Can the Congress find a future?

MANI SHANKAR AIYAR

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THE nineties were, for the Congress, a time of traumatic transition. In the Lok Sabha elections of November 1989, the party with close to three-fourths majority was reduced to an also-ran. A few months later, almost all the states which went to the polls replaced Congress governments with non-Congress coalitions. The main opponent of the Congress, the BJP, found itself with a BJP chief minister for the first time ever – and that too in a major state, Madhya Pradesh.

By mid-August of 1990, battle was joined between Mandal and kamandal. Vast swathes of backward caste voters who had already drifted to the two Yadavs – Laloo Prasad of Bihar and Mulayam Singh of Uttar Pradesh – further alienated themselves from the Congress in the name of Mandal; and through Lal Krishna Advani’s rath yatra, Hindu communalists found a champion who gave them a fiery rash of fresh hope.

Then, Laloo Prasad Yadav, by arresting Advani at Samastipur, emerged as a new messiah of the Muslim minority, one-upped a few days later by his then party colleague, UP Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav taking such strong action against the kar sevaks at Ayodhya at the end of October 1990 that he ousted Laloo as the favoured darling of the Muslims – earning the flattering sobriquet of ‘Maulana Mulayam’. The minorities, who had been loyal supporters of the Congress till the shilanyas of November 1989, started deserting the party in droves.

By the end of its first year out of power, the Congress was left with no community vote-bank; it was transformed into the residue of every social grouping. Its inclusive ethos, which had attracted the socially disadvantaged to its fold, became the very reason for each community seeking an exclusivist communitarian destiny elsewhere. The sharp deterioration in the economy, brought on by the prospect of the first Gulf War and then the war itself, persuaded virtually every social segment that the national cake could not be enlarged to secure a bigger share for everyone; equity and social justice came to mean grabbing a larger slice to the detriment of everyone else.

What little expectation there was of the magic of the Gandhi name reviving the fortunes of the Congress was snuffed out when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in the closing stages of the tenth Lok Sabha election on 21 May 1991. His grieving wife refused to accept the succession and her children were too young to be even considered. P.V. Narasimha Rao became prime minister in June 1991, remained in office for five years, and gained kudos from all sections of non Congress party and political opinion. Within the Congress, however, the centre did not hold.

A section, led by senior Congressmen Arjun Singh and N.D. Tiwari, broke away and the Tiwari Congress had its brief moment in the sun. Soon thereafter, on the eve of the 1996 eleventh Lok Sabha elections, what little remained of the Congress in Tamil Nadu drifted almost entirely with their leader, G.K. Moopanar, to the Tamil Maanila Congress. So, when the reverses of those elections confirmed that public opinion of Rao conformed to the Congress opinion of him, it was only a matter of time before the Congress did what it had not done since independence, and certainly not as bluntly since its foundation in 1885 – cast aside a Congress president like a used tissue paper and obliterate him from the collective consciousness of the party.

 

 

It was Rao’s hand-picked successor who was the first to do the Brutus on him. Sitaram Kesri dug his dagger into Rao’s back even before it was quite turned. But mere months later, the plenary session of the All-India Congress Committee of August 1997 persuaded large numbers of Congressmen that Kesri was no vernacular Congressman come to restore the Congress to its grassroots but a vicious factional infighter whose coterie had concentrated all power in its venal hands. Therefore, the party began disintegrating when, after the fall of the Gujral government, the twelfth Lok Sabha elections were called in December 1997. The most visible manifestation of that discontent was Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, founded at the end of that month.

At this, Sonia Gandhi overcame her inhibitions over entering the political arena. (Vir Sanghvi, now editor of The Hindustan Times, tells me she vouchsafed him the confidence that the very photographs and portraits of her family hung on the walls of her home reprimanded her for placing her preference for privacy above her public duty.)

On 29 December 1997, it was announced in New Delhi that she would be canvassing for Congress votes in the upcoming elections. The news was conveyed to me on the platform of a public meeting in Calcutta, the first held by Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, minutes after Mamata had announced that I was her candidate for Barrackpore. I returned to Delhi but not to the Congress; when Sonia Gandhi asked me why, I said that I had asked her to lead the Congress, not come to the aid of the Kesri Congress. She demurred, affirming that there was only one Congress.

