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The Congress may be combative, but can it win?

December 28, 2010 19:54 IST
Sonia GandhiDuring its recent plenary, the Congress party began digging itself out of the hole it is in. It hasn't emerged from it yet, feels Praful Bidwai.

It has never been easy to shake the 125-year-old lumbering behemoth called the Indian National Congress into wakefulness and activity.

This becomes the more difficult when the party comes under Opposition attack and instinctively retreats into denial and unconvincing defence, especially on issues of malfeasance and corruption.

The numerous scandals surrounding the United Progressive Alliance government, topped by the gigantic 2G spectrum scam, put the Congress into a tight spot for the first time since its return to power in 2009.

The party found the entire Opposition uniting against it in demanding a Joint Parliamentary Committee to investigate the telecom scandal. Suddenly, the Congress seemed to be losing public sympathy and its own confidence about winning the next Lok Sabha election.

Yet, the Congress leadership has managed to pull itself up by the bootstraps and infuse a sense of purpose and some enthusiasm into the party in the All India Congress Committee session just held in Delhi. The Congress's mood has become combative vis-a-vis the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and even on the corruption charges levelled against it.

The AICC resolution identifies the Sangh Parivar as the main adversary. The Congress has repulsed the BJP's attempt to exploit the WikiLeaks disclosures about Rahul Gandhi's meeting with US Ambassador Timothy Roemer, where he was quoted as saying that 'the growth of radicalised Hindu groups which create religious tensions and political confrontations' is a greater threat to Indian society and politics than rising sympathy among Indian Muslims for Lashkar-e-Tayiba, for which 'there was evidence.'

Rather than deny the quote, as many politicians might do, Rahul owned up to it, and sustained his attack on the BJP and RSS, condemning all kinds of extremism and communalism as dangerous. Sympathy for the Lashkar and similar jihadi groups is at best marginal among India's Muslim youth. No significant Muslim group or organisation justifies the Lashkar or jihadi terror attacks on Indian citizens.

By contrast, the support and protection that Hindutva terrorism has received from the RSS and the BJP is substantial and vocal. The BJP has rushed to its defence any number of times.

Faced with evidence of the involvement of RSS pracharaks in Hindutva terrorist network operating in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan, the entire Sangh Parivar has accused the Congress of vendetta. Such shielding of Hindu extremists is particularly obnoxious after the recent arrest of suspects Harshad Solanki, Vasudev Parmar and Anand Raj, the interrogation of Pragya Thakur and Aseemanand, and damaging evidence against key conspirators like Indresh Kumar, an RSS national executive member, and Sunil Joshi, a pracharak.

The BJP's attempt to turn the tables on the Congress on the terrorism issue is thoroughly misconceived. There is strong evidence that Hindutva activists conspired to set off bomb blasts in a Malegaon mosque, the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad and the Ajmer dargah. The more polarising figures in the BJP like Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi have actively created communal tension and fomented a climate in which Muslim citizens feel insecure, while Hindutva extremists believe they have the right to be shielded by the state.

Part of the credit for persistently raising the issues of Hindutva extremism, fake encounter killings of Muslim youth (Batla House) and the stigmatisation of an entire community in Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh, must go to Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh. He made a frank and combative speech at the AICC, emphasising the RSS's role.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi followed this up with a sharp attack on the BJP and its associates, whom she accused of double standards: demanding a JPC on the 2G scam, but protecting Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yedyurappa despite weighty evidence of massive corruption.

The AICC resolution calls secularism the 'lifeline of Indian democracy' and says 'the RSS and Vishwa Hindu Parishad are insidious in their effort to break India'. It terms Gujarat's 2002 anti-Muslim violence 'genocide'. In the last AICC resolution (2006), it didn't even mention Gujarat and merely said 'communal forces represented by the RSS/BJP combine still lurk in our country.'

This welcome step will help isolate the 'soft-Hindutva' supporters inside the Congress. It will also encourage the secular Opposition to distance itself from the BJP. The Left parties are increasingly uncomfortable with being bracketed with the BJP in disrupting the proceedings of Parliament, leading to the washout of the entire winter session.

