The Congress is now at its most vulnerable. For the moment, it has weathered the storm caused by the DMK, but not without some loss of credibility and appeal, says Praful Bidwai.
By threatening to withdraw its ministers from the United Progressive Alliance government over a seat-sharing dispute in Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham sprang a stunning surprise on the Congress. DMK president M Karunanidhi assumed a self-righteous posture and charged the Congress with greed for raising its demand for tickets for the coming elections to the 234-strong assembly from the 60 seats agreed earlier, to 63 seats.
Finally, Karunanidhi's brinkmanship came a cropper and the Congress prevailed, but only by paying a price, as we see below. Congress-DMK differences over seats could have been resolved through mutual discussion. But Karunanidhi chose to precipitate a crisis. Seemingly, however, he had to blink.
The Congress got the 63 seats it wanted, including one each from its own ally (Indian Union Muslim League), the DMK, and the smaller Pattali Makkal Katchi. The Congress has a good chance of being invited, unlike in 2006, into the next Tamil Nadu government, if the alliance wins the election. The DMK will contest 12-15 fewer seats than it did in the last election.
The DMK blinked because Congress President Sonia Gandhi reportedly told it that she wouldn't give in to unreasonable demands bordering on blackmail. The DMK knew it had overplayed its hand and retreated. But it would be wrong for the Congress to adopt a triumphalist stand. It has emerged weakened and politically compromised from this episode. Consider the following.
The real dispute between the two parties wasn't about seat-sharing. The DMK deeply resents the Central Bureau of Investigations probe into the 2G spectrum scam, at the pivot of which is former telecom minister Andimuthu Raja. Raja was sacked from the Cabinet and later jailed.
Even worse, the CBI net began closing in on the Karunanidhi family as a Rs 214-crore money trail came to light. Links were uncovered between the Kalaignar TV channel, in which the family has a majority stake, and a firm which belongs to shady Mumbai-based realtor Shahid Balwa.
The DMK's resignation threat was meant, among other things, to extract an assurance that the CBI wouldn't summon and question Karunanidhi's daughter Kanimozhi and her mother Dayalu Ammal before the state elections. The Congress couldn't have delivered this openly because the CBI investigation has already been taken over by the Supreme Court.
Nevertheless, an informal understanding seems to have been reached, that the CBI would only 'call for clarifications' from Kanimozhi, not summon her. So, the Congress too blinked by making this concession to the DMK. How this will be worked out in practice is unclear.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh can't overtly interfere with the CBI because he wants to refurbish his government's scandal-tarnished reputation. For the same reason, he 'accepted responsibility' for appointing tainted bureaucrat P V Thomas as the Central Vigilance Commissioner. Dr Singh's admission doesn't settle the issue. His opponents will demand follow-up action, as in the case of Howard Davies, who resigned as the director of the London School of Economics over a donation from Libya's Gaddafi family.
At any rate, the DMK couldn't have sustained a confrontation with the Congress. It desperately needs an alliance in Tamil Nadu with a mid-sized party like the Congress. The Congress too needs the DMK. The DMK's vote-share is roughly one-fourth of the total. (It was 26.5 percent in the 2006 Assembly elections.) But this isn't enough to put it into power.
The Congress can poll 9 to 15 percent of the vote (with the higher number in the Lok Sabha elections). But this isn't enough to win it a respectable number of seats -- as it found to its dismay in 1989, when it fought elections on its own. But a DMK-Congress combination is potentially a winner.
Since 1996, the DMK has allied with national parties like the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party, and joined the central government. (It has been out of national power only briefly, between March 1998 and October 1999). It has perfected a system of milking prize ministries such as telecom, highways and the environment.
The DMK has used extreme brinkmanship tactics all along. For instance, when it was part of the National Democratic Alliance, it twice threatened to withdraw support. In 2004, within 48 hours of being sworn in under the UPA, it threatened to pull out over portfolio distribution. In 2006, it repeated the threat over divestment of the Tamil Nadu-based Neyveli Lignite Corporation.
