A sleeping giant
IN many ways Uttar Pradesh was indelibly stamped on the Congress party, just as the party was an intrinsic part of the politics of the state. UP was at the forefront of the national movement, the crucible of its top leadership, and the historic centre of the Congress organisation. Uttar Pradesh provided India with the first four prime ministers. It would of course be an exaggeration to say that UP was the Congress party and the Congress party was UP. But that is indeed how several generations of Congress leaders from UP saw themselves. Now of course everything has changed beyond their imagination and comprehension. The Congress of UP hopes to elect the next prime minister of India but cannot substantiate the numerical muscle that we ought to add to the contribution of the rest of the country.
What exactly happened to UP over the past 15 years since the last Congress government of N.D. Tiwari laid down office? Indeed, what has happened to the UP Congress in these past years?
It is an oft repeated, trite proposition that in the present condition the UP Congress has none of its traditional vote banks – Brahmins, Muslims, and Dalits. The predominance of Brahmin participation and leadership in Congress politics of UP, much as it was criticised by other social groups, particularly OBCs, is historically linked to the nature of the leadership in the national movement. Given their historic social pre-eminence, largely due to widespread educational accomplishments and consequent dominance of social life, a large number of enlightened Brahmins enthusiastically jumped into the national movement. In a sense, their standing as a community of upper caste, control of institutions that shaped and guided public opinion such as schools, colleges and other social organisations, the political leadership by Brahmins was inevitable.
Since the national movement coincided with the Muslim separatist movement that led to Pakistan, it was equally inevitable that nationalist Muslims, who recoiled from and repudiated Jinnah’s two-nation theory, would flock to the Congress party that offered the only alternative. Furthermore, the association of stalwarts like Maulana Azad, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai and Zakir Hussain, all of whom in several ways were seen as role models of 20th century shurfa culture of Uttar Pradesh, drew Muslim masses to the Congress party.
National leaders of the Congress, professing in varying degrees the Hindu faith, such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Govind Ballabh Pant, offered to the Muslims of UP special comfort and confidence. Indeed, in repudiating the two-nation theory and the idea of an exclusive spokesperson for their community, the Muslims of UP sought a leader in Jawaharlal Nehru. He in turn was followed in that leadership role by Indira Gandhi and to a somewhat lesser extent the Nehruvian H.N. Bahuguna, who was the first Congress leader to break away with a substantive Muslim following.
Somewhat similar to the motivation and aspiration of Muslims of Uttar Pradesh was the situation of the twenty odd per cent of UP’s population of Dalits. Mahatma Gandhi’s remarkable message of companionship, compassion and common cause with oppressed Dalits gave the community a sense of security and belonging. It need hardly be said that the decision to entrust Baba Bhimrao Ambedkar the chairmanship of the drafting committee for the Constitution of India could not have gone unnoticed by the Dalits all over the country, particularly in Uttar Pradesh. The constitutional instrument of reservation in legislatures and to open up avenues of opportunity in education and state sector jobs, certainly had a major impact on the psyche of the hitherto dispossessed Dalits.
The present predicament and somewhat precarious electoral situation of the once mighty UP Congress can be traced back to the late 1970s and the emergence, first, of a strong anti-Congress socialist movement led by the likes of Ram Manohar Lohia, and subsequently its successor groups like the Janata Dal/Samajwadi Party on the one hand and the Ramjanmabhoomi standard bearer Bharatiya Janata Party (formerly the Jan Sangh) on the other. Although the socialists ran virulent and at times violent campaigns of dissent and defiance against the Congress establishment, their transit from political opposition to the ruling echelons of Uttar Pradesh was not exactly steady and smooth.
After the initial peaking of their electoral efforts and the installing of the SVD coalition government, and subsequently the governments led by Ram Naresh Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav, considerable disarray and fragmentation set in. Innumerable socialists migrated to the Congress party and that included Ram Naresh Yadav himself. This was of course ideologically facilitated by the fact that Indira Gandhi made socialism the main plank of her politics and garibi hatao acquired the dimensions of an intense passion.