That raises the issue of corruption and Dr Manmohan Singh's offer to appear before and be questioned by the Public Accounts Committee. The offer is unlikely to mollify the BJP which is playing for broke in its present no-holds-barred confrontation with the Congress.

Why, there's every likelihood that the BJP will continue its shrill campaign against Dr Singh even if the JPC demand is conceded -- in keeping with its narrow political objective.

BJP General Secretary Arun Jaitley has arrogantly dismissed the offer and said Dr Singh cannot chose the forum where he would be interrogated. But surely, the BJP too cannot choose the forum -- unless it is deluding itself that it is in power or was unfairly deprived of it in both 2004 and 2009.

On the face of it, a JPC seems more apt in the 2G case. The PAC is by definition meant to look into accounts and losses caused by the gross underselling of spectrum. The JPC can go into a broader range of issues, including the scam's origins in the National Telecom Policy of 1999 and fix responsibility of different state organs and individuals.

A JPC is no guarantee that the whole truth will be uncovered and culprits prosecuted. Past JPCs did not do this. But Dr Singh would do well to revisit the question and start sincere and sober consultations with the Opposition.

Sonia Gandhi made a far bolder offer than Dr Singh on fighting corruption. The 5-point plan she outlined is thoughtful and identifies some key issues like the government's discretionary powers in allocating natural resources including land, and the need for open, competitive auctions.

Also welcome is her exhortation to fast-track all cases of corruption involving public servants so they can be brought to closure quickly, and her calls for 'effective laws and clear procedures' to ensure 'full transparency' in public procurement, and for whistleblower protection.

These ideas are worthy, but it is hard to see how the Congress party machine, which is addicted to the lubricants of money and patronage, can be reformed without a veritable purge and a systematic long-term campaign to rebuild the organisation based on programmes and schemes that cut out middlemen and opaque procedures.

Not many Congress chief ministers would be amenable to such radical change. As experience with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act shows, the entire administrative system is open to subversion through all manner of loopholes. These must be plugged.

Revamping the Congress and fighting systemic corruption are long-term agendas. In the short run, the Congress's commitment to fighting corruption will be tested on the Adarsh society, Commonwealth Games and 2G scams, especially the last.

It must insist on a free and fair CBI investigation of disgraced telecom minister A Raja's operations -- even if that means getting Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam supremo M Karunanidhi to drop him and his own daughter Kanimozhi from the party, on pain of severing the UPA's links with it.

It is encouraging that the CBI has raided 34 establishments connected with Raja and Kanimozhi. This cuts close to the DMK's family bone. The CBI must take the investigation to its conclusion under the supervision of the Supreme Court.

Welcome as all this is, it still leaves two questions -- the Congress's economic policy orientation and organisational issues -- unresolved. The Congress talks of inclusive growth. But in reality, it remains obsessed with growth alone. It is still hesitant to embrace the ideal of equitable and balanced growth, with justice for the poor.

In organisational matters, the party continues to promote and reward sycophancy and looks to the high command for all major appointments and ticket distribution in the states. There are no free elections worth the name in the Pradesh committees or at the Centre.

The AICC has still not constituted a new Congress Working Committee after the 2009 elections. Sonia Gandhi has only set up an ad hoc 'core group' of ministers -- which necessarily involves nominations from the top -- to strategise and take all major political decisions.

Rahul Gandhi made a valiant effort to reform the Youth Congress, but most of its leaders continue to be where they are by virtue of being sons/daughters of established Congress leaders or close to them. A great deal of energy needs to be invested in revamping the party.

The flabby, top-heavy, undemocratic organisational set-up could soon turn out to be the Congress's Achilles' heel and affect its performance in the state assembly elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam due next year.

The Congress has begun digging itself out of the hole it is in. It hasn't emerged from it yet.

Image: Sonia Gandhi addresses the Congress plenary on the outskirts of New Delhi. Photograph: Uttam Ghosh/

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Praful Bidwai