India’s grand old party is sitting pretty, notching up one electoral triumph after another. Is the long forgotten Tina—there is no alternative—factor back with a bang?
India’s grand old party is sitting pretty, notching up one electoral triumph after another. Is the ‘Tina’ factor back with a bang?
‘You play with the hand you have, Not the hand your opponent sees’ —Anonymous defier of odds
Not so long ago, even sympathisers of the 1885-founded Indian National Congress were ready to consign it to history, its mythical aura of being India’s ‘natural party of governance’ largely lost. So, in 1998, the year a youngish Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) formed a ruling coalition at the Centre, it was a sullen Congress party that had gathered at Pachmarhi in Madhya Pradesh to ponder its future. The issue, to most observers, was whether it had one at all. In what seemed like an act of hubris, however, the outcome of the huddle was a declaration that came to be called the Pachmarhi Resolution: ‘Coalitions will be considered only when absolutely necessary.’ Multi-party governance, it proclaimed, ran counter to the national interest and their existence at the Centre was just ‘a transitional phase’.
External responses ranged from dropped-jaw disbelief to belly-clasping laughter. More than a decade on, nobody finds it funny anymore. And after the latest round of Assembly election results, all the teeth-baring being done is by those who drafted that resolution.
The Congress’ coalition partners stand warned: party insiders reveal that debate is underway on exactly how to accelerate the country towards single-party rule again. It’s on the agenda of the All Indian Congress Committee’s annual session to be held in late December, and also on the party’s next plenary slated for 2010. “We are moving towards a situation in which there will be one major party and many others,” says Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari. The old days of dominance, it would seem, are not far away.
CONGRESS RAJ REDUX?
Manish Tiwari points to the Congress’ wins in Maharashtra, Haryana and Arunachal Pradesh, soon after its impressive victory in the 2009 Lok Sabha election. It “signifies the sunset of bipolarity” in Indian politics, he says. “The results are reflective of the emerging landscape of Indian politics.”
Allow the man his pomp. The recent resurgence of the Congress may well be remembered as an important marker in Indian political history. Just six years ago, with the BJP in power, the Congress was being flayed as a confused party of corrupt hangers-on and doddering Gandhi family loyalists, much too out-of-touch and slouchy to survive a competitive political arena. Even leading a coalition to victory was put beyond their abilities, forget an outright majority in Parliament ever again.
The 2004 shock defeat of Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government at the hustings was seen as an aberration, a BJP loss rather than a Congress victory. An alliance quickly assumed charge under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But even six months ago, as another Lok Sabha election beckoned, the Congress wouldn’t have dreamt of trying to get re-elected on its own. Or so it appeared. Insiders say that key strategists were already looking ahead. Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh, for example, had this to say: “I would not call it the end of regional parties but yes, a decline of regional parties… They have peaked, they can only decline now. People are once again looking at national alternatives rather than regional parties.” With the BJP too muddled up to be in contention, that leaves the field open to the Congress.
Indians are familiar with single-party rule. For the first 28 years of Independence—a decade beyond the Nehruvian phase—there was no alternative to the party, really. It was the popular upsurge against Indira Gandhi’s 1975–77 Emergency that threw up an Opposition for the first time, at least one that could dislodge the Congress from power. The 1980s saw another oppositional surge, this time with the BJP playing a big role. Since the Lok Sabha election of 1989 that saw Rajiv Gandhi lose power, India has never had a single party rule the Centre. It’s the coalition era, they say. It has also been a phase of policy reforms and economic dynamism, the result some say of domestic political rivalry as much as an American victory in the Cold War. What single-party rule could now mean, therefore, is quite an interesting poser for the new millennium.
DECLINE OF THE BJP
Recent electoral outcomes are significant not only because of Congress victories, but because they have come in spite of acute anti-incumbency against Congress-led governments in the states. It is all the more striking that the anti-incumbency factor has stopped working just when it should be—there’s an agrarian crisis, recession blues and rise in food prices. A big role has been played by the near evaporation of the BJP, the principal opposition party.
