Congress in crisis


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THE assembly election results in Gujarat in December 2002 served notice of the continuing crisis for the country’s premier opposition party. It was more than a crisis of confidence or one born of a lack of direction. The problem lay deeper still, even if its leaders failed to acknowledge the sum and substance of it. The party that once dominated national politics and defined the agenda in the public sphere is not quite sure about who or what it represents. Let alone finding a way to get back to power in New Delhi after eight long years in exile, it has yet to outline a road map for revival.

The indices of success can be flattering, but they can also mislead quite as easily. The core assumption of the party, as manifest in its two conclaves at Guwahati and later at Mt. Abu, was transparent enough. The record in office would impress Indians that the party governed best. In 1996, when ousted from power, it ruled only four states; it is now in office in as many as 14. In two (Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir), it is a member of multiparty coalitions led by a regional party. In two others (Kerala and Maharashtra) a Congressman leads a multiparty alliance. It is also the governing party in two union territories. The states where it is in power would serve as a launching pad for coming to power in the rest of the country and later at the Centre.

The Congress under Sonia Gandhi also enjoys closer and better relations with the two left parties than at any time since Indira Gandhi’s leftward turn in 1969. Even Gujarat’s campaign had a silver lining in the presence of two veteran socialists on the party’s side: Ram Vilas Paswan and Laloo Prasad Yadav. In UP, a Samajwadi Party eager to topple the BSP-BJP coalition ministry courted the party. All roads it seems, do lead to the Congress. It may be out of power, but is very much a player on the national scene.

Such a view ignores that the same party has now lost two or more assembly elections in as many as eight states. The string of defeats has made it virtually a permanent opposition force in Tamil Nadu since 1967, and West Bengal since 1977. It was voted out of office in Uttar Pradesh in 1989 and Bihar the following year, though it is a junior, secondary partner in the latter with Laloo Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal.



The Congress last won an assembly election in Gujarat in 1985, and has lost the last two rounds of provincial polls in Haryana. Sikkim saw the advent of Pawan Kumar Chamling’s Sikkim Democratic Front in 1994 which has ruled the state ever since. Andhra Pradesh, a state that loyally stood by the party when Indira Gandhi was voted out across North India, slipped out of the party’s hands the same year. To these may be added the case of Goa, where the party won a majority two years ago, suffered a split, was replaced by a BJP-led ministry and then lost a snap poll.

The political map of India thus has a curious anomaly from the Congress point of view. It is not a commanding presence in the Gangetic basin from Diamond Harbour in the East to the borders of Punjab in the North. The South too has only two states with a recent history of Congress rule, Karnataka and Kerala. In only one state, united Madhya Pradesh (in 1998), has it defied the tide against incumbent governments and been voted back to power. The Congress still plays a key role in politics but its centrality depends on the part of the country one is dealing with.



There also seems little likelihood of reversing the dissolution of its social base in the two key North Indian states of UP and Bihar. To add to this, its stable alliance with the AIADMK in the Indira and Rajiv era has given way to one of deep mutual suspicion. The party broke up in both West Bengal and Maharashtra in 1998-99. Its spread across the country is thinner than the BJP’s, but enough to preclude tying up with regional parties like the Telugu Desam Party which are its local adversaries.

The states where it has lost two or more assembly elections in a row account for 278 seats out of 543 in the Lok Sabha. It is also apposite to recall that the party last secured a majority in the House of the People as long ago as 1984 under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi. The next Congress government of P.V. Narasimha Rao (1991-96) did complete its full term and will be remembered among other things for unleashing economic reform. But Rao could not secure for the party a majority at the hustings, and actually helped it to arrive at the magic mark of 272 by a policy of ‘mergers and acquisitions’. The party briefly supported the United Front but in the space of three years (1996 to 1999), it helped pull down two United Front ministries – of H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral. This finally enabled Atal Bihari Vajpayee to put together a post-poll alliance till he was voted out of office in April 1999. The Congress gained little except to end up with an even smaller tally of seats in the Lok Sabha.

Yet, 1989 is perhaps a more significant milestone in the evolution of the party than 1996. The latter ended the era of Congress rule in New Delhi, but the former marked the creation of a new political landscape where no one party could corner power. Deals would have to be struck in order to come to power or to hold on to office. These would involve a measure of post-poll flexibility as well as deft manoeuvring for positions of advantage. The Congress showed it was up to the task under Narasimha Rao. But such tactical gains were bereft of any larger strategic vision aimed at reviving the sagging fortunes of the party.



