It’s never too late to chart a fresh course in the political arena. Sonia Gandhi must take heart from this adage as she swiftly re-orients a party used to grand isolation to become a partner in the process of a realignment of forces. The last fortnight has seen truth dawn on the managers of the nation’s oldest party as they cast the net far and wide in search of allies. There is little doubt that the search has gathered momentum.
Sonia herself is in the thick of it. Each step has seen her depart from the usual choreographed public appearance as she reaches out to regional satraps and Congress breakaway groups, single leader parties and individuals who personify the social churning that has eaten away at her own party’s base over the past decade and a half.
Such a process of re-invention is not new for the Congress. Few have grasped a point well known to chroniclers of social change in modern India: neither the Dalits nor the Muslims had much love for the party in the last elections in pre-independence India in 1946. Yet by the time of the first general elections of 1952, subtle and not so subtle gestures had won them over in large parts of the country. They stayed on with the party of Nehru and Gandhi till the end of the Eighties in much of the North.
Yet Sonia does not have the luxury Nehru had. The Congress then was effectively the only all-India force. It was able to absorb various currents of ideology and myriad forms of identity within its fold. It could rise above such loyalties and yet bind over and heal. There was the added promise of a fresh start, with the dams and the steel mills being the symbols of dawn and the ballot box the instrument of change.
That dream was in tatters by the end of the Sixties and Indira Gandhi responded to the crisis in a distinctive if brutally effective fashion. The party was effectively moulded in a new way in the two splits of 1969 and 1978: by the end of the process, its leadership was firmly in the hands of one family. The route to the top was effectively closed to anyone not of the clan. This worked as long as an exceptionally well-informed and connected leader like Indira was at the helm.
Even her hold had slackened, with her biographer Inder Malhotra asserting that after her return to power in 1980, she never regained control as in the past. But the party’s present state can, at least in part, be traced to her legacy. Confronted in the early days of her premiership with a phalanx of regional satraps, she proceeded to put her own stamp on the party. This process of decimation of the leadership has left the party in dire straits today not only at campaign times but even in terms of strategic and tactical planning.
Even in the Seventies, the party had a bona fide leader of the scheduled castes, Jagjivan Ram, and an outstanding figure from the western Indian peasantry, Yashwant Rao Chavan. Three decades on, one looks in vain for significant leaders of note in its ranks from communities as significant as the Dalits, the Rajputs or the Mandal classes.
The next and last major shift happened under the most unlikely of figures, P.V. Narasimha Rao. The process of economic reforms, unleashed in the first three years of office, marked a major break with the older pattern of a highly interventionist state. Yet the major beneficiaries of the process, the middle classes, small but voluble and articulate, voted against the party and have largely continued to do so through the Nineties.
Congress spokesmen and leaders point to their foundational role in initiating reform, in a bid to beat back the saffron platform. But as with the Green Revolution in the Sixties, the prime gainers have turned on their original benefactor. Having got some, they want more and feel another political entity, mainly the Bharatiya Janata Party, will deliver the goods.
Sonia’s dilemma, which emerges very lucidly in the first full-length biography by Rashid Kidwai, is a simple one. She has to unify her party at a time of strife and doubt, and also help it formulate a new message. The fact is, the Mark I model of Sonia of 1998-2002 failed. It did succeed in getting the party to power in just over a dozen states, but it could not revive its fortunes where it mattered: the Ganges basin and the deep South. In both regions, the decline now seems irreversible — whether in the Gangetic basin states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal or in Tamil Nadu, there is little option but to follow another party’s lead.
Here, Sonia is breaking at last with Indira’s legacy. Under her late mother- in-law, the family not only symbolized the nation, it was also custodian for keeps of the future of the party. But as the vote-catching abilities of the party and family decline, it is having to sup with old adversaries and come to terms with the fact that it has to be part of a coalition, not an organization on a pedestal. In a sense it is ironical that the Congress, a consensus-based party with diverse currents, should have to learn from a cadre-based, ideologically coherent party, the BJP, about the virtues of alliance building. But a rough back-of-envelope calculation shows it engaged in talks about seats in states that account for as many as 250 or even well over 300 seats.
The significance of this emerges only when one looks back at the past. In 1998, the party contested 471 seats: its only major ally was the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar. A year later, its share of seats dropped a bit to 453 as a Dravidian party joined forces in Tamil Nadu.
This time round, not only is the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party inching towards a deal, there is the possibility of a deal with Mayavati’s party. The latter, more than any other single force, has eaten away at the larger party’s base among the Dalits and have-nots in north India. The very fact that the two are talking shop is a measure of the fragility of the Congress and the growing clout, if not the appeal, of the Bahujan Samaj Party.
The challenges are still all too real. The party may have stopped insisting on imposing its own leader on the rest of the front, but the issue of leadership is still wide open. More than that, the vision and programme beyond simply countering Hindutva have to be spelt out. Only then will a Congress-led grouping begin to challenge the Vajpayee factor and the National Democratic Alliance’s sphinx- like ability to be many things to many voters.
Indira’s legacy may be responsible for many of the party’s ills, but in one respect it has much to learn from her. She could frame a vision that could keep her party in step with the aspirations of a new generation. She did that in 1971 with garibi hatao, at a time roughly one of every two Indians was poor. In 1980, it was a government that worked — a far cry from the chaos her opponents created when in office.
The party has begun, though just about begun, to get its tactics right. The question now is whether it has a strategy, a vision that can stand up to the one put up by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his cohorts. There must be something about an eighty year old heading a multi-party alliance that wins him the support of a country half of whose citizens are under 25 years of age.
Alliances alone do not win elections. A platform is a must. Sonia needs to tell India what she and her party can do for us.