However, it took but a fortnight for me to be thoroughly disillusioned with what little I saw of the Trinamool Congress; so, I went back to Tamil Nadu to contest my old seat of Mayiladuturai as an independent. I lost my deposit but got more votes than any Congress candidate in the state bar one. Such was the condition of the Kesri Congress. After the country-wide results came in, it was clear that the public had given Kesri the thumbs down. Sonia Gandhi became Congress president at 5:30 pm on 14 March 1998. I rejoined the Congress at 5:30 pm on 14 March 1998.

 

 

Not much more than a year later, yet another Lok Sabha election, the thirteenth, came upon the country after the Congress failed to validate its claim to having a majority to replace the Vajpayee government. That contretemps contributed to a mini-revolt in the Congress Working Committee (CWC). Sharad Pawar, Purno Sangma and Tariq Anwar left the party, followed by no one of any consequence. But between the fall of Vajpayee and the elections of September-October 1999, Pervez Musharraf came to the rescue of the BJP-led NDA. His war over Kargil wiped out all traces of every other electoral consideration, enabling the NDA to coast to a comfortable victory, reducing the Congress tally to a bare 110 or so, the lowest Congress score ever.

Yet, these electoral reverses did not provoke a reaction against the leadership. On the contrary, when the arch-member of the Kesri coterie, Jitendra Prasad, challenged Sonia Gandhi in the party polls of 2000, he got all of 94 votes in opposition to her 9000 plus. For the Congress recognised even in defeat that abandoning Sonia Gandhi would amount to buying a one-way to ticket to final disappearance. She had won all the state assembly elections of November 1998 in Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh (losing only the Christian state of Mizoram – which ought to have buried, but did not, the canard about her origins being the prime Congress disability).

 

 

The Congress party’s confidence vote in her leadership paid off: the Congress is now in office in 15 states, including J&K where its chief minister will in due course take over the baton from Mufti Mohammed Sayeed. Moreover, Himachal Pradesh in March this year revealed what a pyrrhic victory Gujarat has been for the BJP. Sonia is the trump card, and the Congress is not about to surrender the one exponential factor it has going in its favour.

We are now on the eve of the next (fourteenth) Lok Sabha polls. These are not due till September 2004, but the betting seems to be that the NDA government cannot afford another divisive budget and dare not risk a third bad monsoon in mid-2004. February 2004 seems, therefore, to be the likely date for the next Lok Sabha election. Is the Congress ready for it?

Clearly, a Congress which relies entirely on its exponential asset – Sonia Gandhi – is neither a likely winner nor one that deserves to win. The party has to get its act together, organizationally and ideologically. What are the key determinants of the Congress actually being able to live up to the expectations reposed in it by all those who dread another five years of BJP-led governance or, worse, five years of undiluted BJP governance?

First, the organizational issues. In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress lost over a hundred seats (my provisional count is 135) by a reversible percentage of the vote. A mere three to four per cent change in the poll, and all other factors remaining equal, the Congress should be able to nearly double its performance by concentrating on these seats. Of course, this has to be offset against the seats won by the Congress by reversible margins, because in those seats the Congress is as vulnerable as in the counterpart seats where last time’s non-Congress winner is vulnerable. It is this kind of micro-level exercise the Congress first needs to undertake to identify seats where by better organisation alone victory is possible – and victory last time round is not undermined.

 

 

Such a micro-level, ‘vulnerable constituency-wise’ exercise might also throw up patterns of problems which require a macro solution that would impact most at the vulnerable micro level. Impressionistically, it appears to me that a disproportionately large number of such seats fall in the tribal belt. The scheduled tribes have been traditional Congress voters. Now there is a belt of seething tribal discontent and, therefore, tribal violence running south from Nepal to the northern Telengana areas of Andhra Pradesh.

I believe we have signally failed the tribals in recent times. Their problems have thus far fallen outside the purview of the political economy of the reforms process. There is, therefore, inadequate attention or priority given to tribal development. The last major Congress initiative in this regard was the Tribal Sub-Plan (TSP). It still remains the sheet-anchor of development in tribal areas, but because that was long ago, the ritual invocation of the TSP has now become something of a political cliché. No one opposes the Tribal Sub-Plan, but few are enthused by it.

