The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Seat-share cure gives Cong heartburn

Shimla, July 10: The one clear assessment that the Congress made at its brainstorming here is the absolute need for a huge 10 per cent national vote swing in its favour to return to the Centre.

The assessment of the Congress’ top leaders came at the party’s last important poll strategy discussions before next year’s general elections.

At the end of the three-day introspection yesterday, the leadership was convinced it was not worth gambling at the hustings on the presumption that the Congress will manage the 10 per cent swing to take it past the magic number of 273 in the 14th Lok Sabha.

Given the present political reality, this was unrealistic, the party concluded.

Some eternal optimists, however, said all that the party would require to achieve the magic number — after about seven years — would be a post-poll arrangement. So the pre-poll sacrifice of leaving seats to some “unreliable” like-minded parties was not necessary, they argued.

This “unrealistic” argument could be traced to the fear among influential Congress leaders in some key states of having to leave several seats to potential allies in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar and Tamil Nadu, and a few in Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh.

The party has never left seats uncontested — except in Tamil Nadu on a regular basis and Bihar the last time — surely not in such big numbers as might be required in the pragmatic approach the leadership is planning for the polls.

The number of seats the party may have to concede could exceed a hundred, which has no precedence in the Congress’ electoral history.

For instance, in Maharashtra, even the worst critics of a pre-poll alliance with Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party concede the Congress would have to give up at least 25 per cent of its 48 seats in the state. Such a deal, however, would surely not be enough for Pawar.

Not surprisingly then, the Shimla Sankalp document — which reflected the thrust of the three-day brainstorming — impressed on party workers to be ready for sacrifices at the alliance altar.

A part of the difficulty in managing the 10 per cent swing is the Congress’ inability to come up with bold new programmes to counter the vastly changed socio-political context of the electoral scenario in crucial Hindi-belt states.

The leadership is convinced that bold policy shifts are required to decisively regain the traditional support of Dalits, adivasis, OBCs and Muslims.

The party did try to commit to reservations for Muslims on an economic basis, push for job quotas in the private sector, extend Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe reservation to the judiciary and adopt a strident pro-poor, pro-farmer, anti-WTO and anti-reform line.

But at the end of three days, there was no forward movement on any of these issues.

The farthest the sankalp went was to propose a dialogue with industry captains to promote employment diversity in the private sector.

The leadership was at pains not to send any message of a rethink on its commitment to reforms. The reason was the party’s belief that the vast urban middle class, which did not support it, had gained from the economic reforms the Congress initiated in the early 1990s.

The effort, however, was made in a manner that did not clarify how the party would deal with some of the more controversial aspects of the reform policies.

This is not surprising as the Congress leadership — within its limitations — is determined to reach out to the underprivileged through its slogan of “Congress ka haat, garib ke sath”.

The leadership believes this approach would maximise the party’s strength, though it may have to lead a coalition government at the Centre after the general polls.

The thrust of the Congress’ message from Shimla is to ensure the party’s basic minimum goal — to head a Congress-led government under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership.

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