By the afternoon of 22 October, the day of vote counting, it was clear. What the Congress portrayed as absolute victories were being read as pyrrhic wins by commentators who analysed the voteshare patterns closely. Both in Maharashtra and Haryana, it was a split in opposition votes that saw the party through, and in the latter, its decline in both votes and seats was the story of the day. The Congress’s Assembly presence in Haryana fell from 67 to 40 seats, and the moral victor in TV studios was deemed to be Om Prakash Chautala’s Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), which raised its tally from nine to 31 despite the loss of the BJP as an ally. This was bad for the Congress, but not so bad—since incumbents rarely ever win in this state. But for the BJP, it was devastating. Having snapped ties with the INLD on fears of an anti-Chautala mood within the state, it wasn’t even in the picture (yet again), with only four seats in an Assembly of 90. “The collective view of the cadre in the state was that we go it alone in the elections, and we did just that,” says Ravi Shankar Prasad, MP and BJP’s national spokesperson. “That we could have done better with the INLD as our partner is an afterthought,” says Vijay Goel, a BJP parliamentarian who is in charge of the party in Haryana.
Since, the Congress has mustered the support of independents to get past the majority mark in Haryana, and is working on Bhajan Lal and his son Kuldeep Bishnoi to get them to merge their Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC) with the Congress. Sources in Chandigarh, privy to the discussions, point out that the party even has a plan B: it will try to split the HJC, which won six seats, if the Lals do not relent. The party abstained from voting in the 28 October Assembly floor test, enabling a Congress sail through. The Congress, thus, is comfortably off in Haryana.
That must have mortified the BJP still further. Sources reveal that before the polls, the party was in touch with the HJC for a pre-electoral alliance, for which both Vijay Goel and senior leader Arun Jaitley held talks with Kuldeep Bishnoi, discussions that ran into a dead-end once the latter insisted on being projected as the alliance’s leader (rather than his father).
What the BJP lost as an opportunity, the Congress appears to be gaining. That’s the strength at the disposal of an all-India party in power at the Centre. This is also why the BJP’s washout only hastens the Congress’ ascendance across the country. Of the 338 assembly seats up for grabs in the three states, the BJP and its allies only managed 98 constituencies. The Congress and its allies won 226. This does not bode well for a two-party political arena, as some had hoped India would achieve as it matured as a democracy.
In Maharashtra, things aren’t much better for the BJP, which has resigned itself to its fate as the ally of a Shiv Sena whose vote bank is being cannibalised by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). Raj Thackeray’s breakaway party won Mumbai’s Mahim seat, which represents the Sena bastion of Shivaji Park. Some reckon that this is a signal of the MNS’s rise as an alternative to the Sena. “The politics between Raj and Uddhav for the post-Bal Thackeray era is playing itself out. We knew it would damage us,” says a senior BJP leader in New Delhi.
“We have to engage in self-introspection,” is all that Nitin Gadkari, president of the BJP’s Maharashtra unit, has to say about the Shiv Sena-BJP combine’s third successive defeat in the state. Despite numerous chintan baithak rounds (introspective sessions) since the 2004 defeat, the BJP has yet to work out a revival plan. Party General Secretary Gopinath Munde merely echoes Gadkari. “We have to analyse the reasons for our defeat,” he tells Open, “If the MNS had not eaten into the Sena vote bank, we would have certainly come back to power (in Mumbai).” But he has no plausible explanation for the BJP winning only 46 seats in a 288-member house.
Even the BJP leadership in New Delhi has no answers for the party’s underperformance, though Arun Jaitley has coined a new phrase to explain the party’s losses. “There was large scale anti-incumbency, but it was divided anti-incumbency,” he says, “Irrespective of what we could have done in Maharashtra, how could we have controlled the MNS?” According to Vijay Goel, the fractured opposition failed to cash in on hot button issues like price rise, law and order and a statewide scarcity of water and power. “You can’t take anti-incumbency for granted,” he says, by way of a lesson from the results, “The opposition needs to work and provide an alternative.”
So the boot’s now on the other foot. Now the BJP’s being flayed as a confused party of corrupt hangers-on and doddering Sangh Parivar loyalists (or mis-loyalists), much too out-of-touch and slouchy to survive a competitive political arena. Listen to what an MP at the principal opposition party’s HQ at Delhi has to offer for the Assembly rout: “Our national president’s term will end in December. Our state presidents will also be replaced, so I think the cadre is basically waiting for this phase to end and make a new beginning.”