 

 

The absence of any imaginative initiative in favour of the tribal community is aggravated by the very real developmental burden which tribal areas are carrying in the name of environmental protection. A state like Chhatisgarh, for example, boasts 70 per cent forest cover; but restrictions on development projects in the name of the Forest Conservation Act fall disproportionately on states that have traditionally conserved forests and hardly touch those sinning states which have wiped out their forest cover decades ago. This is patently unfair. The environmental burden of providing the nation as a whole with adequate forest cover needs to be borne equitably by everybody.

There is probably no single cause more responsible for the virtually uncontrollable spread of Naxalism in tribal India than the unimaginative and unsympathetic implementation of FCA. A Congress which imaginatively examines the problem and provides a constructive, detailed solution in time to reach it to far-flung tribal communities would snatch back the tribal vote; otherwise, I fear the sharpening of the communal conflict between Christian and non-Christian tribal communities by the sangh parivar will fetch the BJP tribal votes that should be denied it for the sake of common humanity.

A simple return to the original 1927 definition of ‘forests’ might be the key to discovering an environmentally sustainable solution to the roadblocks on the path to development which are fuelling the worst rebellion against the modern Indian state since independence – a problem barely noticed by the mainstream media because it impacts not at all on middle class preoccupations. (Incidentally, a Congress which allows its agenda to be set by Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg is a Congress which will be thrashed at the polls – and deservedly so. We should leave The Times of India to continue turning into an advertisers’ gazette!)

The other major organizational change required for the winning of elections is proving very difficult to translate into actual practice. After the debacle of the last Lok Sabha election, the Congress president had appointed an introspection group under the chairmanship of A.K. Antony (who has since become the chief minister of Kerala). I was the principal rap-porteur. (Our report, I say with no false modesty, is an Encyclopaedia Congressica).

 

 

We recommended that Congress candidates be selected at least three-to-six months before the due date of elections in order to give them time to prepare for the polls instead of hanging around AICC headquarters till the last moment before nominations close, as has regrettably been the usual practice. The recommendation was accepted by the Congress Working Committee (CWC) but it has not proved possible to implement it. There are practical problems; there is also an adamant mindset anchored in past practice, privilege and patronage that is proving difficult to break. I remain deeply persuaded that choosing our candidates well in advance could give us up to 50 seats more than we will otherwise get (nearly 10 per cent of the total number of seats at stake).

The third key measure would be the finalisation of the state teams that will take us into the elections. In far too many states, including my home state of Tamil Nadu, no one knows who will constitute the Congress arrowhead for the home-run. There is no way everyone can be satisfied, and in a party with as much inner-party democracy as the Congress has, it would be impossible (besides being undesirable) to wipe out dissidence and indiscipline entirely. But a certain coherence between the central High Command and its team in the field at state level should make for better performance at the hustings than meandering confusion and contradiction till nominations close, with factions pitting their energies more against each other than against the enemy at the gates.

 

 

The fourth important organizational requirement is alliances, particularly in those states where the Congress is exceptionally weak. I would give the highest priority and attention in this regard to Tamil Nadu and Bihar/Jharkhand. We have almost everything going for us in Tamil Nadu but a coherent party. The merger of August 2002 has restored the integrity of some 15-20 per cent of the persistent non-Dravidian party vote. As both the AIADMK and the DMK fall far short of a majority on their own, it is the Dravidian party which gets the Congress vote and so goes on to cobble together the larger coalition that is an almost sure-shot winner.

Neither Dravidian party is, however, today an immediately acceptable partner to the Congress. The AIADMK’s Jayalalitha, inebriated as is her wont with power, has quite gratuitously targeted Sonia Gandhi, and the DMK’s utterly unprincipled alliance with the BJP – unprincipled for the incompatibility between the fiercely atheistic traditions of the party and the sadhus and sants of the sangh parivar – makes any relationship between the Congress and the DMK unacceptable unless and until the DMK quits the NDA.

The unexpected advantage of this stand-off between the Congress and the two Dravidian parties is that it gives the Congress the space to build itself before choosing its electoral path. Sadly, nine months after the merger (an entire pregnancy!) Congress unity and cohesion are still to be born. At least 10 seats, more probably nearer 20, and by a stretch of imagination up to 25, are going a-begging in Tamil Nadu for want of key organizational decisions.