It is often forgotten that the second coming or the rebirth of both the BJP and the Samajwadi Party took place in the same womb and their nurturing in the same cradle. While Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishan Advani shared government positions with V.P. Singh and Mufti Mohammed Sayeed at the centre, Mulayam Singh Yadav was party to the government that had another future chief minister of a BJP government, Kalyan Singh. The transformation of the BJP and the Samajwadi Party elements took place on the psuedo libertarian slogans against the imposition of the Emergency in 1976. Although the issue then was ostensibly democracy and freedom, the fact is that many communalists, who were political untouchables till then, acquired a garb of respectability.
Having crossed the rubicon or Laxman rekha of acceptability and respectability, the BJP promptly began to work on a powerful new combination of social groups that took it beyond the traditional structure of a small trader, middle class, urban party. Even as Mulayam Singh Yadav was securing parts of the fragmented backward territories of the late Charan Singh, Kalyan Singh provided a fresh energy to the BJP by combining non-Yadav OBCs (particularly his own community of Lodh Rajputs) with the BJP’s traditional voters. Having secured a larger social compact, the BJP and the rest of the Sangh Parivar then sought an ideological cutting edge in the Ramjanmabhoomi movement. UP politics began to polarize between ‘Mandal’ and ‘Kamandal’.
While all this was happening on a grand scale, Manyavar Kanshi Ram and Dalit ki beti Mayawati were busy slogging from village to village with the help of generous resources provided by ambitious and powerful Dalit civil servants. Just as the graffiti of early days of the Ram mandir movement was taken very casually by the establishment in UP, so were the DS-4 slogans treated with scant respect and attention. Throughout this period, Congress policy planners and its UP leadership ironically failed to read the writing on the wall!
For much of the period in which Kanshi Ram and Mayawati built a solid base for an elephantine edifice that would come up in the later years, the Congress party assumed it was enough to have placed a prominent Dalit Congress leader in the post of the UPCC president, Mahavir Prasad. Similarly, at no point did anyone seriously believe that Muslims would desert the Congress party despite the distressing and disturbing events in Jabalpur, Bhiwandi, Ahmedabad and other places outside Uttar Pradesh, and Maliana and Meerut in the state itself. Riots had come and gone and repeatedly caused trauma. There was a gradual accumulation of disappointment and distress, continuous complaints about the conduct of the PAC, inexplicable insensitivity shown from time to time by administrative officers, and the usual prolonged wait for the pronouncements of commissions of enquiry and the inevitable gathering of dust by the reports they submitted.
Nevertheless, because of the Congress party’s strong traditional interfaith contacts and the unimpeachable secular credentials of its national leadership, much of the growing disquiet was seen as a storm in a teacup. Periodically, the national leadership stepped in with specific programmes and administrative measures to repair the damage and restore confidence. Indira Gandhi’s 15 point programme for minorities was one such glorious example. Rajiv Gandhi made strenuous efforts, including the setting up of the Rapid Action Force.
The ripping apart of the political and social fabric that the independence movement Congress generation had strenuously woven happened during the 1989 elections. It followed what should have been a phenomenal five year tenure of a brilliant young prime minister who took office in an act of personal courage at a moment of tragedy. Rajiv Gandhi’s election as prime minister, for the second time technically speaking, but in terms of a popular mandate his first, came as the stunning landslide victory of 1984.
The unfortunate and contrived crises that began about the middle of his tenure and plagued him to the very end, deprived India of a fantastic historic opportunity. The irritation of an extremely nasty and belligerent opposition on the issue of Bofors, coupled with the growing pressure of the BJP and its effective mobilisation of frustrated youth with dreams of Ramraj, put the Congress party under tremendous stress. The election of 1989 was nevertheless an election that was to be won, and was indeed nearly won.