India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharalal Nehru, still the longest serving head of government, once wrote that, ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish.’ He might have added, so does a political party. Nehru’s Congress was still a great battleground of ideas and ideologies. Even if the outcomes were often fuzzy, there was a minimal programme and an outlook that bound together the members of the party. This allowed space for strong regional leaders who posed no direct challenge to the premier all-India figure but had distinctive styles and preferences of their own.

The pendulum was set to swing the other way by the twilight of the Nehru era, when the Kamaraj Plan was brought into force to clip the wings of those with vaulting ambitions who might destabilise the party hierarchy. But the Nehru period was already drawing to a close before his death in May 1964. The collective leadership of the Congress settled first on Lal Bahadur Shastri and then on Indira Gandhi as successors to the mantle.

In the period between 1969 and 1972, Indira Gandhi substantially remade the party. The rout of the Congress in seven states in 1967 and the reduction of the party to a majority of only 283 in a House of 520 were the signal for a bitter battle. The struggle was one between the new prime minister and the Syndicate, the latter mainly resting on an older, regionally rooted set of leaders. The Congress split of 1969 and the polarisation on ‘left-right lines’ eventually culminated in historic victories for Indira Gandhi’s party, first in the Lok Sabha polls of 1971 and then in the state assembly elections after the war to liberate Bangladesh.



Each of Indira Gandhi’s great election victories was marked by a search for a unifying campaign theme. In 1971, it was garibi hatao or banish poverty. This was her fitting reply to critics and adversaries who sought to personalise the issue with ‘Indira hatao’ or Remove Indira. The route in 1977 was followed by a successful bid for power in 1980 for a ‘government that works’. Four years later, her assassination provided the theme ‘Indira ji ki antim iccha, boond boond se desh ki raksha’. Indira’s last wish, her party intoned, was to serve the nation to the last drop of blood.

That was the last time the party won a majority. It was the last time a single party won a clear 51% of the seats in the Lok Sabha. Since then the Indian polity has been much more fragmented and riven on lines of region, caste and community to enable any leader to aspire to such nationwide appeal. India, despite Congress President Dev Kant Barooah’s claim in 1976, was never reducible to Indira. But it was at least possible for an acolyte to think on such lines in her heyday. Even the hefty 48% vote share of the Congress in 1984 and the subsequent state assembly elections were her parting gift rather than the work of her successors.

Rajiv started with a landslide win and could only head down. Unlike his mother whose political engagement dated back to her days in Anand Bhavan and the vanar sena, the Labour Club in the UK and tongue lashing South Africans of Indian origin for staying aloof from blacks, he lacked a background in politics. None of this prevented Indira from permanently damaging her relationship with the liberal intelligentsia with the imposition of the Emergency. Rajiv went a step further. He failed to anticipate either the dissolution of the social base of the party in North India or to prepare for the rise of a more strident and assertive politics of ethnic assertion, principally in the form of Hindutva but also of caste-based parties in the Hindi belt. In many ways he even facilitated and sought to ride with the former, a strategy that eventually failed to yield dividends.



That phase did not end with Rajiv’s tragic death in May 1991 at the hands of a suicide squad of Eelam Tamil militants. What began with the shilanyas of November 1989 culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 under another Congress prime minister. Over the last decade, the Congress has yielded both the space for advocacy of a strong state to the BJP and the voice of the under-classes to new, assertive caste-based formations in much, though not all, of India.

In the past, and especially in the Indira period, one family managed to combine both these strands, if in a fluid, transient manner. It is a measure of the power of the Nehru family and the magic of the Gandhi name that the party, once out of power for a while, turned to another member of the clan to take charge once again. What drove the Congress leaders to Sonia Gandhi’s door in 1998 was the belief that she could evoke the memory of power, serve as a unifier of the organisation, and win for it a place in the people’s hearts.



The Congress is by no means the only party to give clan and kin such a role of prominence and power. As many as 14 national and state parties have done so, reflecting perhaps the significance of kinship in the body politic as much as in society. But few have turned to someone with lack of a past record of political engagement. By reserving the prime post of Congress president and leader of the parliamentary party for a member of one family, the organisation shuts the door to other women and men of talent in its own ranks.

The only person in the party’s history to inherit power was Rajiv in 1984; Indira earned her way to the top and only emerged as leader in her own right after a series of pitched battles, first within her party and then in the country at large. Jawaharlal Nehru did head the Congress, but the torch was passed into his hands not by Motilal Nehru as much as by Mahatma Gandhi who was confident that ‘the future of the nation is safe in his hands.’