As far as Bihar and Jharkhand are concerned, the aim should be to keep the BJP and its cohorts out – and fashion the relationship with the colourful Laloo Prasad Yadav accordingly. In UP, the Congress so far has been co-opting the loser ex post facto. It should perhaps think of coopting the winner ex ante. Happily, the BJP is such a reduced force in the state that it cannot be the winner, although, by Congress default, a defeated BJP can find itself on the winning side. This is the contingency we should dedicate ourselves to forestalling.

As regards West Bengal/Tripura, we must battle the communists in the state while keeping open the door to them in Delhi. And perhaps in Andhra Pradesh, some understanding with the communists might be necessary to keep the very vulnerable TDP-BJP alliance at bay.

 

 

This is not the place to go into a number of other detailed organizational improvements desperately needed. But the four key steps mentioned above should quite easily take us over the 200 seat watermark.

Two hundred, however, is not enough. In any case, organizational steps alone would not guarantee even such a modest outcome. For the Congress to re-emerge as the natural party of governance, it is essential that it acquire an ideological profile which over the turbulent nineties (and into the first three years of the 21st century) has grown fuzzy. The dramatic transitions of the last 15 years or so have resulted in the Congress drifting from its anchoring of the past and the anchoring of the past sometimes drifting from the Congress. To re-invent itself, the Congress has to face up squarely over the next few months to what it was and what it wishes to be – and convey this unambiguously and succinctly to the electorate.

 

 

The party, therefore, needs to know itself. Only then can it tell the world who it is – and why it is different to the alternative. Congress ideology over approximately the first half-century of independence was based on four fundamental premises and principles: democracy, secularism, socialism, and non-alignment. In respect of each of these, the challenge before the Congress is to decide whether advantage lies in an imitative positioning to arrest the drift of Congress support or a differential positioning to present a clear alternative.

Fortunately, there is no argument over democracy: no one suggests any tinkering with the basic structure of democracy written into our Constitution, and the NDA’s Constitution Review Commission, launched with so much fanfare, has happily proved a damp squib. However, the ugly truth is that ours is a democracy gone stale. The legislatures at the centre and in the states have lost their early bloom, their freshness; the esteem in which legislators are held is at an all-time low.

On the moral scale, the people wedge politicians somewhere between dacoits and prostitutes. A rejuvenation of our democracy has, therefore, become necessary. This means the Congress championing electoral reforms to raise the moral tone of our politics and reforms aimed at improving the functioning of legislatures to enlarge the scope for the constructive contribution of legislatures to governance.

 

 

Equally, perhaps even more important, is a deepening of democracy. Representative democracy cannot and should not be about under a thousand MPs (Lok and Rajya Sabha), and under 5000 MLAs/MLCs representing a billion people. The panchayats and nagarpalikas have now added three million elected representatives to our democracy, of whom as many as one million are women.

India, at the start of its time of transition, qualified to be the world’s biggest democracy; it, however, failed the test of being the world’s most representative democracy. In December 1992, Parliament passed the 73rd and 74th amendments incorporating two whole new parts in the Constitution – Part IX (‘The Panchayats’) and Part IX A (‘The Municipalities’). In the decade that has since gone by, India has emerged as far and away the world’s most representative and least gender-biased democracy.

Yet, to go by The Indian Express and The Hindustan Times, you would not know. For contemporary Panchayati Raj must rank as the world’s least commented-on political and social revolution. Just how revolutionary has been borne out by one partial survey in Karnataka which has shown that although reservations for women in the gram panchayats is restricted to 33 per cent, the proportion of elected women members in the panchayats at the most grassroots level of all – the village level, the allegedly most backward level – is a staggering 48 per cent. True, there is a bibi-bhanji brigade. But since when has there not been a beta-bhanja brigade? And whose son, after all, is George W. Bush?

Unfortunately, even political class perceptions of the role of grassroots institutions in our democracy have been shaped by an uninterested media. My present preoccupations have taken me not only to my Tamil Nadu constituency (where two rounds of local bodies elections have been held, in 1996 and 2001) but also afforded me the opportunity interacting with thousands of panchayat/nagarpalika representatives all over the country, from Arunachal Pradesh to Lakshadweep.

As I meet these thousands of young men and women in positions of real responsibility for the development and welfare of their localities, I am convinced that this is where the rejuvenation of our democracy is beginning – much more than in candidates filing affidavits swearing on oath that they are not the criminals everyone takes them to be, which animates most of the discussion over clean democracy at the talk shops of the India International Centre and the India Habitat Centre.