In November 2008, the DMK threatened to withdraw support over the UPA's inaction in preventing the killing of Sri Lanka's Tamil civilians. Yet again, during government formation in May 2009, it made the withdrawal threat over portfolio allocation. The intrigue and lobbying were eloquently exposed in the Radia tapes.
The Congress isn't unfamiliar with the DMK's style, and could have handled the crisis more tactfully. But it pretended that it could ignore the DMK altogether. Media briefings were informally held, in which Congress leaders claimed that the party has many other options than preserving its alliance with the DMK at a high political cost.
For instance, in Tamil Nadu, it could ally with Jayalalithaa's AIADMK, which recently sealeda seat-sharing deal with film-star Vijayakant's Desiya Murpokku Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham, besides other smaller groups. But Jayalalithaa has already allotted 40 to 50 seats to the DMDK, which recently won 8.4 to 10 percent of the vote. She cannot possibly spare 60 seats for the Congress.
Nationally too, the Congress's options are both limited and unpleasant. Were the DMK's 18 Lok Sabha MPs to withdraw support to the UPA, it would be reduced to a minority. Of course, it could then rope in the Samjwadi Party (22 MPs), Bahujan Samaj Party (21) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (4), which all support it from the outside. But the Congress would have to pay a price for that.
Effectively, that would mean abandoning the Congress's (especially general secretary Rahul Gandhi's) aspirations to revive the party in Uttar Pradesh and other Hindi-heartland states by going it alone. These aspirations received a setback in the recent Bihar assembly elections. The Congress was routed. But Gandhi hasn't given up hope. He's banking on the Youth Congress's recent recruitment drive, which has resulted in 13.5 lakh new members.
Yet, it's unclear if Rahul has a political strategy to put together a strong social coalition based on subaltern castes, the poor and the landless. In UP's highly polarised politics, a party with a diffuse social base has only a limited chance of success.
Mere personal goodwill and appeal, or the attraction of an 'umbrella party', is unlikely to do the trick. But such is the Congress's leadership crisis that there is no coherent strategic thinking by its top leadership, while sycophancy and an almost magical faith in the ability of the Nehru-Gandhi family's ability to win elections prevail among the party's second- and third-rank leaders.
However, it would be unwise for the Congress to expect Rahul to reproduce his mother's earlier role in reviving the party, and leading its march to power, as she did in 2004.
The circumstances have changed. The Congress hasn't made a transition from an older generation of leaders, of which the late Arjun Singh was the last representative, to a new generation, with genuinely fresh ideas and strategies, and a new political idiom and style of working. Singh was rightly criticised for having missed an opportunity to confront the late PV Narasimha Rao on allowing the Babri Masjid's demolition in December 1992 through shameful inaction which reeked of complicity.
Mr Singh, whose secular credentials were impeccable, could have become the prime minister had he taken on Rao at that point of time. Yet, for all his faults, Singh practised broadly Nehruvian politics, with a strong pro-people and anti-communal agenda. With his death, the Congress has lost its last major link between the 20th century and the 21st century. But a new leadership hasn't yet emerged.
Recent scandals, coupled with a rightward economic drift, have damaged the Congress's standing. Dr Singh is extremely reluctant to correct course by accepting the progressive recommendations of the National Advisory Council on food security, the Right to Information, and other issues. There are many other slippages from the Congress's promises.
The party and the government no longer work in concert. Ministers don't act with a unity of purpose. It's as if the Congress had forgotten the commitments made in its own 2009 election manifesto to inclusive, pro-poor growth, and to clean, accountable governance.
The Congress is now at its most vulnerable since it returned to power seven years ago. For the moment, it has weathered the storm caused by the DMK, but not without some loss of credibility and appeal. So, that shouldn't lead to hubris and arrogance in its attitude towards its UPA allies.
The Congress would be especially foolish to practise DMK-style brinkmanship vis-vis the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, where the Left is extremely vulnerable. Brinkmanship can sometimes produce unintended, extremely negative consequences, including snowballing crises and breakdowns.