Bridging the divide


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POLITICAL realities are multi faceted and do not easily lend themselves to correspondence or complimentary analysis with theories, especially theories which seek to define concepts like political reinvention and revival. As Sorel has observed; ‘Politics are not a drama where scenes follow one another after a methodical plan… Politics are a conflict of which chance seems to be modifying the whole course.’

It is necessary to acknowledge the difficulty in attributing set causes or drawing up immaculate balance sheets when studying political processes and the fortunes of a political party. The best that a student of this subject can offer is to attribute relevance correctly to the various issues in circulation and present an insight into how those issues can be modified to contribute to the fortunes of a political party in a positive and meaningful way.

The Indian National Congress has known sharp and often sudden vicissitudes in a relatively short period of time. Its history and role as a party of government and now as a force of opposition holds prolonged but varied aspects of political success and failure. Each of these taken in conjunction with the political realities of India provides answers to what contributed to the decline of the Congress after five decades of near supremacy. Subsequently, it is within a study of these same aspects of power and politics that we can find avenues for a regeneration which must occur before the Congress is ready to return to the Treasury benches.

The question of how a revival of the Indian National Congress is to be affected has invited voluminous responses, indeed so much so that it has become an ancillary subject to the larger dimension of the studies of Indian politics. Wide ranging intellectual offerings have meditated upon the loss of traditional vote-banks, thus implying social change or a change in the voting preferences of society. Other studies have held the insistence of the Congress leadership to reject coalition politics as a major cause for its isolation from government. Some have identified the systems problems within the organisational structure of the party as the greatest impediment to its rejuvenation. Still others have sought to permeate the smokescreen of ideological directives and faulted the policies and principles of the party when these do not stand up to electoral scrutiny.



These are only some of the multiple factors that have contributed to the decline of the Congress party. Considered in isolation none of them are vital, but as a generic accumulation they have contributed heavily to prolong the unhappy condition of the Congress and its members. A brief and contemporary look at the history of the Indian National Congress is necessary to understand exactly when and how matters began to slip for India’s oldest political party.

Last month Sonia Gandhi completed five years as President of the Congress, a full term in office if you like. In these last five years the situation of the Congress has grown better than its opponents would like but remains worse than what its friends and supporters would hope for. The present Congress president took over a party which had suffered several dislocations in its last spell in power. None was as serious as the loss of its political provenance which some writers have characterized as nothing less than the collapse of the Nehruvian consensus as Prime Minister Narasimha Rao presided over the transition of the Congress party from its Nehruvian moorings into the previously uncharted but (for Congressmen) still uncomfortable waters of consensus government.

To begin with this approach drew support from individuals who later became standard bearers of the internal revolt to his leadership. Arjun Singh described Rao’s efforts as ‘…the beginning of a new political experimentation in the running of the country.’ Consequently the party accommodated the right wing and resigned itself to hopeless alliances in regions which until then had symbolised its electoral citadels. The impact of those practices have not yet subsided and can be felt overwhelmingly in crucial provinces like Uttar Pradesh which alone holds 15 per cent of India’s parliamentary seats.

Alternatively the Rao government did set a radical and necessary economic agenda through its new economic policy, yet by their own admissions Congress ministers concluded: ‘The "failure" of our liberalization strategy lies essentially in our inability to "sell" the idea of economic reform. We left it to the few chosen civil servants operating in the cloisters of industrial and business associations. Political salesmanship, vividly associated with our earlier socialist programmes of nationalization etc. was conspicuously absent. We failed in PR, not in the substance of our reform package.’



This then has been one of the most severe problems for the Congress party and its leadership, that of presentation or more precisely, positioning. On secularism, economic policy, approach to coalitions, and on aspects of its organisation and structure, the Congress has sufferred from a crisis of presentation. This crisis of presentation is all the more crucial in a polity dominated by a particular kind of bourgeois assumption about politics. The opinion makers, pressure groups and levers of influence who currently dominate political thinking in India cater to their own class, a class incidentally which found its voice through economic empowerment under Congress regimes.

The paradox of the politics in the last decade has been the creation of this substantial middle class which owes no electoral allegiance to the source of its generation. Indeed why should it? Typically the Congress party finds itself half stuck in history and half in combat with the daily practicalities of modern day politics. While its apparatchiks shuffle between the passages of the AICC exchanging notes and intrigue with one another, the pyramidical and deferential party power structure grows ever distant from the aggregation of causes which require its support and representation.



It is difficult to assess the goal towards which the Congress wishes to mobilise its audiences and at another level, its support. The traditional pro-poor or alternatively ‘left of centre’ approach which served the party well until the 1980s finds the spectre of casteism blocking its way. The poor of India are no longer categorised as such, instead poverty has the label of caste identity stamped upon it which requires peeling away.

