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December 19, 1997


Saisuresh Sivaswamy

'What the Congress is doing in dotage is grasping for life-support, and disregarding the elixir of youth'

In the ever-flowing life of nations, elections come and go, as do prime ministers and other assorted arbiters of its destiny. Even political parties come and go, albeit their tenure is a trifle longer than those elected on their platform. You could lose an election today, and yet bounce back in the very next, so fickle is the electorate's memory as well as preference that it would be unfair to liken it to a woman's mind, rather it is an inconstant as women's fashion.

Yet, there comes a time in the life of a political party that it has exhausted itself, has little to offer; in other words, the voters have been through the entire repertoire of its wares, and know there is nothing new to be had. Or, the competition is offering better things. The hustings and the election, to use more market-friendly terms, is nothing but a marketplace. The voters are the customers, the election is quite the jumble sale, and the politician the seller, his plank the terms of sale.

But unlike normal trade, there is no warranty on the product bought here. If the voter ends up buying a lemon, as has been happening with amazing regularity in India, he is stuck with bad goods and has to live with the hope that at the next sale five years hence he will find restitution.

Often, the buyer undertakes the deal on trust, in the hope he has landed with the right product, and there are increasing numbers who would rather stay at home when the market reopens than choose from an array of poor quality goods. At the best of times, it is a buyer's market although, contrary to normal rules of trade, the number of buyers far outstrip that of the sellers.

So what happens when the jaded buyer knows that among all the products on offer there is one, an old hand who has been around for more than 100 years and who is responsible for most of the ills afflicting the nation by virtue of having been in government for most part, and who has nothing to offer but a flawed vision of an imperfect past, and yet is asking him to gamble the future on it?

That is quite the Congress's position today in the election sweepstakes. It had never had anything concrete to offer in the past, but this desideratum was cleverly concealed by the mass appeal of its leader, which popularity went down well among its votesbank of ill-read, ill-informed and ill-fed masses. It knew that its hold on power depended on keeping the masses benighted, and did nothing of note to bring them out of misery barring feeding them vacuous shibboleths.

There have been any number of instances when a down-and-out party has risen from the ashes. Britain's Labour party being the first to spring to mind. Within the country as well, the 1983 revival of the Janata Party in Karnataka, or that of the moribund Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu are there as ready reckoners. But the Congress of the present occupies a unique position. In the time that it had replaced ideology with personality, its contenders in the political arena have sharpened their own policies and principles, in their hope and belief in the evanescence of charisma.

Naturally, bereft of its leaders's mass appeal on the basis of which alone the party had secured votes, the Congress finds that the opposition has increased its USP, even basing this on stuff purloined from its own stock when it was paying more attention to personality.

It is not an enviable position to be in, where the past is imperfect and the future is scary. Just as you cannot teach an old dog new tricks, you cannot also teach a dying man how to enjoy life. The future of the Congress is very clearly at stake in the 1998 election, like never before in its history.

To recap, there have only been two instances when the Congress fought a general election while being out of power. The first was in 1979-80, following the disastrous Janata Party experiment after which even Indira Gandhi seemed a better choice to the people. The next was more than a decade later, in 1991, when the party once again appealed to be reinstated in power, its cries accompanied by the dead body of its young and charismatic leader. It is a moot point whether it would have got so close to the winning numbers but for the assassination in Sriperumbudur, and will remain a point of contention.

This time too the scenario is quite familiar. The nation has been ruled by a conglomeration of parties for less than two years, and would quite obviously plumb for stability over anything else. That's an old chestnut, actually, and used to be the sole preserve of the Congress party. Today, the shoe fits elsewhere, possibly even the Bharatiya Janata Party, by itself a remarkable turnaround for a party which had just two MPs in 1984.

Obviously a political party that has pulled down two governments in seven months without any compunction, cannot lay claims to stability. Obviously a political party whose sole hope of electoral revival depends on the whims of a foreign-born, cannot lay claims to patriotism and the swadeshi spirit. Obviously a party which has condoned the massacre of thousands whose only fault was they belonged to another community cannot lay claim to secularism. And obviously a party which enters the electoral fray under the stellar leadership of a man who was well into his youth when the nation became free, cannot appeal to the young and optimistic.

So what the Congress has ended up doing is indulging in tie-ups, with a party here and a party there, never mind if they are led by scoundrels, never mind if your party had fought them in the past, overlooking that by association their goods deeds will not get transferred but only their multiple misdemeanours. What the party is doing in dotage is grasping for life-support, and disregarding the elixir of youth. If it goes under this time, then it will remain there for a very long time.

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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