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FOR THE NATIONíS SAKE

- The Congress deserves to give itself a second chance

Unabated price rise, coupled with unending stories of venal acts at high places, has caused wide discontent across the nation. The Indian National Congress, the principal constituent of the coalition government in New Delhi, has not escaped the opprobrium for all that has been happening. It has reason to take alarm at reports streaming in concerning its prospects in the on-going polls in five states of the country, which are to be followed, in a short while, by general elections for the next Lok Sabha. Publication of poll sample survey forecasts has been prohibited for the season by the Election Commission. That cannot, though, be much of a barrier to assessing the current mood of the electorate, particularly since inflationary forces persist with virulence.

It is only natural that political punditry is having a field day. Should the Congress fail to emerge as the first party in the Lok Sabha vote next year, the Bharatiya Janata Party would seemingly forge ahead. Even if it failed to attain an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha on its own, it would still be in a strong position to bargain with other parties to put together a government. It, too, has an organizational structure covering almost the entire country, and its coffers are as full as that of the Congress. Drawing a rough sketch of the political post-poll situation next year is not all that difficult. The Left would no longer be a spoilsport for others, its political clout is gone, partly because of its own ideological and tactical errors, but more because of the devastating consequences of globalization.

The regional parties, such as those led by the formidable ladies in Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, or, for that matter, even the ones dominated by the so-called backward communities in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, are, each of them, at best likely to win chunks of seats in the Lok Sabha amounting to, at best, 6 to 8 per cent of the total. Given their separate and conflicting ambitions, they would be unlikely to agree among themselves to build a solid alliance that could lay claim to form the new administration at the Centre. It is as good a hunch as any that once the Congress receded and the BJP established itself as the first party, but fell somewhat short of a majority in the Lok Sabha, the regional parties would make a beeline to negotiate with it for sharing the spoils of power at New Delhi. The circumstances would, of course, be altogether different in case the BJP, perhaps even to its own surprise, were to win an absolute majority.

This is precisely where uncertainties cloud the contours of development the country might experience over the next few years. The BJP carries quite a few pieces of uncomfortable baggage. The capture of power by it could be festive season for the mad-fringe Hindutva zealots, who would be quite capable of creating situations that scare considerable sections of the minority community. In any event, the coming of power by a party that propagates religious activism in the worldís largest democracy is bound to attract some international attention. The Islamic world, the Taliban in particular, would sit up. The Taliban have already established a major presence in Pakistan. The government there, despite all the economic and military sustenance it receives from the United States of America ó or perhaps directly on account of such support ó is in no position to prevent the growing Taliban infiltration into the portals of the countryís civil administration as well as defence establishment. The harsh reality can no longer be blinked at: the Pakistan authorities have to humour the Americans and, side by side, the Islamic militants as well. The Taliban have a long litany of grouses against New Delhi. They disapprove of this countryís submissiveness to the US. They take a dire view of the alleged persecution of Muslims in India in the name of countering terrorism, as also the gross excesses committed by the Indian Army in Jammu and Kashmir. Should the Taliban want to use Pakistan as base to harass India, there would be little effective resistance from within. Many observers would actually link the sudden intensification of shelling across the Line of Control from the Pakistan side to this disturbing development.

Once we become the target of the Taliban, it would be the dawn of a dauntingly different experience ó goodbye to tranquillity for, who knows, quite a few decades. All past co-ordinates guiding decision-making would fall by the wayside, forcing strategy planners in New Delhi to redo their arithmetic almost continuously.

Such, sadly, could be the sequel of the BJP forming the new government next year. And yet, in a free democracy the BJP has every right to seek the favours of the electorate and head the government in case it wins the poll battle. The good citizens who might vote it in have the prerogative to do so. That their ballot could indirectly lead to encouraging Taliban intrusion into the country was a thought that would not at all occur to them; or they might consider it far-fetched, motivated scare-mongering. The past record of the gentleman handpicked by the BJP as its prime-minister-designate, and the partyís close association with a member of former army bosses who had played a questionable role in Jammu and Kashmir by their overbearing attitude, are, nevertheless, widely known; the Taliban, too, would be fairly well posted.

It is, therefore, not altogether unreasonable to think of ways and means whereby the possibility of a relatively easy BJP success in the coming Lok Sabha polls can be reduced. Whether one likes it or not, the feasible alternative appears to be to launch efforts that might enhance the prospects of the Congress, which, reports suggest, is, at the moment, in a somewhat demoralized state. Rumours are rife of a rift between the Prime Ministerís Office and those who form the think-tank for the partyís president. Despite the delicate pre-poll situation, which calls for both firmness and clarity in decision-making, the government has recently tended to be wobbly over sensitive issues. A usually low-key prime ministerís voice is, of late, reduced to a still lower key. There is also perceptible differences in the points of view of the coalition partners on how to deal with the grave issues of inflation and corruption, or even on how much is affordable for food security.

These are problems that can be sorted out or at least papered over in the pre-election season if the morale of the Congress could be on an even keel and the principal handicap it is encountering on the campaign trail were behind it.

It would be counter-productive to hem and haw over the matter. There is now an increasing perception that the biggest difficulty the Congress is facing is linked to a feeling that it has projected the wrong person in its choice of prime minister designate. Jawaharlal Nehruís great-grandson and Indira Gandhiís grandson is proving to be a campaign disaster. Nostalgia is a doubtful electoral asset; in any case, it is a fast eroding one. Nehru is now dead for nearly half a century, three decades have elapsed since Indira Gandhiís reign. Their memory hardly rings a bell with the present generation, which makes up the bulk of the electorate. The birthdays of both were in November and passed practically unnoticed. Even in their supposed pocket borough, Rae Bareli, the charisma of the family is, according to reports, failing to work.

Apart from the hundred doubts over the partyís credentials, the BJPís prime ministerial candidate has, of course, personal flaws that are showing up frequently; his early record in Gujarat cannot be easily washed away either. He, nonetheless, gives the impression of carrying weight. In contrast, the Congressís heir-apparent exhibits flippancy in his public appearances. He has a diction that jars, and the manner in which he puts across his themes alienates people rather than drawing them in. One needs to be blunt here; the mother could install the son as general secretary of the party, which is their familyís absolute domain, the mother could subsequently make him the partyís vice-president, but, to be prime minister, he must receive the nationís mandate. On the basis of his performance till now, he is highly unlikely to.

Desperate situations call for desperate measures. Why can the Congress not be bold enough to replace its candidate by one who would be demonstrably a superior campaigner and with a better political sensitivity? The party, for instance, could opt for an aggressive individual like Digvijay Singh, a fierce family loyalist, who has vast experience as chief minister of a large state and has adequate familiarity with the partyís organizational structure. On the other hand, he is known to have many sworn enemies inside the party. Why not, then, agree on the defence minister, A.K. Anthony, who was such a combative Congress chief minister in a state like Kerala for long years, has an extraordinary reputation for probity, is altogether non-controversial and acceptable to all sections of the party?

At least four months still intervene between now and the Lok Sabha ballot. This is enough time for the general political mood to change. The Congress, for the sake of the nation, owes it to itself to give itself a second chance.