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Is the Congress ready for a reality check?

December 18, 2003

It is time the Congress admits it no longer enjoys a pre-eminent position in Indian politics. It has to for if it doesn't the party might as well forget all hopes of winning the general election.

After losing three states in the recently concluded assembly election, the party is in 'deep introspection.' Introspection or thereabouts is nothing new for the 123-year-old party.

Such exercises in the past have predictably ended in cosmetic changes and loud reaffirmation of the party's faith in the ruling scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

Nothing inherently wrong in reposing faith in a single family or a leader -- the current 'deep introspection' in all probability will also do that -- but the assembly election results are yet another indication of the changed character of the Indian polity.

Hopefully the 'deep introspection' leads to an acknowledgement of this changed character. Ironically the Congress has been the biggest contributor to the changed character of the Indian polity by policies -- economic and social -- that it implemented in its over 40-year rule.

The party started off its stint in independent India with certain obvious advantages accruing from being the spearheading force behind the struggle for freedom. Its roots extended to the remotest pockets of the country, something no other political entity could rival. The only network that could be called all India was that of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. But then the RSS was not explicitly connected to formal politics the way it is today.

But what was this network and what and who comprised it? And herein lies the answer to two questions -- why the Congress was such a dominant force in Indian politics for close to four decades; and why is the Congress in decline now.

The network was a complex coalition of groups -- Indian capitalists, caste organisations, urban interest groups, labour movements, religious organisations, farmers outfits. Each group had its own set of demands, often competing, and its own methods of expressing it.

A legacy of the independence movement, this complex coalition was a construction necessitated by the need for evolving as broad a canvas as possible to take on the British colonialists.

The party channelised all these disparate energies by establishing organisations. For instance the Indian Trade Union Congress was aimed at making inroads into the burgeoning industrial working class. Similarly, the Kisan Sabhas brought together localised peasant movements. Such organisations gave these groups a collective consciousness, while integrating them with the larger movement for independence.

Such integration, on the one hand, allowed leaders from these affiliate organisations to rise up the ladder and become part of the Congress decision-making structure. On the other it allowed the Congress to communicate with and mould the actions of various groups to fit within the framework of its larger goals.

In concrete terms it meant that the Congress had various levels of leadership, which were also ideologically diverse, that gave it organisational depth and unbridled 'charisma power.'

If Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad were leaders with pan Indian appeal, Kamaraj, Gobind Ballabh Pant, Sucheta Kripalani and Kamalapati Tripathi were regional stalwarts. The presence of Dr B R Ambedkar, who believed at least initially in the concept of evolutionary social engineering espoused by the Congress, ensured that caste movements directed their demands to the party, and not against it.

With so many groups occupying one platform, the possibility of an implosion was real. But the larger project of national awakening and resistance, which over a period of time came to be identified as the Congress vision and acquired hegemonic overtones, held the groups together.

While during the colonial period the coalition was used against the British establishment, the post-independence period saw it being coopted into the Indian State. And the network that was essentially anti-systemic in nature was transformed, almost overnight, into a systemic entity.

How the Congress umbrella coalition was coopted into the system of governance and development is interesting. During the freedom struggle, especially after the 1930s when the issue at hand was not whether, but when India will be independent, one of the primary debates in the party structure was the kind of development model that an independent India should adopt. In fact in 1938 the Congress had set up a National Planning Committee with Jawaharlal Nehru as chairman.

There were three broad paths that were the subject of intense debate. The Gandhian approach to development focussed on the village level economy. Such an approach wanted agriculture to be the mainstay of the Indian economy and envisaged the creation of self-sufficient village units.

The other two approaches to development had faith in the concept of economic planning, no doubt influenced by the spectacular successes of the Soviet Union. But what distinguished the two was the degree of planning that was envisaged.

The Indian capitalist class led by the likes of G D Birla, J R D Tata, Walchand Hirachand, Badridas Goenka and Padampat Singhania advocated a primary role for the Indian State in planning equitable growth, protecting national industries against foreign competition, and concentrating on developing heavy industries.

Such a thought process eventually led to the drafting of A Brief Memorandum Outlining a Plan of Economic Development for India in January 1944, which was popularly known as the Bombay Plan. The second part of the plan was released in December of that year.