However, a well-meaning step whose consequences were inadequately anticipated, of the shilanyas ceremony with the object of defusing Hindu passions, spun out of control leading to wild speculation among both communities. Having surfaced during the election campaign, the issue was ruthlessly and most cynically exploited by the Janata Party, as indeed by the BJP, leading to the Congress slipping from a three-fourths majority in Parliament to being the single largest minority party.
The Janata Dal government that came to power had neither firm convictions nor a clear cut ideology and was inevitably doomed from the beginning. The desperate attempt by the partners to entrench themselves, as also their intense conflicting ambitions were soon to ring the death knell of one Janata Dal government to be followed by another. The Congress lost the election but nobody won. Just as a defeated Indira Gandhi in 1977 remained the tallest leader of India, in 1989 her defeated son Rajiv Gandhi remained far more significant and attractive as a leader in opposition than two successive prime ministers of the Janata Dal, despite their experience and great expertise at political management.
The Janata Dal was of course a makeshift party, an aggregate of temporary marriages of convenience between groups and individuals. Its attention was focused on manipulations in the capital cities and as a result mired the Congress party into the same limited terrain of national politics. Meanwhile the jettisoned BJP returned to the grassroots in Uttar Pradesh and revived its interrupted Ramjanmabhoomi movement.
While the Congress focused on Delhi, UP began to slip away quietly. Intense conflict between different Congress leaders of UP on the issue of supporting Mulayam Singh Yadav caused a vertical front line. Ironically, many who opposed Mulayam Singh Yadav bitterly in those years were later to advocate an alliance with him and others who advocated an alliance with him then later turned out to be his severest critics. From the Congress point of view the first betrayal came when Mulayam Singh Yadav dissolved the UP assembly despite assurances to the contrary and directed his political armoury against the Congress party. Thus began a series of forced errors and self-goals by the Congress, causing rapid erosion of its support base and a corresponding dent in its confidence.
In the past ten years the Congress has been in alliance with, or has supported, both the BSP and the Samajwadi Party. Curiously, the average Congress worker reacted negatively to any suggestion of supporting Mulayam Singh, an attitude that has seen very little change over the years. This was not so in case of the BSP. But a hasty pre-poll alliance, giving the BSP a lion’s share (or shall be say an elephant’s share) of the seats, with the Congress retaining only 126 of the 425 seats, lowered party worker morale considerably. Mayawati’s subsequent betrayal of the Congress to join hands with the BJP was of course a shattering blow. Yet the Congress’s empathy for the Dalits, and its fundamental philosophical position that advocacy of the Dalit cause was essentially deserving of support, kept the level of hostility towards the BSP low.
On the other hand, Mulayam Singh has been a virtual red rag to the Congress party workers and curiously much of the opposition to him in recent years has come from those elements among Muslims who, despite the adversity suffered by the Congress, have remained determined to stand by the party patronised by their forefathers and ancestors. While Mayawati’s political harangues and speeches were generally directed at ‘Manuwadi’ structures and, therefore, were easily met by the Congress party’s response that this was not directed at them, Mulayam Singh’s attacks were more often than not directed at the Congress party.
The truth soon become clear, that the death of Congress in UP would mean life to Mulayam and the survival of the BJP as an ogre and threat would be a convenient ploy to exploit the Muslim sense of insecurity. Mulayam Singh Yadav claims total allegiance of the 8% vote of his Yadav community and needs to dominate 18% vote of the Muslim minority. But the spoils of his politics are seldom distributed in that proportion and indeed do not reflect distributive justice.
Over the past few elections the popular votes of the four main parties in UP have varied over a narrow band; the ‘BJP peaked at 35% and dropped to 20% in the last assembly election of 2002; BSP has maintained a steady figure between 21% and 23%; the Samajwadi Party has fluctuated between 29% and 24%; and the Congress has had the most dramatic pendulum swings going from 6% to 18% in the last parliamentary elections and then dropping back to 9% in the recent assembly poll. Clearly the elasticity of the Congress vote is considerable.
