The message from the byelections in the run-up to as many as five state assembly elections is clear to all who heed it. It is a wake-up call for the Congress, the premier opposition party. Raring to go at the ruling National Democratic Alliance, it has been rebuffed seriously enough by voters for it to sit up and take notice. If the past is any guide, the investigations and enquiries will not touch the nub of the problem. The Congress is ready for a role as an alternate party of power. But it has many miles to go before it convinces the voter of the meaning behind the message. Nowhere was this as clear as in two crucial byelections to the Lok Sabha in Maharashtra’s Sholapur and in Kerala’s Ernakulam.
The former is by far the more worrying. No Congress government is conceivable in New Delhi without Maharashtra. Even to cross the 150 mark in the Lok Sabha, it needs to perform credibly in the state. In 1999, the state proved the Achilles’ heel: come the general elections, it may slip from bad to worse.
Last time, what worked in favour of the Congress was the all-round failure of the successive Shiv-Sena-led chief ministers. This saw a remarkable polarization of the anti-Hindutva vote on the ground. Though Sharad Pawar and Sonia Gandhi had different camps, between them they polled over half the popular vote. The Congress and the breakaway Nationalist Congress Party had perforce to come together and share power. It was a good beginning, but it has proved to be little more than that. Despite the replacement of the former chief minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, by the state’s first ever Dalit chief minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde, the slide has continued. In fact, it may even have gathered force.
Sholapur is in many ways atypical of the state. Just over one in every five voters is from the loose caste cluster of the Marathas who have long been the dominant players in state politics. But the signs are evident for all that care. The landed communities are voting with their feet for the Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party combine. The inability of the Congress and the NCP to come together in a clear and unambiguous pre-poll understanding is giving the Shiv Sena and its ally just the chance they have been waiting for.
More ominous than that is the glee with which the rout of the Congress candidate by a 120,000 vote margin has been greeted by the NCP. The upshot is that the latter would prefer to see the Sena and the BJP put the Congress in its place. In 1999, Pawar and his followers preferred to leave the Congress rather than cede first place to a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family. It is clear now that despite the protestations of the Congress that it will share power in a future government in New Delhi, a key potential ally is not rising to the bait. The implications of this development go well beyond the confines of Maharashtra.
As if this were not serious enough, the near rebellion by K. Karunakaran has cost the party the Ernakulam seat. Even prior to Sonia Gandhi’s advent, the management of inner-party contradictions has always been a major challenge for the Congress high command. Indira Gandhi managed to worst her opponents who had strong regional bases and formed the once all-powerful syndicate within the party. No such cabal came into being under either Rajiv Gandhi or P.V. Narasimha Rao. Neither let the grass grow under his feet.
The party has had a long tradition of simply falling in line with the central leadership. This is what makes the open sabotage of the United Democratic Front candidate, M. John, a sign of the times. His proximity to the chief minister, A.K. Antony, a confidant of the Congress president herself, could not guarantee victory at the hustings.
Kerala has never been an easy state to manage, with its bewildering array of caste and community vote-banks. But it is a rare state where the BJP and its allies are non-existent and every vote that counts is in one of two sharply polarized camps, one led by the Marxists and another by the Congress. Antony himself was out for a spell in the wilderness after the end of the Emergency, when he tried in vain to break the mould of the two-front system.
But this makes the 22,000-vote margin by which the LDF candidate romped home more substantially than in any other part of the country. After all, Kerala is a state where one-fifth of the voters are Christians, and this is unusual in that Sonia Gandhi’s own Roman Catholic background is actually an asset and an advantage.
Byelections may not be accurate indices of the popular mood at large. But it is normally expected that bypolls will be a rough barometer of public opinion. The fact is the Congress has not been able to capitalize on the shortcomings of the Vajpayee-led government. In fact, it remains trapped in its own intra-party dilemmas and in the nitty-gritty of negotiating with potential pre-poll allies.
There is hope yet — for in several states, the party is relatively united, and has capable and seasoned leaders who can take it into the electoral battle. This is certainly the case in the four state assembly elections to be held by the end of the year in the Hindi belt. It is giving the BJP a run for its money. No one rules out a command performance by the Congress chief ministers who may yet defy the trend of anti-incumbency.
But it is certainly not the case with the party at a pan-Indian level. There is a serious mismatch between the rhetoric at the all India Congress committee sessions and conclaves of the party leadership and the reception its message gets from the voters. The latter are unable to trust the Congress simply on its anti-Hindutva agenda. Nor are they overly impressed by its new-found claims at coalition-building. If anything, the party is in danger of being reduced to an also-ran at the national level even as it gets further entrenched as the “natural party of power” in a host of states.
This will, in the long run, set at work centripetal forces that will make it difficult for the high command to lord it over the state units. This federalism within one party cannot but run counter to the long lineage of strong central leaders. The Sonia era, which has already completed five years, has not reversed this trend which has been at work in the post-Rajiv period.
If Sonia Gandhi is serious about her party’s long-term future, her work is already cut out. She needs to give the party a sense of focus. It needs to be less a carping critic of whatever Vajpayee does or Advani says. It also needs to go beyond simply trusting in the magic word of the Nehru-Gandhi family, which has been out of power for almost one-and-a-half decades. In the absence of such direction or clarity, the NDA stands to gain. It will reap the gains of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who stands above the fray within his party and in the nation at large. It will also bind together anti-Congress forces like the regional parties in closer accord.
The country needs a strong opposition, if nothing else, in order to strengthen democracy. Another rout in a general election will see challenges to Sonia Gandhi from within. The cost of failure will prove high not just for her party, but at one remove for the country it had led for so long before its fall from grace.