The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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One manís failure is not necessarily another manís strength. The innumerable failures of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies will in no way compensate for the many weaknesses of the Congress. This apparently elementary axiom has been ignored by the Congress president, Ms Sonia Gandhi. At the vichar manthan shivir of the Congress in Shimla, the Congress president attacked the BJP for seven miserable failures. She singled the home minister, Mr L.K. Advani, and the finance minister, Mr Jaswant Singh, for attack by name. The list of failures ranged from the promotion of national security to secularism to the economy. The purpose of spelling out this list of failures was to articulate the preparedness of the Congress to face the polls at any time, this year or next. This confidence was predicated on the many failures of the BJP. Ms Gandhi is convinced that because of these failures, the people of India would have no hesitation in rejecting the BJP in the next hustings. There may be an element of wishful thinking here as well as more than a whiff of propaganda. What all this misses out is that a rejection of the BJP may not mean an accrual of votes to the Congress. The people of India have good reasons for loathing the BJP, but they also have serious misgivings about the Congress. The latter has good reasons for some profound introspection. But that did not seem to be the mood of Ms Gandhiís somewhat fiery speech.

One important point that the Congress has to reflect upon is the absence of an idiom which is well and truly its own. Its idiom is now derived, ironically, from the BJP. The very name of its Shimla conclave is a sign of this. The BJP called its conlcave in Mumbai chintan baithak, the Congress has called its, vichar manthan shivir. Similarly, in the Gujarat election campaign, Ms Sonia Gandhi chose a faded saffron as the colour and tone of the Congressís campaign. The BJP cannot be fought and defeated on a programme based on its own terms. There was a time when the Congress was strident in its advocacy of secularism. This is no longer the case. It is always stalked by the fear of losing the majority vote. Behind this fear is the assumption that Hindus prefer the militancy of the sangh parivar. This, if the Congress still believes in the philosophy that guided it in its more successful incarnation, is a false fear. The Congress has a readymade idiom if it wants to project itself as the pioneer of economic reforms. But it is now a reluctant reformer because of its fears about alienating the poor. The Congress is paralyzed by the fear of its own past.

The Shimla meet has been successful in one sphere. It has confirmed that Ms Gandhi is the sole and undisputed leader of the Congress. But this reaffirmation by itself cannot win elections for the Congress. Optimism is one thing, organization is another. Both are needed for success.

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