 

 

The problem is that we have a shell without substance. The mandatory provisions of the constitution have, by and large been fulfilled. But when it comes to empowering the elected local bodies to actually function as ‘units of local self-government’, specifically with regard to ‘planning’ and ‘implementation’ of ‘programmes of economic development and social justice’ in regard to the devolved functions, there is a huge gap to be covered.

The Congress is the only party in the country to have seized the opportunity provided by the tenth anniversary celebrations of the passage of the constitutional amendments to draft a detailed five-year action plan (2003-08) to fill the panchayat/nagarpalika shells with the substance of ‘self-government’. The draft plan is currently being taken (by me) to every state and union territory for discussion and ratification.

 

 

By about mid-August (around Rajiv Gandhi’s 60th birth anniversary on 20 August), it is intended to call a national convention of the party to adopt the draft action plan as finalised, first, by the state conventions, and then by the CWC. At that stage, lakhs of Congress members/office-bearers in the local bodies in every village and mohalla of the country will acquire a vital stake in a Congress Lok Sabha victory. Indeed, lakhs of non-Congress local body representatives, all elected and, therefore, opinion-makers with decisive influence on a large swathe of the people, would also see a personal interest in working towards a Congress government at the centre pledged to a specific five-year action plan for realising Mahatma Gandhi’s dream of poorna swarajya through gram swarajya, as translated into the Constitution primarily through the constitutional initiative taken by Rajiv Gandhi.

The integration of these elected Congress or Congress-inclined members of the local bodies into the mainstream of the Congress party’s organizational structure is an immediate and pressing need. Its fulfilment will provide the Congress with the cadres it requires to meet the new challenges which a mass base alone cannot guarantee.

The most difficult ideological positioning is over secularism. The choice for the Congress is not, as is often mischievously or maliciously projected, between secularism and soft Hindutva, but between soft and hard secularism. In terms of principle, the Congress has no difficulty in projecting a clear secularism easily differentiated from the idiom and concerns of the Hindutva brigade. But when it comes to the application of secular principles (over which there is no dispute) to specific issues (over which there is dispute), confusion does arise between the hard line and the soft line. Soft secularism is to be commended for its sensitivity to communitarian concerns, majority and minority. Hard secularism has the disadvantage of being easily portrayed as anti-religious in a country which is deeply religious.

 

 

Communal forces raise issues which are communitarian in origin and communal in expression. The classic example is the Ram temple at Ayodhya. The communitarian desire for a temple at the Ramjanmabhoomi is perfectly understandable. A secularist need have no difficulty with the demand. But when this communitarian demand is projected not as ‘mandir banayenge’ but as ‘mandir wahin banayenge’, and that too as ‘Ram ki saugandh ham khate hain/Mandir wahin banayenge’, the communitarian demand becomes communal for ‘wahin’ does not refer to the location in general but to the garb griha being built at the exact location of the mirab, entailing the dismantling of a minority place of worship for the construction of a majority place of worship. That is when a communitarian demand becomes a communal demand.

That is also when a secular response become imperative. But that, alas, is usually when the Congress shies away from or inordinately delays a response. What the Congress must realise is that an imitative response makes no ideological or even political sense – for the issue has been chosen by the Other, it is being played out by the Other on a field of its choosing, and if, by omission or commission, we yield ground to the Other, it will always and invariably be advantage BJP – because the BJP is sincerely communal and the sangh parivar/VHP unabashedly so.

Therefore, on issues raised by the BJP and its sangh parivar/VHP, a rapid action hard secular response is the only valid response possible. When, however, we are projecting secularism on our ground, on issues raised by us as distinct from responding to issues raised by the Other, the Congress must combine, as Mahatma Gandhi particularly did, an unyielding secularism with sensitivity to religious sentiment and communitarian considerations.

 

 

Fortunately, the Congress does have a body of straightforward secular answers to tough communal questions. The questions were culled from sangh parivar/VHP propaganda and raised by Congresspersons themselves at a high-level training camp held in Bhopal in June 2002. The questions were responded to by, first, a panel of non-Congress experts in secularism and, then, by a panel of Congress experts. The camp also adopted a Secular Creed, a charter for secularism. The work done in Bhopal can be filtered by the party into a manual of secularism which would arm the average Congress worker to take on the malice of communalism.

