There is little doubt the Congress remains a party sans direction despite the significant groundwork in the post-Shimla phase. The drift, if it continues unchecked, will not only spell electoral disaster. It may raise questions about where the party stands in relation to epochal changes in our polity and economy.
There are indeed indications of change. In Uttar Pradesh, in particular, there are signs of an emerging dialogue with the Samajwadi Party; even Maharashtra shows Sharad Pawar and the Congress beginning to grasp that they will either swim or sink together. One of the most eminent left leaders in the country, Jyoti Basu, has publicly declared there is no option for the left but to engage more closely with the Congress. There can be, he admits, no serious alternative to Hindutva unless the Congress is right at its centre.
These positive straws in the wind do not however add up to a party geared to take on the ruling National Democratic Alliance. The recent arithmetic put forward by the Bharatiya Janata Party general secretary, Pramod Mahajan, explains why. The latter can put in the field nearly 500 candidates who will either win or at least finish in second place. The key to this extended presence lies in the cooperation of a host of smaller allies, all of whom are willing to cohabit with a party once regarded as so extreme as to be desperate for allies.
But to get here the BJP went through two distinct phases. First, it expanded the appeal and reach of its core agenda, first hitting the two-figure mark in the Lok Sabha in 1989 and then the three-figure mark two years later. Once it emerged as the premier opposition, it first tried to polarize the polity and get closer to a majority. Once this strategy took it to a plateau but not beyond, it reached back into its anti-Congress past to stitch together a wider alliance built around a minimalist, rather than a maximalist, agenda.
The contrast with the Congress could not be starker. In 1989, L.K. Advani headed a group of 110 members of parliament: today Sonia Gandhi has marginally less than the same number. But the saffron party managed to find a means to carve out a distinct niche in politics. It did so even while entering into pre-poll alliances without actually wielding power.
Part of the problem lies in the legacy of the party. The Congress seems to lack the reflexes of an opposition party. In 1999, it showed an unseemly hurry to get to power and is still paying the price. Even earlier, it gained no extra space in the political arena by pulling down two successive United Front ministries. More recently, whether it be the issue of Ayodhya or the defence scandals, the party is unable to take the issue to the people at large. It remains trapped in the legislature and media.
More than this, the Congress leadership is unable to strike out a distinctive route for the country to follow. In the past, many key turning points in the country’s history emerged out of the inner councils of the Congress. Indira Gandhi’s “stray thoughts” in Faridabad in 1969 were the signal for a turn to the left. P.V. Narasimha Rao carried through the economic reforms in 1991 in a more circumspect manner, but his tenure marked a watershed by ushering in market-friendly reforms.
Once out of office, the same organization still has the instincts of a ruling party. It is internally torn between the advocates of the older, statist model and more pro-market adherents. But the nature and tone of the debate is a dim echo of older clashes in its ranks. In the Fifties, Charan Singh took on C.B. Gupta. In the more recent past, Indira Gandhi drew on minds of the calibre of P.N. Haksar and left wing intelligentsia to counter her critics. Each player had a coherent philosophy and agenda. They were not simply playing for the leader’s ear.
In the present context, the debates have a weary air about them. There is more posturing than substance, as was evident in the one proposal to come from Shimla, namely reservation in the private sector. Besides being impossible to enforce, given the sheer number of small businesses and self-employed people, it also has the threat of further alienating the middle class. More than that, it can hardly help the Congress if it tries to steal the clothes of parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party. The last time there was such an attempt to capture the agenda of another organization was in the late Eighties.
That was when Rajiv Gandhi bent over backwards to woo the “Hindu vote bank”. In the process, he only opened up the space for Advani. Rajiv’s touch legitimized the Ayodhya movement at virtually every turn. A similar scenario is in danger of being played out with regard to caste-based mobilization.
Similarly, it is notable how the opposition space is being rapidly taken over by other players, even constitutional authorities. The former president, K.R. Narayanan, emerged as the most articulate critic of the constitutional reforms favoured by sections of the sangh parivar. Without stepping beyond the ambit of his powers, he raised enough questions to make the government rethink its approach.
Of late, the chief election commissioner, J.M. Lyngdoh, was the first to strongly resist the bid to push for simultaneous elections to the state assemblies and the house of the people. The chief opposition party was much more cautious in coming out against a measure that would go against the federal spirit of the Constitution.
There is still hope for the Congress. The ruling alliance is more anxious than it lets on about how political events will unfold in the coming months. Nothing else explains why there is persistent talk of moving the Lok Sabha polls forward. A rout at the hands of Congress this winter in the four assembly elections in north India cannot be ruled out.
The chief reason: the BJP has weaker players at the helm in the key states compared to more seasoned hands that head the Congress governments. None of the Congress leaders, least of all Digvijay Singh, is a push over. They have all the attributes the high command has shown itself to be lacking in ever so often, above all, an ability to outwit their opponents and to set the agenda in the public sphere.
Politics in a democracy is about the people. There is no better illustration of this than the track record of today’s ruling party. In 1984, the BJP hit rock bottom, as it was unable to connect to the wider electorate. In the next elections, it drove home the distance of the rulers from the masses through one word: Bofors. It is here that today’s opposition is not defining itself sharply enough. In the next two polls, the Hindutva party played to its home constituency in the name of Ram. Here again, the Congress needs to reach out to its own core constituency of the under classes and women.
No doubt there is room for ambiguity in a democracy. No party can spell out a programme in full detail given the constraints it will have to govern under, if it should win. Yet, there has to be a clearer shape to a programme and a vision than the Congress has thus far been able to spell out.
It is not enough to say its leader ought to be prime minister. It is more important to spell out what it hopes to achieve to cure the myriad ills of our polity, society and economy.
Should the Congress president fail next time round, it will come up with claimants to leadership of the party from within its second rung leaders. The party can tolerate failure, but its patience is not endless.