Saturday, June 17, 2006

A weak, feeble giant: India's Congress Party

Though it has everything going for it, the Congress party has a low sense of self-esteem. The inevitable consequence is that it takes a wishy-washy stand on issues that affect the country. The article appeared in The Hindustan Times June16, 2006

There is a story in the Mahabharat about a question Yamaraj posed to Yudhishthir: What is the greatest wonder in the world? The eldest Pandava, also known as Dharmaraja because of his utter integrity, answers that the greatest wonder is that human beings, knowing that all living things die, still live their daily lives as though they will live forever. In an inverted form, there is something of this marvel in the conduct of the Congress. It has everything going for it — a sound economy, a largely capable team running the government and an opposition that has atomised itself. Yet it continues to express profound, almost self-destructive self-doubt about its own abilities.

Two recent examples stand out. The Indo-US nuclear deal is a coup that any country would be proud of. The Manmohan Singh government has persuaded the US to stand its non-proliferation policy on its head in a bargain greatly advantageous to India. Yet, listening to Congressmen — if you hear them at all on the subject — is like listening to echoes of the Left, that Singh has played into the hands of the US. A second instance comes from the party’s apparent belief, manifested in the OBC quota issue, that its own umbrella political platform is inadequate, and that it needs to follow the Mandal social engineers to win the next general elections.

An important reason for the Congress’s attitude is historical. The party that inaugurated a ‘socialistic’ (not socialist) economy never did have much of a declared ideology, except for an insistent belief that it represented all sections of society. Its unique concept of soft secularism was a mixture of Gandhi’s catholic religiosity and Nehru’s liberalism. For many of its economic and social ideas, it depended on the Left, parties like the CPI and fellow travellers. Only in the Eighties did the party, under the influence of Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi, adopt a frankly pragmatic and pro-business ideology that openly broke with the communists, and which culminated in the reforms of the Nineties.

But the Congress of today has been addled by the politics of the Nineties. Today, the party has decisively overcome its Hindutva infatuation (opening the locks of the Babri masjid in 1986, the shilanyas on the 1989 election eve) and has suddenly fallen into the Mandal temptation.

This may, in part, have to do with the reading of its advisors, not only Arjun Singh, of the outcome of the 2003 assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, in which the BJP trounced the Congress, winning 172 out of 230 seats. The findings of a survey by Yogendra Yadav and Sanjay Kumar suggested that among OBC voters, 50 per cent voted for the BJP and only 26 per cent for the Congress. But the party did get the overwhelming vote of the adivasis, a significant chunk of the Dalit vote as well as the solid Muslim vote. According to Yadav and Kumar, the Congress failure was not due to any shift in caste alignments, but the non-performance of its government — the lack of bijli, pani and sadak (electricity, water and roads).

That brings us to the outcome of another recent poll — that to the assembly in Assam. Observers have remarked at Tarun Gogoi’s incredible achievement of bucking anti-incumbency and returning to power. They may not have seen figures, generated in another survey by Yadav, which shows that the Congress was the only party that polled a significant segment of vote from each of Assam’s many religious and ethnic social groups. It got the bulk of Bengali Hindu, Assamese Muslim, Bengali Muslim, Mishings as well as a handsome chunk of Assamese Hindu, Bodo and the tribal vote. There is a message there waiting to be read.

The party’s response to the Indo-US nuclear agreement only confirms its remarkable inability to read the right meaning in a message. The agreement is a big deal, so big that it has raised a veritable hornet’s nest of resistance in significant sections of the US Congress and security policy establishment. Indian objections stem from two sources — frog-in-the-well atomic scientists and the Indian Left. The former believe that the deal will scuttle their autonomy — it may well do so. The Left’s opposition is reasoned, based on their belief that the deal is a major gambit in cementing the India and US strategic alliance. So what should the Congress position be? Certainly not to pander to solipsistic scientists. But the party must take up the Left’s challenge and decide whether or not closer ties with the US are desirable.

In its long history of leading the country, the Congress’s foreign policy has been the most consistent and advantageous for the country. The Left would have had us in the Warsaw Pact and the Sangh parivar in constant war with Pakistan. Close relations with the US are part of a strategy that goes back to Jawaharlal Nehru, and which was given a hefty impulse in the early Eighties by Indira Gandhi, the founder of today’s Congress. Yet, today, most party members are unable, or unwilling, to project the party’s views in a clear and firm manner.

Perhaps a blithe assumption affects the party’s posture: the Shining India syndrome. Successive years of high growth, a booming industry and large tax collections may have persuaded it that it will be heads up for the party, no matter how badly it screws up. Indeed, some of this may be the cause of its forays into caste politics, a decade after their high tide.

This is a defining moment for the country but that shining future is not inevitable. India could, like Brazil of the Eighties and Russia of the Nineties, remain a promise. But unlike those two resource-rich and population-poor nations, for whom the moment can come again, India is unlikely to get another chance. To realise our opportunity, there is still a lot to be done — build a physical and intellectual infrastructure, remove poverty, illiteracy and social inequality, reform the government system and so on.

There is a strategy staring the Congress in the face, provided the party is willing to see it. It is based on its ability to lead the politics of the nation based on its real strength and revive its historical approach of seeking the support of all sections of the populace, not just this religion or that caste and tribe, summed up in the slogan of the party in the Eighties elections — “Na jaat par na pat par, vote parega haath par” (Don’t vote caste, vote Congress). Nearly two decades of unbridled casteist politics has shown that there is no magic majority that caste-based political mobilisation can bring. Lalu’s majority is gone, and Mulayam’s has been shaky for quite a while now. Mayawati has a formidable and disciplined voter base, but she will not be able to form a government till her party broadens its base.

But leadership requires a greater appreciation of the self-worth of the party than its members appear willing to provide. The party, as we pointed out, has everything going for it — a vibrant economy, a supine opposition, a seasoned and well-respected leadership. But what it appears to seriously lack is self-esteem. Within the country, the Congress policies represent the golden mean between the competing claims of various interests.

Internationally, the party represents the forward-looking, modern and secular India, one that neither has any truck with authoritarian regimes, nor panders to religious bigotry. Unfortunately, that is the party the Congress should be.

It insists, however, on remaining a feeble giant, a modern wonder of political India.

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