The fact is that the inner-party dialectic between soft and hard secularism is almost as old as our century-old party. It is after all, the same party which produced Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Bose which also produced Madan Mohan Malaviya and Lala Lajpat Rai, both of whom were Presidents of the Hindu Mahasabha, not to mention the Ali brothers and Jinnah himself, who were ardent Congressmen till they chose to slide down the slippery slope of communalism.

In the immediate aftermath of independence, once the nation had got over the immediate shock of the Mahatma’s murder at the hands of an ardent Hindutvist, a furious argument over soft and hard secularism arose between the Nehruvians, on the one hand, and the soft secularists, on the other, over the response to the exodus of Hindus from East Pakistan in the summer/monsoon months of 1949; the Nehru-Liaqat pact of April 1950 (over which an infuriated Shyama Prasad Mookherjee resigned from the Nehru cabinet and went on to found the Jana Sangh); the election of Purushottam Das Tandon over Acharya Kriplani as Congress President at the Nasik session in September 1950; and President Rajendra Prasad attending the opening ceremonies of the rebuilt Somnath mandir, but only in his personal capacity not as President, because the Council of Ministers had formally advised him not to go as the presence of the nation’s President at a revanchist Hindu ceremony would compromise the secular character of the Indian state.

 

 

In September 1951, a year after Nasik, Nehru, taking a leaf out of Mahatma Gandhi’s tactic at Haripura, got all the CWC members to resign from Tandon’s team, thus obliging Tandon himself to resign. Then, in the same month that the Jana Sangh was formally launched (with both Vajpayee and Advani present), Nehru, who had become Congress president after the resignation of Tandon, pronounced the bottom line of the secular creed at a meeting in Ram Lila grounds on Gandhi Jayanti, 1951: ‘If any man raises his hand against another in the name of religion, I shall fight him till the last breath of my life, whether from within the government or outside.’

The litmus test of this hard secular line came in early 1952 when the country went to the polls for the first Lok Sabha elections. These were the first-ever elections held in India on the basis of universal adult suffrage. Virtually every voter had a searing personal memory of Partition. The Hindutva challenge came from a pincer movement of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Jana Sangh. Both were worsted. Secularism was restored both in the Congress party and in the governance of the nation. Nehru’s hard-line secularism not only won the day, it made both the party and the country safe for secularism for the next 35 years.

 

 

For the last 15 years or so, the party has once again been engulfed in an argument within over what one might call the Purushottam Das Tandon-Arun Nehru-P.V. Narasimha Rao line and the Congress party’s mainstream secularism. Rao’s attempt to be a better Hindu than the Hindutva-wallah ended in the disaster of Black Sunday, 6 December 1992, the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the 36 hours of quiescence which followed when the Hindu fanatics who had spirited away the murtis of Ram lalla were given cover and protection to restore the idols at the site of the obliterated masjid. It was the final straw for the Muslim minority. They abandoned the Congress en masse. It is only now that they are beginning to edge their way back.

The lesson to be learned is that there are times when ‘those on the middle path are knocked down by traffic from both ends.’ I owe the felicitous phrase to K. Natwar Singh on Atal Bihari Vajpayee: it applies also to the choice the Congress must make to re-emerge as the standard-bearer of secularism as Nehru did half a century ago. Soft secularism of the V.N. Gadgil-K.M. Munshi kind (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan secularism, I call it) will not make the Congress the champion of the secular cause. In the face of today’s challenge, a hard secular line of the 1949-51 kind a la Jawaharlal Nehru will not only get back the vast secular vote we have substantially lost, more important than winning elections it is the only way of once again corking the communal genie for the foreseeable future.

I am confident the strong secular line will prevail for India is secular because its people are secular. They are not into the building of our contemporary nationhood at the behest of sadhus or mullahs or padres; it is a secular India at peace and harmony with itself that they want. Gujarat December 2002 was an aberration brought on by the Congress campaign on the ground not matching the secular professions of its rhetoric. The choice between Narendra Modi’s communalism and a Nehruvian brand of secularism was not starkly placed. The electorate, therefore, plumped for the ‘asli cheez’. Fortunately, the Himachal elections of February-March 2003 have shown that our electorate is back on the secular track. The Congress would be well advised to follow suit.