For the Congress it has become near impossible to promote the interests of a particular class without paying the price of social reform, and social reform in India is politically a double edged sword. It is the political identity of the Congress which is the issue for these constituencies, fractured as they are along lines of casteist, communal and economic loyalties.

In his book The Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani narrates this problem in the following way: ‘The crisis of Congress became a crisis of the state itself and hence a crisis in the terms of Indian identity. Congress had functioned as a centrist party, spokesman for no single category or interest, and its coalitional character enabled individuals and groups throughout India to make a nest in it. Its pragmatic political determination in the two decades after independence had managed to confine the scope of the alternative definitions of Indianness which Hindu nationalists proposed. The later intensification of democratic competition forced it to appeal to more exclusive identities: this broke the old pattern of political representation and created opportunities for rival parties both in the regions and at the Centre.’



In 1979 Mary Carras, the American writer set out a number of views and hypothesis regarding the role of leadership in the Congress party. Her analysis is relevant to any contemporary study of the Congress leadership and leadership style within the party. Carras argued that a ‘systems problem within’ was responsible for the ‘cross-cutting conflicts of roles and functions’ which pervaded the party at every level. According to her study the leader of the party could rely either on instruments of persuasion or on instruments of coercion and compulsion which would be centrally guided and administered.

While the first option would be enacted through the apparatus of government, the second would rely on party machinery. In the present context when the party is out of power and without the contraptions of the state to enact its decisions, the onus for action rests on the president of the party. How these levers of leadership are exercised today is the prerogative of Sonia Gandhi and since a large part of Congress culture has always been a reflection of its leader let us consider how the present leader has managed to fulfil her role.

Traditionally the ethos of the party tends to be formulated by the personality of its leaders and there is a strong and evident emphasis on the organisational culture of the party to revere the leader and thus make his or her personality a symbol of the rest of the party. This inevitably means greater centralisation of power within the structure of the party and upon decision-making.

Decision-making continues to be top-down and cohesive. The custom of central intervention in the functioning of state units still exists but no longer as a habitual exercise of authority; its use is more sparing. Under Sonia Gandhi decision-making is more participatory and her transactional style of leadership involves the construction of a consensus before a policy is implemented. Naturally this style has led to greater inter-level trust within the party; delegation and discussion is more frequent, directives are more meaningful rather than merely memorable and the injection of input politics is more varied. At one level this translates into positive discrimination between issues of real concern and what can be described as rhetorical raison d’étre’s. What then has been the outcome of this leadership style?



Five years ago the Indian National Congress ruled over three states of the Indian Republic. Today that number has swelled to sixteen. The mantra of ‘good governance’ has offered serious rivalry to the ‘cultural nationalism’ of the BJP. The former is a necessity, the latter merely a matter of fact. Thus the Congress has successfully pitted thought against thought in the battle to win the minds of the Indian electorate.

Sometimes the approach has been convoluted and consequently the party has suffered, the Gujarat election being the most apparent example. For a brief moment in the aftermath of the Gujarat results the Congress appeared to flounder and the popular media, always eager for sensational hyperbolism, made it appear that the Sangh was on course for a rendezvous with their promised age of anarchy. Had the Congress won the Gujarat election it would have been commended for its boldness; as things turned out it was crucified for its brashness.



The lessons of Gujarat, however, have come in time for future campaigns, for to be right wing requires convictions which, fortunately for the polity, the Congress does not possess. A ‘clear blue water’ between the NDA and the Congress is therefore a necessity and the Congress cannot benefit by offering the same basket of policies as the rest of the NDA, even under a different packaging.

Bruno Mégret, a leader of France’s National Front did some plain but prudent speaking when he commented: ‘If the political world is divided into three then one must go; the one in the middle.’ Therefore, subverting its own fundamental principles like secularism to one night ideological stands like Hindutva will not aid the cause of the party. Congress leaders must fight political battles on their own terrain rather than seek to claim the policies and principles of their opponents. The latter cannot become a tactic in the party’s broader strategy to reclaim lost territory.

There is a diversity of political thought in the Congress party but there is also a basic unity which underlines this diversity. That unity has always been the Nehruvian principle of politics which needs to be pursued more aggressively than ever before. If a basic conviction for secularism and social justice exists, as it does, in the minds of Congressmen, then a commitment to upholding those values and a confidence in propagating them on every available forum must also be carried out.



The Congress has to present itself as an alternative government and thus must address the grievances emanating from the public against issues of governance. Simultaneously it must stop paying attention to the diversionary ruckus being engineered by the Sangh. Committing itself to quasi-philosophical positions on essentially political ground cannot lead to the evolution of a political position, and subsequently may destroy the chances of reaching the position of government. The next general election will be a crucial one and for Sonia Gandhi perhaps her most spectacular chance to recover primacy for her party.

