The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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A traveller who got lost in the countryside came across a farmer standing by a fence. He stopped to ask him for directions. The farmer, chewing on a blade of grass, told him, “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.”

Can the Congress ascend to power at the Centre from where it finds itself today' It does not seem so. This 117-year-old party is facing the gravest crisis of its lifetime. There are indications that the Congress may not survive this crisis, leave alone assume power at the Centre in the near future.

After the humiliating defeat in three states of the Hindi heartland, Congressmen might want to know what Sonia Gandhi brings to the party. These results have also shown that while the Bharatiya Janata Party may not be getting “Congress-ized”, it is now in a position to take the place of the Congress in the Indian polity as the accepted party of governance. These and the coming general election would also go a long way in indicating whether the Congress can survive as a monolith or whether it might not break up into smaller caste- or interest-group-based regional parties.

Such is the strength of the Nehru-Gandhi family franchise in the Congress that despite the latest poll debacle, no one — neither the wily Arjun Singh, nor the one time prime ministerial aspirant Pranab Mukherjee, nor even the upright Manmohan Singh — will have the courage to tell Sonia Gandhi that she does not present the winning face of the Congress. The point is that nor does anyone else.

Sonia Gandhi is trying to follow the plebiscitary style of her mother-in-law without her abilities. Plebiscitary politics is opposed to interest- group-based or programmatic politics which involves the mobilization of factions, vote banks, castes and communities around the party’s programme and candidates. Instead, it is based on a direct relationship between the leader and individual voters. While eroding the importance of ideological commitments or policy preferences, the over-riding test of plebiscitary politics is loyalty to the leader — in this case, Sonia Gandhi.

However, it is not sufficient to copy the leadership style of Indira Gandhi. Plebiscitary politics has two important pre-requisites — a talent to communicate directly with the masses and of eliciting their trust at a distance. Sonia Gandhi is still a long way from mastering these qualities. That is why her persona alone cannot lead to a Congress victory.

Because the family name unifies the party, tomorrow it may be some other member of the family who comes forward to keep the flock together. The immediate test of the family leadership would be provided in Andhra. A spectacular victory based on well-worked-out local alliances may sustain the present leadership for a while. A defeat, however, would lead to partymen asking what use is party unity if they cannot come to power.

The recent elections have also brought to the fore the electoral pressure on the BJP to take the place of the Congress. After having shifted the Indian polity to the right, the BJP is now embarked on the process of stabilization and consolidation.

There are also indications that unless things go drastically wrong, say, a terrible monsoon, the next government at the Centre could once again be a National Democratic Alliance government led by the BJP. The BJP is a coalition-ready party and its recent electoral victories would help it keep its flock together. The new NDA government, possibly with a similar if not stronger BJP presence in Parliament, would be more capable of giving better governance than its current avatar. Being in a coalition helps in this process. On the one hand, it keeps the extreme Hindutva ideologues of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh at bay in the name of “coalition dharma”. On the other, it increases the acceptability of the BJP as a party of governance. Ram rajya can then be touted, as it is now sought to be done in Madhya Pradesh, as a synonym for good governance.

When the entire polity shifts rightward, so does the Centre and the superstructure that goes with it. The middle class, the business leaders, the opinion makers, the television commentators — they all change their tune to suit the times. What happens after that is anybody’s guess. The BJP may well transform itself into a different kind of party than what it is today. An ideological tussle may result with the electorate pushing the BJP towards a (redefined) Centre and the sangh parivar pulling it back to its obscurantist agenda. Meanwhile, the Congress would have been displaced by a challenger, the BJP.

What might happen to the Congress under such circumstances' At the best of times, the Congress was a party formed as a pre-electoral coalition. It is a party that is put together at the ground level in the run-up to elections. Various castes, communities, local notables and interest groups used to come together under the Congress umbrella. The party leadership was expected to mediate between different interest groups, take into its fold emerging social forces and give them a share in power, moderated by the needs and demands of competing groups.

However, mediated politics is what the party seems to be giving up now. The elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have shown that the Congress is no longer able to balance different interest groups successfully. It has also shown its inability to articulate the aspirations of emerging social forces with the same ease as earlier. If it had been able to do so then the Gondwana Gantantra Party and the Samajwadi Party would not have emerged successful in parts of Madhya Pradesh and the Bahujan Samaj Party would not have been able to cut into its votes. Similarly, in Rajasthan, the Jats who have traditionally provided the Congress with a solid political base, would not have deserted it.

Unless there are alternative crystallization points for those social groups which are still within the Congress, fissiparous tendencies might set in. There was a time when those who left the Congress did not survive — does anyone even remember the fate of Congress (Urs), Jagjivan Ram’s Congress for democracy, N.D. Tiwari’s Congress (T), K.P. Unnikrishnan’s Congress (Socialist) or even Madhavrao Scindia’s Madhya Pradesh Vikas Congress' However, things have changed now. The Nationalist Congress Party of Sharad Pawar is not only surviving but has forced the Congress to recognize it as a force not only in Maharashtra but even in Chhattisgarh. Mamata Bannerjee has managed to keep the Trinamool Congress afloat in West Bengal. And the Vidharba Congress may be the last refuge of the geriatric leaders of that region now, but who knows if it is not a precursor of things to come'

If the Congress cannot win elections, then the various social groups within it may form themselves into independent political parties in various regions. One should not be surprised if a Jat party emerges from the Congress in Rajasthan or a Chhattisgarh Congress comes into being with a Dalit and tribal agenda.

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