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'Congress has underestimated the resentment of the people'

By Archana Masih
Last updated on: January 16, 2014 11:50 IST
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Sonia and Rahul Gandhi'It has also underestimated the striking force of the Opposition. It has been complacent and paralysed. That may be due to the compulsions of coalition politics and the arrogance of a party which looked at itself as entitled to rule,' Christophe Jaffrelot tells's Archana Masih.

We continue our coverage of Election 2014 with the concluding part of this fascinating interview with Christophe Jaffrelot, below, left, the prominent international scholar specialising on India. His next book on Narendra Modi's experiment with Gujarat will be published next month.

Professor Jaffrelot, a senior research fellow at CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) and professor of South Asian politics and history at Sciences Po (Paris), tells's Archana Masih why the Congress lost its way after a convincing win in 2009 and the difference Narendra Modi has brought to the BJP.

In his first press conference since 2010, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said history would judge him more kindly than the media and the Opposition -- what according to you would Dr Singh's legacy as India's twice serving prime minister be?

History will inevitably judge Manmohan Singh, if not more kindly, at least more analytically, simply because historians work harder than politicians and journalists to build a case.

The main thing he will remembered for is naturally the economic reform that he was associated with as early as 1991. His policy was based on the trickle down theory.

Has it succeeded? The middle class and the media speaking on its behalf say 'no' without investigating the case.

If they did, they would realise that the upper layers of society have benefitted more than any other group from liberalisation.

This is what I will remember Manmohan Singh for: An economic reform that has resulted in more inequalities between the rich and the poor and between urban and village India.

Based on his governance record and his personality, can Narendra Modi steer the BJP towards forming a new government in Delhi? How different is the party under Modi vis-a- vis the BJP that went to the polls under Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani?

The BJP under Modi is different from what it was for a very simple reason: In contrast with the collegial decision making process the Sangh Parivar has always cultivated, Modi has emancipated himself from the organisation and does not even report to the state RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) leaders in Gujarat.

This is a reflection of an unprecedented personalisation of power which may be the main problem the BJP will face for forming a coalition: You need a team player to handle partners like the state parties which may rally around the NDA (National Democratic Alliance).

How serious would anti-incumbency be a factor for the Congress party in the general election? Have you seen such hostility towards a reigning government apart from 1977, but that occurred in an unusual political environment?

The Congress has clearly underestimated the resentment of the people and the striking force of the Opposition. It has been complacent and paralysed. That may be due to the compulsions of coalition politics and the arrogance of a party which looked at itself as entitled to rule.

But it has probably more to do with a leadership crisis: The old generation is leaving the scene, but has not entrusted the new one with power - either because it was reluctant to do so or because the young Congressmen were themselves reluctant leaders.

Rahul Gandhi is a case in point.

Certainly, authoritarianism does not work in a party like the Congress, but its leader needs to give a sense of direction and assert himself -- especially when his opponents are driven by a superiority complex and rely on sarcasms.

Why do you think the Congress, which regained power in May 2009, lost its way so badly?

There are many reasons: Corruption, price rise, a curious paralysis resulting from complacency and lack of cohesion within the government, the Congress party as well as the ruling coalition, and last but not least, a rather silent prime minister when communication has become a very large part of politics.

But things would not have been so bad if India had not been so severely affected by the economic crisis (that is partly a global phenomenon) at a time when the middle class was getting used to growth and strongly resented the slowdown.

In fact, the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) bashing in which the media is indulging has much to do with the growing political influence of an unprecedently large (and materialistic) middle class.

Was it misgovernance? Did this government become a victim of a well-conceived clever counter campaign by opponents like the BJP to create the kind of national anger against corruption the way it occurred in 1974 against Indira Gandhi and again in the late 1980s against Rajiv Gandhi?

Indeed, the Congress has usually lost power when it has misused it in terms of corruption. This is not unique to India: Those who are routinely at the helm of a country are also those who indulge the most in corrupt practice.

The irony is that the critics of the Congress are also corrupt -- but the media is not exposing them the same way.

Or has India changed so much that every government has always got to be ahead of the expectations of its people?

Some chief ministers have delivered as expected. We cannot generalise on that front.

The impatient group is the middle class which is keen to import in politics the managerial modus operandum of the private sector (as it sees it) -- which is clearly impossible, except if you cut Indian democracy to size.

Professor Christophe JaffrelotEach time a new government with a new political face comes to power -- like Akhilesh Yadav did in May 2012 -- there is a surge of national hope that things will change (only for these expectations to be crushed). Have you encountered such despair in India before? How do you account for this?

'Despair' is a strong word. But there is definitely a gap between the expectations of the citizens who place their hope in new political figures and their capacity to deliver.

There are more exceptions today than before though, as evident from the decline of the anti-incumbency factor: Many more chief ministers than in the 1980s have been re-elected over the last two decades.

Is it a corollary of the disproportionate influence that news television has had on the national discourse?

Television does not help in the sense that it generally does not show the politicians at their best: They do not debate in the most constructive manner in most of the programmes and they have hardly any time for that anyway.

Also, the electronic media plays on emotions and does not systematically conduct the kind of investigative journalism democracy needs.

What themes do you think a political party needs to highlight in its campaign in the general election?

The parties in the fray will naturally highlight the issues which are already identified by the people as priorities for them: Corruption, price rise...

But the Lok Sabha election campaign should give them an opportunity to have programmes: What policy for reinvigorating the economic dynamism?

What social policies for containing inequalities?

What job policy for fighting unemployment?

What fiscal policy for giving the state some rooms for manoeuvre? And so on.

But most of the leaders contend themselves with speaking in slogans, with playing on emotions and with election manifestos listing promises.

Worse, they are not asked to do more by the media which neither scrutinise their past records nor put pressure on them for clarifying their economic and social strategies.

At the most, they ask about very specific measures regarding the price of electricity or the Lokpal Bill.

This is important, but what about the coherence of the parties's programmes?

Image: Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi, the party vice-president, pay tribute at Rajiv Gandhi's memorial on the former prime minister's 69th birth anniversary. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

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