 

 

We may now turn to the third pillar of the party’s ideological construct – socialism, more strictly speaking, the ‘socialistic pattern of society’ envisaged at Avadi 1955, deriving from Gandhiji’s ‘talisman’, summed up in Indira Gandhi’s immortal 1971 slogan, ‘Woh kehte hain Indira hatao; hum kehte hain garibi hatao’. Till the economic reforms of the early 1990s, the poor saw the Congress as their party, the party of the poor, however much economists might have seen the party’s policies as doing little to actually remove poverty.

With the launch of a ‘new economic policy’ in 1991, designed apparently as making up for the mistakes of the past rather than building on the successes of the Avadi process, the Congress, after the successive defeats of 1996, 1997 and 1999 went into an intensive phase of introspection over the course and direction of reforms. That exercise in introspection ended with the economic resolution adopted by the plenary of the Congress in Bangalore in March 2001, after which the simmering inner-party argument over reforms has ceased. Now that there is consensus within the party on the content and presentation of economic reforms, the Congress needs to concentrate on an agenda for repositioning itself as the party of the poor.

 

 

In my view, the key to such repositioning lies in pledging the party to the three Fs in order to attain the three Es. The three Fs relate to the simultaneous devolution of functions, functionaries and finances to ensure effective devolution to the elected panchayats and nagarpalikas. This is elaborated in the draft action plan (2003-08) mentioned earlier. The objective is to attain the three Es: empowerment; entitlements; enrichment.

‘Empowerment’ needs little elaboration: it refers to ensuring that elected local bodies effectively become units of local self-government undertaking the planning and implementation of programmes of economic development and social justice in respect of devolved functions, as envisaged in the constitution. Grassroots development through grassroots democracy.

‘Entitlements’ refers to the level, structure and pattern of government spending on the poor and, in regard to devolved functions, ensuring that it is not the bureaucracy but elected representatives who become the delivery agent for development. A cursory reading of parliamentary standing committee reports on Tenth Plan allocations for pro-poor programmes shows that allocations for rural and urban development, especially for poverty alleviation and employment generation programmes, are a derisory fraction of the sums required to eliminate the grossest forms of poverty within a reasonable timeframe.

 

 

In contrast, the Planning Commission treats with much greater generosity the demands of ministries whose direct impact on the poor is marginal or staggered over time. Worse, the mid-term appraisal of the Ninth Plan shows that the still bureaucratically-driven delivery mechanism for pro-poor programmes results in only a small fraction of budget grants being actually spent, besides spending being concentrated in the last quarter of the year to the detriment of evenly spread development over the whole of the year.

The Congress president has already publicly proclaimed that under a Congress government at the centre, funds for devolved functions will be channelled direct to the panchayats/nagarpalikas (that could amount to some Rs 20,000 crore a year!). She has also announced that a Congress government at the centre will ensure that bureaucratically-dominated DRDAs (District Rural Development Agencies) will be merged with representatively-run district panchayats (zila parishads) under the chairpersonship of the ZP president, not the collector/CEO. The two steps together, elaborated in the draft action plan, will galvanize the poor and those who depend on the votes of the poor. It is the only way to get from BDO raj to panchayati raj.

Now, the Congress needs to work on its sums to present to the poor a truly dramatic contrast between present NDA spending and proposed Congress spending on programmes of immediate relevance to the poor, that is, the entitlements of the poor. A key component of this must relate to food security to take advantage of overflowing foodgrains stocks and foreign exchange reserves; another key component must relate to public investment and employment generation to revive farm and non-farm rural economic activity (particularly handlooms) and compensate for the staggering decline in growth rates of both rural and urban employment (including educated unemployment among the youth) which have plagued the economy over the decade of the nineties and worsened dramatically as we wheeled into the 21st century.

‘Enrichment’: Agriculture and related activities (horticulture, pisci-culture, animal husbandry, minor forest produce etc.), especially in drought-prone areas which grow oilseeds, pulses and coarse cereals, must be seen to receive a massive boost if the Congress comes to office. Exercises in this regard have been underway within the party for a while and the Congress needs to unveil its plans soon.

 

 

Additionally, the Congress should aggressively project the deeply disappointing performance of both GDP and employment growth rates in the last quinquennium, not only the setback since the ever-expanding growth rates of the period 1992-97, but also the fall in key indicators of growth compared to the eighties, the decade of the comeback of Indira Gandhi and the blossoming of Rajiv Gandhi, the last decade of socialism before we embarked on the first decade of reforms.

