According to Michael Ignatieff, Harvard professor and now Canadian politician, “In politics, learning from failure matters as much as exploiting success.” What lessons does the Congress need to learn from its defeat in the Gujarat state assembly elections, and what does the BJP need to do to exploit its success ? Obviously the most important thing for the former is to deconstruct its election campaign and see where it went wrong.
Learning from your errors is always a good thing, but easier said than done. There is little unanimity in determining what the Congress’ mistakes were. Was it the lack of an identified chief ministerial candidate, or was it in playing footsie with BJP rebels, including the likes of Goverdhan Zadaphia, whose record in dealing with the 2002 massacres as state Home Minister was shameful, and possibly criminal. Could it have been the “maut ke saudagar” taunt, or the flip-flop thereafter that showed the Congress to be weak-kneed in front of Modi’s fighting retort ? Or was it the inability of the party to put forward boldly a coherent ideological programme, emphasizing its secularist beliefs and aam admi (common man) approach ?
But then we are assailed with even more questions. Does the party have the capacity to admit its mistakes? Only if it does, can it correct them. As of now, the Congress is hamstrung by a culture that declares that the leader—whether it was Jawaharlal Nehru in relation to China in 1962, Indira Gandhi and the Emergency in 1975, or Narasimha Rao and Babri Masjid in 1992— is never wrong. Neither, for that matter, is the heir-apparent. Both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have been beneficiaries of this phenomenon in the past couple of years to the detriment of the party.
The Congress is now confronting a revitalised BJP which is determined to press on with its Hindutva project. Despite its victory in 2004 general elections, the Congress has not displayed any special strategy, or leadership to deal with it. As Gujarat revealed, all that the party did was to try and exploit the BJP’s inner divisions and make a fleeting reference to the 2002 events. Beyond that there was neither intention and nor effort.
Given the Indian tendency towards self-flagellation in defeat-- and boast in times of victory—there is a tendency to overstate the lessons of a single state assembly election. Understand that even before Modi came to the scene, the BJP was the dominant party in the state having won the elections of 1995 and 1998 by a near two-thirds majority, now the Congress has added eleven seats and the BJP lost ten. Even though it has wrested more seats to compensate, its losses of sitting seats have been significant. What Modi has done is what the Left has done in West Bengal—become the vessel for the pride of the citizens of the state. Yet the bald fact is that the Congress was defeated in an election it could have won, and one that took place at a critical time in relation to the dynamics of the UPA government at the Centre.
This must be seen as a defeat of secularists and not secularism, of their ability to deliver their message, not the message itself. Any strategy for an umbrella-party like the Congress which has an all-India, all community spread, must be based on a determined enunciation of secular politics. Secularism is a good intellectual notion, worth pursuing and indeed endorsed by our Constitution. But trying to master the political grammar of secularism in semi-literate country like India is more complex as Rajiv Gandhi, himself no doubt a secular person, realized.
Two decisions by his government in 1986—the opening of the locks of the Babri Masjid and “balancing” it with the Muslim Women’s Act to counter the Shah Bano judgment were both seen by the Congress as their version of secularism which emphasizes equal respect for all religions. But this peculiar definition of secularism has brought disaster for the party. Perhaps the ideal needs to move back to what it was in Jawaharlal’s time—strictly separating state and religion.
What the party needed to do in Gujarat was to understand the reality of a state that was, rather than what it should be. Given the fact that the Congress has allowed its secular ideology to erode over the past decades, it could not have pushed a hard secular line overnight. But it needed to make the line itself clear in the first place. The way to take on the BJP was not by trying to outflank it on Hindutva, or make adjustments for it, but to categorically contest that vision and bear with the consequences.
In the coming months, the Congress will have to make many decisions. Whatever some American dons suggest, decision-making is not a science, even of the social variety. Experience does help, but as TS Eliot pointed out, “it imposes a pattern and falsifies.” It pushes you into well-trodden and sterile paths, and prevents you from looking at “out of the box” solutions. So, there is no substitute, really for leadership which is a compound of instinct, experience, intellectual integrity, courage and ruthlessness.
Effectiveness requires all these to be present in the compound. The Congress does not lack experience, but it does have difficulties with the other elements of leadership. Part of the problem is diarchy and part the nature of the party. Manmohan Singh is Prime Minister, while the real leader of the legislature party is its leader, éminence grise and principal campaigner, Sonia Gandhi. No one is clear as to how decisions are taken, in the party but we all know that the process is labyrinthine.
In Singh and Sonia Gandhi, we have prudent and good leaders. But people, whether in India, or elsewhere, also want leaders with vision and daring. They are ready to overlook mistakes, provided the leader is seen to have made them with seeming conviction. In any case as Mao and Indira have shown, bashing on regardless of your mistakes, too, has been the hallmark of great leaders.
The problem, however, is also in the nature of the Congress. If the BJP has a retrograde social and political message, it has a sophisticated management style, one that encourages merit, naturally within certain bounds. While the Congress is a party with a progressive political orientation, but its organizational approach is at present feudal, if not tribal.
The Congress cannot easily change its nature. It is no longer the party of Jawaharlal, but of Indira who changed its DNA irrevocably. It is a family proprietary company and like such firms in the business sector in India and around the world, it continues to have a unique relevance.The problem for the proprietors is that security compels them to remain somewhat isolated and so it requires uncommon instinct to understand issues and take decisions, which in turn need a base of expert ideation and solid conviction to be efficacious. But the firm has yet to get the right mix in combining proprietary concerns with furthering corporate interests. The result is a perception that its top management does not have the kind of autonomy that is desired, and perhaps also not the right mix of executives. Keeping family retainers like Arjun Singh and Shivraj Patil in key appointments, for example, betrays a certain lack of ruthlessness.People have called Sonia many things, but never ruthless. But that missing attribute seems to be the key factor in the Congress’ present make up. This quality runs through the government many of whose principal officers and numerous advisers are sinecure holders rather than shop-floor performers and street-fighters. Three years after the party assumed power, it has taken the lost election in Gujarat to tell us how much things have remained the same, even when they were supposed change.
This article appeared in Mail Today December 26, 2007