The results are all too evident. Symbol ranks over substance. When confronted with resurgent and assertive Hindutva, Sonia Gandhi reacts in a tactical manner but with little evidence of any long-term plan for a strategic battle. One does not have to be a rationalist to realise that meeting the Shankaracharya at the Kumbh Mela in Prayag sends a clear signal that one is on the side of orthodoxy and not reform. The maths were the very forces that raged against Gandhiji’s bid to reform Hinduism.

More ominously, the entire Gujarat campaign in 2002 found Congress falling between two stools. It is not so much a question of visiting temples or religious sites as of not confronting the basic premises of Hindutva in a head-on manner. This is precisely what Jawaharlal Nehru did in 1948 and Indira Gandhi did prior to her own dalliance with a soft saffron line in 1983-84.



Such a principled stand may not have won the elections, but at least it would have marked the corner the party chooses to stand in at a time of deep divisions and strident campaigns preaching retributive violence. It is not enough for a political party to fete brave campaigners against carnage in New Delhi. This, even while behaving like a B-team of the saffron camp in Gandhinagar.

If in the early 1980s, the BJP via Gandhian socialism tried to be a clone of the Congress, the reverse appears the case at times. Even worse, it is unable to put the ruling party on the defensive on the issue of terrorism, even though two of its own most pre-eminent leaders fell prey to assassins. This proposition holds true despite significant initiatives at the state level as in the tie up with the PDP in Jammu and Kashmir.

The lack of a vision is matched in the economic sphere. The Congress’ own social base, as all surveys indicate, remains strongest among the lower social strata. This is still true in a general sense despite all the fissures in its vote banks, whether by left parties, the Hindutva social work groups, Dalit and Mandalite forces or regional formations. But the party has little to offer such groups by way of a vision and a programme.

True, in states such as MP and Chhattisgarh, decentralisation, land reforms and educational reforms have been given extra emphasis. But in the rest of the country, Congress governments, though less raucous than in the past, have hardly performed in an outstanding manner. In New Delhi, it has a cautious, halting view on issues like disinvestment, unable to endorse or oppose measures whole-heartedly. The fissures usually evident in a governing party are as visible in the case of the Congress. Perhaps it is so inured to power that it lacks the flexibility and reflexes that an opposition formation ought to have.

The social base of the party is large and diverse enough for it to search hard before it comes up with convincing answers. So far there is little evidence of a serious search for workable concepts that combine elements of pragmatism with a principled stance. If it wants to take on and supplant the BJP, now in power for nearly five years, the Congress will have to come up with more than secular slogans and a cry that prices are rising. If not, it will have to get ready to spend another spell in opposition, not a bad thing in itself but which until now has not been used creatively by the party.



The other dilemma is a critical one. For all the nods and winks especially after Mt. Abu, when the door was opened, if only a bit, to the possibility of sharing power, the party’s instincts militate against the idea. The only cases where there is a genuine power sharing on a somewhat equitable basis are in Maharashtra (with the NCP) and in Jammu and Kashmir (with Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s party). Both are post-poll arrangements, which may not last longer than a term in office. Each is held together by the fear that a lack of unity will let a strong regional adversary back into office.

But when one turns to the larger centrist parties, there is little room for compromise. The nub of the problem is the Samajwadi Party-Congress relationship. It is ironic that despite Mulayam Singh Yadav’s first ministry being propped up by the Congress after he first split from the Janata Dal, his relations with Congress have always been strained. This notwithstanding that he served as Union defence minister in a UF government that was possible only due to Congress support. But he refused to repay in full measure in April 1999 when the NDA ministry lost its majority. In November 2002, Sonia repaid him in the same coin by refusing to commit the Congress clutch of 23 MLAs in UP to his side when he tried toppling Mayawati.



The Congress is unwilling to face the fact that no one has secured a majority for his or her party for five general elections in a row. The first step would be to try arriving at a programmatic unity with like-minded forces on a minimal programme. This would keep options open for each party or group to pursue its own long term goals but enable them to join forces on issues of common concern. Further, the party would have to reconsider its ostrich-like reluctance to share power at the Centre. There is no reason why such hesitation should dictate policy. All the more so when the only Congress prime minister in the last decade was one who ran a minority government while doing a balancing act.

The problem is partly in its serious misreading of history. Too many in its higher echelons still believe that it is only a matter of time before people once again turn to the Congress. But it is possible that we are living through a transition: the Congress ceased to be the fulcrum of the polity during the Rajiv period. It is now ceasing to be the natural party of power. The BJP may not have evolved to fill that slot but in alliance with an array of forces it has taken over that space. The Congress’ dilemma is deeper than one of its divorce from power. The party needs to ask itself what it stands for.