The last six years have seen a collapse of both performance and expectations. Scandal after scandal has plagued the process of LPG (liberalisation, privatisation, globalisation). We have moved in one go from stodgy socialism to crony capitalism. The Bangalore economic policy resolution shows how Congress will put reforms back on track. The next step is to incorporate grassroots development through grassroots democracy at the heart of the economic reforms process instead of consigning Panchayati Raj to an adjunct status as has been the regrettable story so far.

When the three Fs are seen as the road map to the three Es, that is, as the direct and perceptible outcome of the reforms process, public support can be harnessed for the next and much more painful phase of reforms. Not otherwise. It is the failure to appreciate this that has turned to ashes the hopes for growth vested in the NDA. The Congress must show that it appreciates the significance of fashioning an economic policy for a democratic polity.

 

 

Finally, the conundrum of non-alignment in an un-aligned world. We need to understand and explain that while relations between the East and the West have changed as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, relations between the North and the South remain as they were. Nothing has changed for us. Our problems and preoccupations are what they were. Worse, the naked unipolarity of the evolving world order has already constricted our diplomatic space and threatens to constrict it further. Foreign policy is the external expression of our internal sovereignty. But we cannot in isolation recover our freedom of thought, expression and action in international affairs. We need friends in similar need. Therefore, we have to reinvent non-alignment, not so much as a doctrine but as a movement.

We and NAM should start building bridges to the European Union which, over Iraq, has demonstrated its disquiet over unilateralism based on one law for the superpower and quite another for the lesser breed. Europe, let us remember, is the western peninsula of the same landmass whose southern peninsula is our subcontinent. It is the whole of the Eurasian landmass, not just the developing countries of Asia, that are under siege by the forces of unilateral hegemony. A pan-Eurasian endeavour to restore multipolar balance is a key imperative of contemporary diplomacy. That is the enduring lesson of the war on Iraq.

Friendly relations with the US are desirable but the tilt to Talbot initiated by Jaswant Singh desperately needs review. A self-respecting country of over a billion people, comprising a sixth of humankind, cannot and should not look to others, however powerful, to pull its irons out of the Pakistani fire. The Congress road-map for a peaceful, negotiated resolution of our differences with Pakistan is necessary.

 

 

So must the Congress prepare and present foreign policy options that impinge on and appeal to ordinary folk in different regions of the country. Thus, for the east and north-east, cut off from the rest of the country by the dog-in-the manger refusal of Bangladesh to grant surface transit facilities, subject to relentless demographic pressure from neighbours, inflicted with destructive floods which cannot be contained without a river waters augmentation agreement with Bangladesh, power starved in the absence of an agreement with China to harness the 60,000 MW of power which can be generated at the bend the Tsang-po makes as it becomes, first, the Siang river of Arunachal Pradesh and then the Brahmaputra of Assam, and denied access through Myanmar to the lucrative markets of south China and ASEAN, a new framework of regional cooperation with Bangladesh, China, Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan is of far greater import to the people of the east and north-east than the quarrel with Pakistan.

 

 

In the south, Sri Lanka is, of course, a perennial but given the south Indian presence in the Gulf and south-east Asia, it is ‘Look East’ (through the Bay of Bengal community and Indo-ASEAN relations) and ‘Look West but not too far west, i.e., Gulf-wards’ that is of immediate importance. The dynamic growth centres of western India need, of course, to look further west for they are best placed to exponentially increase foreign direct investment in the economy (the record in respect of which has been deeply disappointing in recent years). For Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal, Nepal is where foreign policy begins and domestic peace (an end to neo-Maoism in Nepal) and economic development (flood control and power-generation) depends.

The Congress must think through these ideological issues with all deliberate speed, translate its positions into a manifesto drafted and approved months before the general elections, and then communicate the essence of its positioning in readily understood words to the electorate at large through well trained Congress workers and its elected cadre in the local bodies. Such an ideologically candid and coherent Congress, which takes the organizational steps flagged earlier, will be a Congress which cannot be beaten. Seeing that is, however, easier than getting there. That is what calls for high statesmanship and bloody hard work. It is going to be a very long, very hot summer!

 

* The author is an office-bearer of the Congress, but the views expressed here bind none but him.

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