The dual dilemma of economic policy and coalition government, which has so far remained unresolved, requires deliberation and resolution in a very short span of time. While the economic question occupies an entire realm of its own and is covered elsewhere in this issue let us consider the political one, that is the Congress stand on coalition government. Arguably this requires an assessment of coalition politics in India within the non-Congress parties.

Ideally the confluence of interests for coalitions must be dictated by coherent and principled political beliefs and not opportunism alone. However, the purpose of coalition governments in India, so far, has merely represented a translation of anti-Congressism into a tactic for power sharing. But why is the Congress wary of forging a national umbrella of coalition partners? There are two primary factors for this; strategically coalitions cannot benefit the Congress, at the same time ideological and policy issues do not allow the Congress to compromise willy nilly.

To elaborate further, it is difficult to argue that the party will benefit by withdrawing from regional spaces and giving over territory to smaller, federalist political groups. Recent events have shown that the likelihood of breakaway groups returning to the Congress fold is far greater than further disintegration in the regional levels of the party. While the merger of the TMC with Congress in Tamil Nadu last year is perhaps not yet a trend it is nonetheless a very encouraging development for the party. Similar progressions in two other big states, West Bengal and Maharashtra are presently improbable but not impossible by any account.



The BJP adds to its presence each time it strikes an alliance with a regional party, conversely geo-political space contracts for the Congress every time it succumbs to the pressure of forming an alliance. Noticeably, the Congress is in competition with too many of those who are probable allies in their home states. The possibility of an alliance with the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh for example is likely to be the first casualty due to these factors since both parties share common voters in the minority community in that state.

The other issue which mitigates the benefits of an alliance is that of ideological dilution. Proponents of this view argues that the implementation of the Congress party’s core goals will only suffer as interests and ideological points of view accumulate within the demands of coalition politics. On this count at least the Congress is better placed than the BJP which has almost forgotten its right wing agenda amidst the compulsions of coalition politics. The advantage which the Congress enjoys is the lack of any controversial agenda for governance which may lead it into confrontation with its allies.

Coalition government in India is therefore about strategies for displacement. The determinants that unite the NDA are unlikely to be factors of consolidation for a Congress led alliance. Anti-Congressism, the dominant cause of unity for the NDA is as old as the Congress party; however, never before has it achieved the kind of success that we are witnessing today. The NDA government appears to be heading towards a full term with Prime Minister Vajpayee the first non-Congress prime minister to complete five years in office.

Primarily, it is the promise of appetising loaves of power after nearly five decades of hunger which has proved a powerful inducement for anti-Congress unity. Yet there is some consolation for the Congress in all this, and that is the exigencies of generational considerations. The leadership of the BJP is approaching eighty and it leads a party which has already reached its optimum strength in Parliament.



The image of an octogenarian prime minister is somewhat discomforting for the citizens of a country where over 75 per cent of the population is aged between 18 and 40. The perpetuation of traditional politicians and a traditionalist practice of politics is despised and viewed with wariness if not suspicion. There is practically no representation for youth, urban or rural in party politics. Their participation is limited to the role of a huge ‘walk on crowd’ whenever foot soldiers are required to fill up a rally ground or burn an effigy or two.

The leadership of the Congress party has come in for some strong criticism over the years about its willingness (sometimes enthusiasm) to recycle old leaders with cramped styles and a pulverised thinking as suitable messiahs in todays political world. Such examples are meaningless to the majority of voters in this country, most of whom were not even around when these patriarchs were able to flex their political muscle and exercise real strength. The average age of the Congress Working Committee is on the wrong side of sixty. While a lot of the criticism is unjustified it is sometimes genuine, especially when there is no shortage of young talent available within the party with leaders on message but not on board, that is the tragedy.

It would be incongruous to pass any sweeping intellectual judgements about the state of the Congress party or assess the balance of probabilities for the next general election. The aim of this piece was to highlight certain themes of import and consequence and construct an argument over those themes. Since we began by addressing the situation of political realities as paramount, that would also be an appropriate theme with which to conclude. The realities are that the Congress is certainly better placed to contest the next general election, not only because of its own organisational enhancements but because unlike in 1999 the next general election is unlikely to be part of the series of forced elections by the Congress.

Lastly, a genuine capacity to govern well and bring to bear initiative in policy making and political action is something that the Congress has finally learnt to do. Agenda’s for governance, papers for social welfare, the vocabulary of social justice are all themes being practised by Congress governments in their respective states. And the ability to deliver the goods coupled with the capacity to present oneself as a viable deliverer was all that ever mattered in politics.