The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- State Congress leaders must have their ears close to the ground

The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting

There has been a good amount of agonizing and analysing over the Gujarat election results, of the resurgence of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the new aggressive policy the Bharatiya Janata Party may switch to, the imminent marginalizing of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and other moderates, and all the rest of it. The prophets of doom may well prove to be right, and on the other hand, perhaps the end of the world is not really at hand. But that is another story altogether.

What the Gujarat results really show up is the total lack of direction, total misreading of popular sentiment and the internal confusion of the Congress. They said all the right things, from Sonia Gandhi downwards; they spoke eloquently of the lack of development in the state, of the need to improve basic facilities, provide effective relief to the victims of the earthquake, of the need to preserve communal harmony and so on. But the fact is that little of what they said carried any credibility, at least to 51 per cent of those who voted. And a very large number — 63 per cent — did.

It is easy to be wise after an event, but right now it is important for this party to recognize that it has indeed lost its credibility, and lost the confidence of the majority, in Gujarat, as it has in another state, West Bengal, where, as we all know, it has been virtually marginalized for the last 25 years or so. And yet it is this party that is in power in no less than 15 states in the country, either on its own or with partners, as in Jammu and Kashmir. It needs to look within, and very honestly, if it is to face the next round of state elections coming up next year.

Clearly, there are still very many people who feel that the Congress is the party to vote for, and did so in the last state elections. There was a good deal of talk of the anti-incumbency factor in Rajasthan, and the infighting in Punjab, but the fact is that the majority did vote for the Congress in these and other states. So why is it that in some others it doesn’t seem to matter'

The immediate Pavlovian response will be local leadership. And this is, of course, true to a great extent. But it isn’t merely local leadership; it is leadership in terms of opinion and confidence, right down the line. What it means is that in these states — Gujarat, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and others — the lines of communication have broken down. Brave words are seen as merely brave words; there isn’t a positive response to them, they create no sense of confidence that translates into a vote when elections are held. Not just the words of state leaders or the central leaders; the local leadership, such as it is, has become irrelevant, is not trusted or believed. And that is because it has lost contact with opinion and issues in its areas, concentrating on those that do not finally matter.

It works both ways; because of the lack of communication and confidence at the grass-roots, there is no communication with the state leadership, and the state leadership is not strong enough to provide that confidence and not perceptive enough to work out what does and does not matter to the people. Indeed, Gujarat was not just Narendra Modi; he was the catalyst, he saw, cunning man that he is, what would bring him the votes he needed; he literally created a Hindu vote-bank which was Hindu, not divided into castes and included the tribals as well. One is not going into the way he did it, despicable though it was; the fact is he did it.

What the Congress did we all know, but would a strong, more perceptive leadership, working closely and responsive to the grass-roots leadership of the party, not have been able to work out an equally convincing strategy, work towards creating in the minds of Hindu voters distrust of the BJP and its ultimate intentions' Rather than trying its “soft Hindutva” line, could a stronger, more aggressive strategy not have been worked out which would have split the votes the BJP got' There were surely many options, and it is this area that the party needs to look at closely.

It is vital that the state leadership be made up of people who have their ears to the ground, who have strong lines of communication with leadership in villages, mohallas and communities. Toadies, and those who make a craft of servility and flattery, need to be identified and thrown out of the leadership at whatever levels they exist. And the key is communication; responsive, two-way communication which is the only way confidence and trust can come. Not that it will come automatically, but without a strong communications network it will never come, as the party will realize in the the states due to go to the polls next year.

This is what Indira Gandhi had; true, she reduced state leaders to puppets, but she herself had a communications network which included all kinds of people. It was her — and perhaps Sanjay Gandhi’s — moving away from them during the Emergency (when all trust in the party system had virtually broken down) to a near total dependence on the reports coming in from intelligence agencies that led to the results of the 1997 elections. Would she have held the elections if she hadn’t been led to believe that the Congress would blow away the opposition in virtually all states' As Eliza Dolittle may have said, not bloody likely.

Perhaps we are witnessing the passing of strong national leaders and the emergence of strong state and local leaders like J. Jayalalithaa, N. Chandrababu Naidu, Laloo Prasad Yadav and Narendra Modi. Leaders who will inspire trust and confidence because they will have established close, responsive links with leadership down the line, in villages, panchayats, towns and districts. The issue is academic just now; what matters is that within a party that did command the confidence of the majority in almost 15 states, there is a need to identify the faultlines in its communications network, if indeed it hopes to retain these states and aim for victory in the general elections two years from now.

One is not mentioning other parties because in the majority of the elections to come, as it was in Gujarat, it will be basically a confrontation between these two parties; it will certainly be so in the general elections. The BJP will be busy evolving its strategy based on the local perceptions from its organizations like the VHP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. If it is not to do on a national level what the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has done at the state level in West Bengal, then it is time for the Congress to re-think and do it without being taken in by the sycophancy and flattery to which it has become so used.

The key test will of course be the elections next year; and the bye-elections in Rajasthan have not been favourable for the party. It has to allow leadership to emerge from within, something it rarely does, because that will bring up people who have their lines of communication intact, and will tell the national leadership the truth.

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