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REBUILDING THE CONGRESS

- Defeat may lead to rejuvenation

A democracy with universal suffrage must give electors a choice. There must be at least two national political parties. More of them would merely split the vote and not offer a clear choice to voters.

The election results on May 16 are expected to give us a new, non-United Progressive Alliance/Congress. If it gets less than 100 seats as predicted, it will be the smallest the party has ever been in Parliament. Even if Sonia and Rahul Gandhi are elected, their past record as legislators does not suggest that they can lead an effective Opposition in Parliament. Neither is an effective speaker or debater, and they appear unable to think on their feet. They do not have the required networking skills that this tallest club in India demands from effective leaders. Worst of all, they both lack a comprehensive understanding of the complex issues that have to be dealt with. At the same time, they have little choice but to hang on to their most valuable family inheritance, the Congress party.

P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee treated the widow of the former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, with consideration and respect. Unlike the many investigations undertaken by the Janata Party governments into the actions of Indira Gandhi, no investigations were directed against Sonia Gandhi. Even the media were kind to her. Vajpayee continued with the various generous facilities given to her by the Narasimha Rao government. The allegations that she and her family have large amounts in Swiss bank accounts surfaced during the years of the UPA government. However, Narasimha Rao marginalized Sonia Gandhi politically. This explains why the Family and hence the Congress have for 16 years tried to bury his memory. When the Congress’s turn for power came, Sonia Gandhi looked for the most unlikely person with no political affiliations or base to be prime minister when her foreign origin would make it impossible for her to occupy the position. Sonia Gandhi handed over the government to an obedient and pliable political non-entity. Regarding the party, she will not hand it over to anyone else except her son or daughter, for fear of losing it altogether.

When Indira Gandhi was subjected to humiliation by the Janata government, she fought back with the help of her son, Sanjay. She was helped by the many helpful administrators, including police personnel, that the Congress had planted and developed over the years since 1947 (being in office three-fourths of the time since Independence). If the zero results of the many investigations by the Janata government into Indira Gandhi are any indication, administrators will drag their feet similarly over investigations into the current Gandhi family as well. They will fudge evidence, lose it, make errors in presentations to the courts, and find every way to keep the proceedings going. They have done this in the past, and particularly with the charges against Congressmen over the killings during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. The clever manoeuvering and manipulation of Janata leaders by Indira and Sanjay Gandhi led to bickering in the Janata party which enabled them to emerge unscathed. Charan Singh achieved his ambition to be prime minister for a while. Indira Gandhi withdrew outside support to his government in six months as she had always intended. Charan Singh’s government collapsed. Indira Gandhi rode back to power. Her cleverness in building alliances led her to try and build Sikh support by supporting the dangerous separatist Sikh militant, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. After she raided the holiest temple of the Sikhs, her Sikh bodyguards assassinated her. This led to Rajiv Gandhi coming to power with an unprecedented majority.

A new Bharatiya Janata Party/National Democratic Alliance government under Narendra Modi is unlikely to treat Sonia Gandhi and her family with kid gloves. We can expect serious and coordinated investigations into the various scandals of the last 10 years and the alleged wealth of the First Family in India and abroad. Do Sonia Gandhi, her two children and son-in-law have the cleverness, persistence, determination and networking skills to do what Indira Gandhi and her younger son did to the Janata Party? They have not demonstrated these abilities. Further, the BJP will be firmly under control of one man, Modi, not a consultative group as under Vajpayee. Modi as prime minister is likely to centralize all power with himself. He will develop objectives and strategies and ensure implementation by his ministers and bureaucrats. His personality does not suggest compassion for his opponents. The Gandhis are unlikely to receive the same consideration during his regime as they did earlier. They will not only be pursued by the law but they might also lose many of the privileges that they have enjoyed as members of the Dynasty.

When the Congress lost to the Janata Party and others, many left the party and joined other parties. Some even became ministers in the disparate coalition governments that followed. Many will leave it after May 2014. Those who stay might be energized by the hounding and humiliation of the Gandhi family by the new government. They could help create a new base for the party to rebuild itself.

The rebuilding of the Congress will be the responsibility of Rahul Gandhi. For 10 years past he has tried to inject democracy into and find leadership in the Youth Congress. Only time will tell how effective his effort has been. He will now have to take on the much bigger task of rebuilding the Congress from the village/mohalla level, talukas, districts and states. He must weed out the corrupt and ineffective and bring in hard-driving, honest younger people. It will take him 10 years. At the same time, he must lead an effective Opposition and get to power in panchayats, municipalities and state governments as their elections come up. He must discard the family practice of encouraging dissidents against Congress chief ministers, and enable them to grow and become powerful.

The party must develop a common purpose, ideology and policies that grow with the people and the nation, not borrow from the future to buy present voters as they have done. Apart from rebuilding the party therefore, Rahul Gandhi’s task will be to give the Congress a different approach from that of his grandmother and mother. His challenge is to achieve growth with low inflation, accelerate savings, investment and employment, and provide health, education and nutrition to the poor who must be properly identified and targeted.

If he can do these he will be a natural prime ministerial candidate — not just because he is a Gandhi. Whether he does these or not, the Congress must develop many power centres among its chief ministers and others. Rahul must be willing to be replaced by one of them. If he resists, the Congress will certainly break up into a number of state units. In states which it rules, the chief ministers will be the power centres, not the High Command .

This is truly a watershed election. It passes the baton to Modi, a state leader in an Opposition party, who might last for 10 years. His party and he have a distinctively different ideology and policies from the Congress. The imminent defeat at the Centre of the Congress might lead to the rebuilding of the nation and the party.