyam Party, and the relative decline of the Telangana Rashtra Samiti, which demands separate statehood for that region. The popularity of then chief minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy was also a factor.

Political equations have since changed in Andhra. The Congress failed to accommodate YSR's son Jaganmohan. He has quit the Congress, with the possible backing of 20, 25 MLAs. Chief Minister K Rosaiah was replaced by Kiran Kumar Reddy who faced a revolt over portfolio distribution. Crucially, the Congress will be faced with an extremely tough choice when Justice B N Srikrishna submits his report on the Telangana issue by the end of this month.

The Congress is deeply divided on the issue. It could well split no matter whether it supports separate statehood, or roots for a united Andhra Pradesh. In the former case, both the TDP's Chandrababu Naidu and Jaganmohan Reddy, who are respectively from the coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema region, would try to capitalise on the 'United Andhra' sentiment.

This raises the prospect of a mid-term election and a non-Congress government in Andhra Pradesh amidst huge turmoil over the Telangana issue. If the TDP comes to power on its own or in alliance with other parties, Naidu will once again be tempted to join the National Democratic Alliance, which has received a boost with Nitish Kumar's impressive victory in Bihar.

The NDA could then possibly attract Naveen Patnaik back into the fold. In that case, national political equations could change. The NDA, in decline for six years, might get revived. That may not lead to the UPA's defeat. But the balance of forces is likely to change adversely for it.

This would prove a serious challenge to the Congress. The challenge can only be met if Sonia Gandhi asserts herself and sets a clear Left-of-Centre direction for the Congress and the UPA. The Congress's best bet lies in building a new social coalition based on the most disadvantaged strata of subaltern groups, including Dalits, OBCs and Muslims, driven by a pro-poor programme.

This means radically restructuring the Congress by breaking the nexus between corrupt businessmen, the land mafia and party leaders, to acquire an entirely different political image. It means distancing the Congress from neo-liberalism and criminalised crony capitalism, of which it has become an agency under Dr Singh's tutelage. This is a tall order, but by no means an impossible task.

Can Sonia Gandhi and her colleagues summon up the will to bring about such a radical transformation?

Praful Bidwai