The plan called for 'a considerable measure of intervention and control' by the State and ownership and State management of basic industries, public utilities. In short it envisaged a centralised State. It also conceived of a 'mixed economy' -- the existence of both private and public sectors. Nehru, quite obviously, welcomed the plan.

The third approach, heartily supported by Leftists within the Congress, conceived planning as the sole instrument of social and economic engineering. Such an approach called for a complete nationalisation of resources and industries aka Soviet Union and the State determining the direction and the goals of development.

By the time freedom dawned on India, and Nehru was the anointed successor, it was clear that India will take recourse to the mechanism of planning and give State the primary role in the process.

In simplistic terms the concept of a planned economy transformed the Indian State into the largest moneybag around, bigger than the Birlas, Tatas and the Singhanias. And it also meant the State could decide where, when and how much money would and could be pumped into sectors and regions. And this meant that the percolation of the benefits of economic development could also be controlled by the State.

Post-independence the Indian State for all practical purposes came to represent the Government of India. And when the battle for power spilled on to the arena of electoral politics, the 'tried and tested' network of the Congress ensured that the party was always in control of the government at the central and the state levels.

But groups comprising a network are not bound to remain loyal to the head for a long time if they do not get, or at least perceive to get, concrete benefits. And this is where the system of planned economic development helped the party.

The network sustained the party in a symbiotic manner. Firstly it ensured the party raked in the votes at the time of elections. In fact till the early 1960s voting for the common man, more so in the rural areas, came to be almost exclusively identified with the charkha, the party's symbol then.

Second, it laid a system of distribution that was used by the party, and its governments, to pump in the benefits of development to the constituents of the network and mould their behaviour and actions.

To suggest that Nehru adopted such a system to sustain and nurture the network that propped his party would be a tad too imaginative. And to be fair many of the policies in five-year plans -- a portion of the credit must also go to P C Mahalanobis -- were farsighted and aimed at nation building rather than at specific constituencies and votebanks.

But it is also true that being part of the power structure helped many groups economically and socially. The system of benefits, privileges, inclusion and exclusion -- intrinsic of any power structure -- led the Congress to don the role of a benevolent ruler, distributing largesse and giving protection.

In rural and remote areas, the system of local self-government through the Panchayati Raj system allowed Congress-aligned caste organisations, farmers' outfits and religious groups to become part of the formal power structure. What was till then a social power structure, and into which the party had tapped into during the independence movement, turned political and formal.

Since the State was the sole repository of development, the hierarchical power structure -- local to block to state to regional and to the Centre -- was used not only to generate support, votes and administer schemes, but was also used to distribute largesse.

So for instance if a local leader had to be humoured, a petrol pump would be allotted to him. Similarly if a caste group was getting restive, they would be provided with reservations. Or if a village had voted for the party, roads, electricity and schools would be constructed.

At the urban level, the fact the State was the largest employer of educated youths in the various wings of the government or in the numerous Public Sector Units gave the expanding middle class a stake in being part of the network. And the State also gave them benefits in the form of pay commissions, dearness allowances, subsidised housing and food.

Political scientists like Rajni Kothari called this 'one-party dominance' and the 'Congress system.' The party was able to establish its hegemony over the socio-political and economic sphere to such an extent that voting for the party almost became part of common sense. You vote for the Congress because your father did and before that his father did exactly the same thing.

Not that there weren't any other parties on the firmament. The Communist parties, Bharatiya Jan Sangh and the Swatantra Party were the prominent ones. But they were confined to specific regions or rode specific ideologies.

Such a system ensured that the party coped with various pulls and pressure of an emerging society, whether it was the language riots or the linguistic reorganisation of states, without damaging its network or sacrificing its dominant role. Even the inequities generated by the green revolution could not dent the farmer support base of the party.

The first challenge to the Congress system was mounted in 1967 when the party lost eight states, and minor parties combined to get almost 45 per cent of the vote share in the Lok Sabha poll. But it proved to be temporary with the shrewd Indira Gandhi using the 1971 war to boost the party's ratings.

The second challenge was in 1977 when the party was booted out of power following the Emergency.

In both these cases there was never any doubt about the dominant position of the party. These results were temporary setbacks for the party and its core constituents never really deserted it. Some of them were angry and they showed it by voting against the party. But as subsequent elections showed, the Congress umbrella was intact.