For the last parliamentary elections as Congress moved from 6 to 18%, a major erosion of Mulayam Singh’s Muslim vote became apparent. As a result he had to rush to Kalyan Singh for help, giving the latter’s right-hand man, Shakshi Maharaj, a seat in the Rajya Sabha. It is ironic that the political leader who so maligned and abused the Congress for using expressions like ‘Ram Raj’ and for having stood by when the Babri Masjid was demolished, felt no compunction at shaking hands with two central figures in the unpleasant and unholy conspiracy to demolish the ancient mosque.
The continuing drift in the UP Congress and the growing eccentricities in governance of Chief Minister Mayawati has given the Samajwadi Party a whiff of an opportunity of becoming the alternative. It is the main opposition in the UP assembly although its strategy in the House has been puzzling in that there are indications of accommodation of BJP’s interests.
But of course there is a war between the SP and BSP. Mulayam Singh retains his hold over the Yadav vote bank and so long as that community continues to feel a threat from other castes that receive political clout from Mayawati, they will not explore other avenues. The chief minister’s aggressive moves against Raja Bhaiya have alerted Mulayam Singh’s antenna for the Thakur vote bank. In his predictable style, with Amar Singh by his side, he has attempted forays into Rajnath Singh’s territory. But there is no conclusive indication of success. Muslims continue to harbour doubts about his sincerity but do not find an alternative.
On considerations of local influence and practical combination, some continue to follow him, just as some continue to follow Mayawati. In her case the hold over Dalits is remarkably unshakeable. But that is all she has. The grandeur of a dictatorial style gives her a larger than life stature. But the fact is that she is only a BJP decision away from returning to the streets outside the Vidhan Sabha. On balance, for the present the SP may be the steady gainer, but it remains to be seen if its leader can overcome his tendency of periodically scoring self-goals.
It is in the nature of UP politics that specific events and issues matter only to a point. What matters more is the arithmetic of community combinations that promise or hold out a promise of access to power. Perceptions manipulated through effective propaganda using enormous amounts available to three non-Congress parties in UP, backed by captive caste based votes and criminal elements sustained by the same caste system, have taken over the entire political spectrum of the state. As the state falls steadily in terms of economic performance and the human development index, there is no major effort by any of the three non-Congress parties that have ruled in the last 15 years to address the real issues of governance and quality of life. The situation is ripe for the return to the Congress party, but unfortunately there is a vacuum.
The untimely and tragic death of Rajesh Pilot who, although elected from the Rajasthan, was equally at home in Uttar Pradesh where he was born, was a great loss. Again, the sudden demise of the mercurial Jitendra Prasada deprived a significant political group of their friend, philosopher and guide, causing some of them to seek refuge in other political parties. Thereafter, the departure of Narain Dutt Tiwari to the state of Uttaranchal has left UP bereft of an established upper caste leadership which, in present conditions, perhaps holds the key to the revival of the fortunes of the Congress party.
The dearth of a new generation leadership in the UP Congress may partly be explained by the fact that the departure of several senior leaders could not possibly have been anticipated and therefore no attempt to develop a new line of leadership was made. On the other hand, the very fact that the Congress has been out of power for 15 crucial years, in which both India and the world have undergone dramatic transformation, have left the potential new generation leaders of UP sadly unexposed and uninspired by these cataclysmic changes.
When the first wave of Hindutva hit UP, the Congress seems to have retreated in confusion. When the first reaction came from the minority community, boosted by and indeed instigated by the Samajwadi Party, the Congress was left utterly direction-less. The dramatic and dialectical political campaign style of Mayawati and the amazing consistency of allegiance of the Dalit voters towards her, forced the UP Congress to simply give up trying.
When Congress votes surged to 18% in the last parliamentary elections and its seats went up from 0 to 10, it was assumed too easily that the comeback trail had been found. Some people even readied themselves for the spoils of battle. But the fact is that the Congress was simply beginning to move a rusted machine once again. There was indeed much more to be done. The next two years are there-fore crucial and critical. The BJP is in decline, the Samajwadi Party has reached its limit and the BSP is determined to press the self-destruct button. There is space and need for a decent party that can address the issues of governance.