Whatever the excuse, the BJP is ailing and the most telling comment on its health comes from its own big brother, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). “As far as the BJP is concerned,” said the Sangh’s chief Mohan Bhagwat at a press conference in Jaipur, “whatever surgery, medicine, chemotherapy is essential for them, it has to be diagnosed by them.” A mentor, then, that thinks of its political protégé as a terminal case.
The collapse of the BJP has helped the Congress in more than one way—not only has it turned the main opposition block invisible, thereby offering an open field to the Congress, it has also weakened the sway of the Hindu Right (as represented by the RSS) over Indian politics. As analysts say, it is this phenomenon that frees the Congress to abandon the call of secular unity and take on regional secular formations. And since many of these parties represent the underprivileged who felt ignored by the Liberalisation-era Congress, further leftward swerves in some aspects of policy formulation might be expected. At least to the extent that the economy’s space for rapid expansion is not cramped. The Congress’ rejuvenation notwithstanding, political scientist Sudha Pai advises caution, “It is true that the BJP has been rejected in large parts of the country and that the Congress has improved its tally. But regional parties have also not done too badly. If this time the Congress does not deliver, it would need more allies the next time.”
But the Congress has a gameplan to avoid that eventuality. Jharkhand, where Assembly polls are scheduled soon, may be a testing ground. The party wants to contest all by itself, aligning with neither of its previous allies—Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). This confidence springs from the Congress’ experience in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where playing the lone star paid off handsomely, reviving the party’s rank and file. Once the party’s revival is clear to all players, the Congress may find takers among regional parties for an open invitation to return to the grand secular fold. Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), its Maharashtra ally, has virtually been set a deadline for merging with the Congress. “It is bound to happen, perhaps it will happen before 2014,” says Digvijay Singh.
Now that Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has been shown to be weak in states beyond UP (it did dismally in Haryana and Maharashtra), the Congress is breathing easier about consolidating its Dalit support across the country. And then, there’s the revival of Muslim support giving it a big boost as well. Mayawati now finds herself in the same spot as the Yadav chieftains of UP and Bihar. Without Muslim votes, none of them have a fighting chance, and the Congress’ comeback is wrecking their respective social coalitions.
That leaves the Left parties which are busy trying to retain whatever support they still have in Bengal and Kerala. A Congress resurgence is bad news for them at the national level to the extent that they may no longer be needed by centrists to act as a bulwark against a saffron surge in the future. This frees them, too, to pursue their communist ideals—while the centrist Congress rules.
BACK TO PACHMARHI
The rejuvenation of the Congress and the collapse of the national-level Opposition have brought back the resolve of Pachmarhi after a lost decade. It hasn’t been easy for the party. It had to explicitly change tack soon after Pachmarhi, and at the 2003 Vichar Manthan Shivir in Shimla, it finally gave in to coalition arrangements—‘on the basis of mutual understanding but always without compromising its basic ideology’—with secular parties. This is how the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) dethroned the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
After that, the 82nd AICC plenary at Hyderabad in 2006 went a step further, extolling the UPA coalition and expressing its unflinching commitment to it: ‘The Indian National Congress sees the birth of the UPA not in terms of a narrow-minded pursuit of power per se, or even as a desperate move to stall the communalist forces from returning to office, but as a wholesome desire to serve the nation with time-tested ideas and methods of rapid development and distributive justice. A short-sighted and a short-term calculus of benefit to oneself has no place in this noble venture.’ Notice, it didn’t rule out any long-term calculus.
It sounds roundly settled. Yet, it’s not the same old days again, the ones that older Congressmen have such fond memories of. Political observers know only too well what monopoly power does. To an extent, so do voters. For policy minds to keep whirring, and for India to sustain its dynamism, there needs to be a stiff challenge to Congress dominance, threatening to take over the minute it slips. But for that, both the Left and Right would need to regain strength. This effort may call for entirely new strategic approaches on their part. Unlike earlier, both these challengers are far better known to the electorate at large, thanks to the Congress’ lost decade. It is up to the Opposition to raise the Congress’ costs of complacency. This much, they owe the country.
(Additional reporting by Haima Deshpande)