Sunday, November 11, 2012

A turning point for Congress

A wheel that began to turn in 1969, when Mrs Indira Gandhi split the
Congress and changed the fundamental structure of a party shaped by
Mahatma Gandhi, has come full circle.

Gandhi reinvented Congress between 1920 and 1921, during his first and
arguably his finest mass movement, by lifting it out of the clutches
of patriotic professionals and bulking out the base through grassroot
membership. He was not embarrassed about declaring himself dictator of
the mass struggle, but he was not equally authoritarian within the
party. He fused command with consideration, turned the tremendous
adoration that the poor offered him into an asset for the party, and
ensured its credibility through regular elections. There was even the
historic occasion on which his candidate was defeated by Subhas
Chandra Bose. His word prevailed, but he was never bigger than the
Congress. He turned the party into the vehicle of his 28-year-old
freedom struggle, with benefits that have not entirely disappeared
even today.

Nehru was Gandhi's heir, and while he understood that stress of power
would encourage less democratic tendencies, the Congress remained the
only guarantor of stability. But Indira Gandhi was Nehru's heir; and
the dominant role that Nehru played in the Congress government perhaps
began to squeeze the distance between individual and organization. She
began to see the organization as a problem, rather than an anchor.

The split of 1969 was a first step. Her landslide victory in the 1971
general elections destroyed the ragtag bunch of opposition parties;
but that was less important to her than humiliation suffered by the
aptly named Congress (Organization). The parent became the rump. It
wilted and disappeared. Politics has no space for losers.

Ideals cannot compete with success. There was an attempt to go back to
tradition after Mrs Gandhi's defeat in 1977, but all questions were
buried in the avalanche of her victory in 1980. A theory became fact
in the party's imagination: Congress wins elections not through party
organization but through family charisma, anti-poverty slogans and
pre-poll distribution of largesse towards that broad rubric called the
poor, with specific attention to vote banks like Dalits and Muslims.
As that supreme loyalist of Mrs Gandhi, Dev Kant Barooah, put it,
Congress cannot be defeated as long as "Ali and coolie" vote for it.
The setbacks of 1990s were attributed to absence of family at the
helm, and reforms that the poor could not understand. When Sonia
Gandhi became president, the firm was back in business on old terms.

The historic impact of this year's UP assembly elections, spearheaded
by the Gandhi family, has not yet been analysed. "Ali", the Muslim
vote, dismissed Rahul Gandhi's promise of 17% job reservations as a
desperate ploy. But the most revealing aspect of the defeat was the
comprehensive rout in the family's pocket boroughs, Rae Bareli and
Amethi. The decisive shift came, in my estimate, when Priyanka Gandhi
took her children along, and Robert Vadra asked for his share as
reward for passing on the genes. Today's voter wants governance today,
not a king tomorrow.

Family and slogans will not immediately disappear, but they are
trading at a heavy discount. It is often difficult to recognize change
even when it comes armed with a torchlight through the fog. But there
is a distinct pattern. In a reversal of the past, Congress parties
without the family are winning elections against the Congress. Mamata
Banerjee is a recent instance. Jagan Reddy will do in Andhra Pradesh
what Mamata did in Bengal. Sharad Pawar, who is the first modern rebel
against the family, sold himself short when he compromised with the
Congress for a secondary place in office. If he had remained alone,
Maharashtra would have been his by now. Overlaps and inconsistency
might blur the picture, but there is a picture.

Pawar's seniority and political goodwill make him the ideal person to
revive what might be called a Congress (O). But the leader who will be
critical to the process will be Mamata Banerjee, who should be
considered heir of Atulya Ghosh, the Bengal party supremo who was
decimated by Mrs Gandhi in 1969 and 1971. Jagan Reddy would complete
the immediate triangle, but the geometry of expansion can take many
shapes. If Congress goes back to a federal culture of equals at the
decision table, there is no reason why Naveen Patnaik, son of Biju,
should not be part of this old-new Congress. You can go a step
further, and add Nitish Kumar, whose JD(U) is dependent on his
political fortunes. This club could easily have more MPs in the next
Lok Sabha than the official Congress.

A Congress collapse will leave a dangerous vacuum at the heart of
India's politics. A historic inflexion point has arrived. Pawar and
Mamata Banerjee should seize this moment.

1 comment:

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