The Congress has spoken at last in Shimla. It has taken more than a decade of minority governments, coalitions and post- and pre-poll alliances to drive home the simplest of home truths. There is no alternative to sharing power in New Delhi. Those who are unwilling to share the spoils of office or to apportion seats prior to the polls have to remain content on the opposition benches. In this crucial sense, Sonia Gandhi deserves plaudits for taking her party into new, uncharted waters. This was a necessary first step for retrieving the fortunes of India’s oldest party at the national level.
It is circumstances that have forced a retreat from the Pachmarhi declaration that bound the party to one-party rule. The real question still stares the leadership in the face. How can it add to its 15 chief ministers the post that has proved elusive since 1996: that of a Congress prime minister'
And it is here that the party slipped even as it took the first step in the right direction. Alliances and coalitions are built by careful and painstaking negotiations, a process of give and take that is still new to the Congress. Having run one-party governments virtually without a break for most of independent India’s history, the Congress has yet to pick up the rudiments of the art of crafting a coalition. It is not just that the devil is in the detail. It is also that the art of leading a multi-party alliance requires that its prospective leader earn the trust of smaller constituents. This is as crucial a requirement as the programme of action that a group of parties might share.
The success stories in India’s own past provide insights. The longest serving coalition, the Left Front in West Bengal, had for a long stretch of time as its leader Jyoti Basu, not just because he had no challenger within his own party but also because the smaller partners looked up to him. At the Union government level, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s greatest asset lies not within his own sangh parivar (parts of which work like an in-house opposition) but in the trust of his allies. None challenges his leadership and all defer to his decision.
Yet the seeds of the success of a Jyoti Basu or a Vajpayee were sown long before the power was within their grasp. Basu acquired the image of a sober parliamentarian in the Fifties and an able administrator in the short-lived United Front regime in the Sixties. Vajpayee made his mark as a parliamentarian in the Fifties and then as an opposition leader before serving as a non-doctrinaire foreign minister in 1977-79. These spells in public life and then in lesser office prepared them for the unenviable and arduous task of leading coalitions. Sonia had no record in public life prior to 1998, and the family name means little to prospective allies.
On the face of it, there is much more to Sonia Gandhi going in her favour than meets the eye. Her party’s decline in vote base has been arrested in 1999. It has come back to power in ten states and Union territories where it was not in office in March 1998 when she became Congress president. No prospective third front exists as in the late Eighties and mid-Nineties. Her party is therefore right in trying to forge a unified secular alternative to the ruling National Democratic Alliance.
Where it falters is in the way it is trying to dictate terms to other political formations from a public platform. For, shorn of the fine-tuning, the Shimla conclave found the Congress admitting that it has no option but to do business with more, not less parties. But in underscoring that the issue of leadership is not negotiable, it endangers itself in two crucial states.
The obvious one is Maharashtra, long a stronghold, and a state where it now shares power with the breakaway Nationalist Congress Party. The Congress has never, repeat never, come to power at the Centre without winning the majority of the seats in the state. There is no clarity yet on how to work out a seat-sharing arrangement with Sharad Pawar’s party either for the state assembly or the Lok Sabha elections due next year. Divided, they will probably be beaten by the rival Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance. And by emphasizing Sonia’s primacy, the larger party has made it impossible for the NCP to be anything other than a pliant supplicant.
The same situation is compounded in the case of Uttar Pradesh. Unlike Pawar, Mulayam Singh Yadav has not made an issue of the foreign origins of the Congress president. Their discord relates to the Samata Party’s roots in anti-Congress politics and to the obvious implications of who gets the larger slice within UP. With its 80 seats, the state will be a major battleground in election 2004.
The fact is the Congress is a shrunken presence in the state, with no social base worth the name. It would of course be a great asset in pooling together minority voters against the BJP, and also in unifying all those who are against the politics of the chief minister Mayavati. Such a minority-other backward classes alliance with a section of savarnas will not be easy to put together. But it is the only way a possible alliance of the BSP and BJP can be held in check.
It is a measure of the distance travelled by both the Samata Party and the Congress that they are not training fire at each other. This still does not mean it will be smooth sailing. Any line-up of forces that brings together ex-socialists, regional parties and the left in any form, will not be easy for Congress to control, let alone master. It is this compulsive “control and command” mentality of the Congress that may railroad such a line-up even before it comes into being.
The problem facing the party is not an easy one. Since 1984, no party has won a majority in the Lok Sabha. In the interim, the Congress has tried out two routes. One was to run a minority government as under P.V. Narasimha Rao. The other, also pioneered by him, was the option of supporting a Centre-left coalition from the outside. The former is not practicable, as Sonia herself discovered in April 1999. The latter is not on the cards.
What the party is now trying out is a third approach. It hopes to add to its own share of seats and votes by roping in allies in key states where weak. In turn, it holds out the prospect of office to those who work in tandem with it. This in a sense would be the party’s answer to the NDA.
This is easier said than done. To a far greater extent than its Hindutva rival, the Congress has an all-India spread that makes it difficult to align at poll time with the very forces it hopes to work with after elections are over. Similarly, its relative inexperience at coalition-building has led it to the vexed question of leadership even before that of a programme. The cart has been put before the horse.
The party may be on the right track but the way it is going about its task may make the NDA more unified and coherent. Such a denouement will disappoint those who are in search of an alternative to the present regime. The Congress’s response, though welcome, falls short of what is needed.