Rajiv Gandhi who brought in the first phase of economic reforms in the second half of the 1980s, ironically, triggered off the first real challenge. The forces of privatisation and liberalisation started off by Rajiv and accentuated by P V Narasimha Rao brought about changes in the economic sphere that disrupted the network, and irreparably at that.

The carefully calibrated system, dependent on the State controlling the levers of the economy, started coming unstuck with the private sector emerging as rival to the government in providing employment and associated benefits. The entry of multinational corporations also changed the dynamics. The middle class, long used to government jobs, suddenly saw a whole new opportunity open before them. And suddenly their stake in maintaining the Congress system was not high anymore.

The introduction of market principles, though selectively, in the agricultural sphere also meant that farmers, who had already benefited from the green revolution, could start producing crops -- cash crops -- depending on market dynamics. The relative decline of the importance of procurement prices and privatisation, which for instance led to tripling of sugar industries in the western Uttar Pradesh belt in the period between 1985 to 1995, meant that rich farmers could sustain and increase their earning without having to depend on government agencies.

Mahendra Tikait's Bharatiya Kisan Union, Sharad Joshi's Shetkari Sanghatana or the Professor M D Nanjundaswamy-led Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha are examples of rich farmers organising themselves outside the Congress umbrella and demanding a greater share in the power structure.

It is within such a context that one has to situate the emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party on one hand and other caste-based political movements like the Bahujan Samaj Party. Both of them have successfully wrested political spaces that were once the exclusive preserve of the Congress.

The BJP espoused Gandhian socialism as its guiding philosophy after it was established in 1980. And it failed dismally by bagging just two seats in the 1984 general election.

But the party was quick enough to realise the existence of discontented constituents of the Congress umbrella. Picking up an emotive issue and combining it with full-hearted support to privatisation, while opposing the entry of multinationals in core sectors, the party swept the middle class in. The capitalist class, which was till now part of the Congress network, shifted loyalties to the BJP, which promised it protection against the MNCs.

The caste groups, many of whom like the Yadavs had benefited by the land reforms and the Green Revolution, also aspired for a substantial share in political power. Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Prasad Yadav are essentially products of the increased political aspirations of caste groups that were once content with being part of the Congress umbrella.

The Dalits, who had established a separate trajectory in the south, saw the backward castes like Bhumihars and Yadavs as their opponents and oppressors. While ideologically the Dalits talked about the Brahmanical system, their fight at the ground level was with the backward castes. The Congress, which had earlier maintained certain equilibrium between the two, lost both.

The BJP, which had aspirations of making it to the top and sustaining it all on its own, was the first to realise the changed character of the Indian polity. A fragmented polity, the BJP realised and found out too, cannot be held together for long even on the basis of an emotive issue.

The latest challenge facing the Congress is BJP's brand of coalition that is increasingly taking the shape of an umbrella, the kind Congress once had. The National Democratic Alliance is a working example and is effectively occupying much of the political space that was once the preserve of the Congress.

The latest assembly election results point to the power of the BJP coalition. The current round had no emotive issue and was fought, even in Madhya Pradesh, on issues of governance and development.

One of the indications that the BJP has evolved its own caste configuration was the overwhelming support of the Jats the party received in Rajasthan. Jats were once considered to a solid votebank of the Congress party. As an aside, tactically too the Congress erred by not deploying a single Jat leader -- Balram Jakhar, Ram Niwas Mirdha or Parasram Madherna -- in its campaign in the Jat belt.

Chhattisgarh is another example of how the party has made inroads into the tribal and backward caste votebank. No doubt the RSS's 'Ghar Vapasi' programme played an important role. But then the question arises as to what has the Congress affiliate organisations -- for instance the Seva Dal -- done about it?

It is imperative for the Congress to admit that the days of single party rule are over. Such a conclusion isn't without precedent. The party did, in its own way, admit the loss of space during the Shimla conclave, which talked about the need to establish a broad coalition against the BJP and the Sangh Parivar.

It is time the party takes up the Shimla declaration in right earnest and starts building up a coalition with the likes of Mulayam, Mayawati, Sharad Pawar and the Communists if it wants to give the BJP a fair fight.

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