UP is now ripe for a sensible political party that can cut across major caste barriers as well as reach out to minor backward castes to present a viable and seemingly feasible political solution to the utter hopelessness that pervades the state. The Congress party, although at present electorally the weakest, is the only party that fits the bill. Clearly, a major effort will be required to restructure, refurnish, remotivate the traditional Congress support base that survives, albeit truncated, despite 15 years in the wilderness. It is a welcome sign that young faces continue to aspire to enroll in the Congress party, both in urban and in rural areas. It is another matter that there is very slow turnover at the top, causing stagnation and lack of social and political mobility.
Several efforts made in the past five years to rejuvenate the party organization and cadres have shown promising response and results in the initial stages. However, initial successes have not led to successful culmination, except to a limited extent in the last parliamentary election. It is clear that UP calls for innovative political strategies on a war footing. Several times, an attempt to replicate the BJP agenda has backfired. Similarly there is little chance of cloning BSP and SP politics for a resurgent Congress. The Congress will have to provide a unique social formula and an attractive and refashioned political formulation.
While the inability of the Congress to match the extremist slogan-mongering and political machinations of the other three parties appears to be a disadvantage in a divided polity, this indeed could be turned to its advantage. UP today is a state that has a plummeting record on development, a miserable pretence of a health service, little noticeable fresh investment except perhaps on the outskirts of Delhi, a frightening record of criminal violence and little accountability (there are 10,000 unnatural deaths caused by criminal acts every year), large scale closure of industrial units particularly those that provide value addition for agriculture crops, almost the highest level of adult illiteracy, and so on. A party that can claim a record of good governance in more than a dozen states of the country can spark off a dramatic and rapid change of mood and political preference in the state.
The important thing for the Congress is to accept and understand the new social realities and then respond appropriately with an economic programme that creates new political majorities. Time-tested traditional Congress systems obviously will have to be retained but the party will have to learn to reach out to other than those already converted. Outreach and securing attention of constituencies that have either traditionally neglected the Congress or have left the Congress in the last 20 years would have to be a high priority.
Whatever else the Congress plans for reviving its fortunes in UP, it will inevitably have to address the caste conundrum. As noticed above, a quick turnaround of Dalits seems unlikely; the main OBCs remain committed to their community leaders, who in turn remain enamoured with the idea of securing crucial negotiating strength; Thakurs are sulking and looking for someone who can open an aggressive front against the Dalits, not a palatable idea for the Congress; and the non-Yadav OBCs, such as Kurmi and Lodh, are too thinly scattered to make a conspicuous difference.
To put the caste equations into a tumble-wash the Congress has to look to Brahmins who are not only disenchanted but, in their own perception, disempowered. They were once the backbone of the Congress along with Dalits and Muslims. They can and appear to be ready to return home. Muslims have substantially forgiven the Congress for the events of early ’90s and are overtly concerned about recent events, particularly Gujarat. But they remain tied in some places to the larger than Congress presence of SP and BSP.
Elsewhere the emergence of a new rich trader class leadership among Muslims keeps them in two minds. But they are now looking for signals from the Congress, not so much about themselves but about the Congress itself. Brahmins and Muslims are also looking at each other for who will make the first move. For the Congress in UP the challenge is to be able to say, ‘We are back to stay, we are back to win.’ The voters in UP cannot believe in the Congress unless they can see that the Congress believes in itself.
Many Congress workers believe that there are very special trump cards in our hands whose introduction into the political arena of UP will bring about a dramatic and instant transformation. However, it still remains that even for the introduction of those major catalysts of change, considerable groundwork and preparation is necessary. Not only will this possibly speed up those much awaited events, but also place the Congress in a position to take maximum advantage when they happen. The greatest asset for the Congress in this endeavour is the general feeling that UP must move if India is to move and that UP will not really move without the Congress.