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Congress big dreams

By Vidya Subrahmaniam

The Congress reached out to friends when the arc lights were trained on the BJP. Back in media glare, it seems unwilling to show the same warmth to them.

HOW QUICKLY things change in politics. Who would have thought at this time last year that the "India Shining" boys would wind up as a lustreless bunch in the Opposition? The match seemed over bar the ceremonial shouting. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance was blessed on every count — it had an adored leader, a great (claimed) incumbency record, and a brilliantly conceived election campaign.

The Congress looked wretched by contrast. Party spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy, known for his rapid-fire repartee, was strangely tongue-tied when journalists pressed him for an answer to the Bharatiya Janata Party's "shining" and "feel-good" blitzkrieg. "We will soon come up with something equally catchy," he said evasively, admitting in the process that the BJP was way ahead in the imagination department.

In the end, the Congress went with its old slogan — albeit tweaked to suit the "feel good" times. The downmarket garib (poor) in "Congress ka haath garibon ke saath (Congress is with the poor)" exited, replaced by the savvier aam aadmi (ordinary person). Party strategists apparently felt that too much stress on the word garib would negate India's image as an aspiring superpower and vindicate the BJP's charge that the Congress was happiest peddling poverty.

But the change only betrayed the party's confusion. Was it a wannabe BJP minus the extreme edges? Or did it stand for the egalitarian, secular principles on which the Congress and India were founded? When Sonia Gandhi took the first tentative steps towards alliance formation, most commentators again dismissed it as a copycat response to the BJP's success with the NDA: In Atalji's times do as he does.

In a way the pervasive cynicism proved to be a blessing in disguise for Ms. Gandhi. Away from the glare of the flashbulbs, she built her coalition block by block, going out to woo both those who shunned her and those whom the Congress had shunned. She called on Sharad Pawar; she sent the genteel Manmohan Singh to meet M. Karunanidhi to win over the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. (The meeting erased 20 years of acrimony and mutual suspicion between the two parties and brought in a string of other allies.)

Lalu Prasad, Ram Vilas Paswan, Shibu Soren, and Chandrasekhara Rao, each a big catch, followed suit — without fuss, without fanfare. Her comfort level with the Left parties was already good; she knew they would help without either side having formally to proclaim the trust. Alliance in place, the Congress chief plunged into her sampark abhiyan, again unnoticed by a media that perked up only when the Gandhi children, Rahul and Priyanka, made a splash in Amethi. The new wisdom in the Congress notwithstanding, Ms. Gandhi saw, spoke to and interacted with more garibs than aam aadmis on her tours.

Verdict 2004 was a shock as much to the BJP as to the Congress. After six years of doing as the BJP bid, the Congress was suddenly free — free to do its own thing. So out went the BJP's sassy new vocabulary. "India Shining" was now a joke told and retold. The aam aadmi gracefully receded and the garib reclaimed his place in VIP speeches, Government-sponsored seminars, and in the early days, even in policy discussions. Secularism, outlawed in the khaki-knicker times, made an honourable return. Analysts mentioned pluralism, multiculturalism, equity and such without fear of being called jholawalas.

The only idea to survive the regime change was the idea of coalition. And deservedly too because the United Progressive Alliance Government owed its existence to the alliance that Ms. Gandhi painstakingly put together. Members of the UPA — Mr. Prasad, Mr. Paswan, Mr. Pawar, and Mr. Karunanidhi — sang paeans to their new-found unity. For communalists never to return to office, secularists had to stay together in office, they affirmed, and the lesson seemed well-absorbed judging by the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party victory in the Maharashtra Assembly election.

Again how quickly things change in politics. The garib may still find a mention in ministerial addresses but is far from being the centrepiece of policy or legislation, thanks to old favourite "pragmatism" forcing periodic reviews of commitments and promises. And if secularism is the major concern the UPA constituents said it was, it is not too evident from the current disunited state of the alliance. Indeed, in retrospect, Ms. Gandhi's alliance achievement seems truly phenomenal. How did she erase the perception of the Congress as a wavering, fickle ally? And how did she herd together so many highly-strung individuals? And having pulled off the impossible, and having accepted the responsibility of keeping the UPA house in order (in preference to heading the Government), why does she suddenly seem unconcerned about the future of her project?

There is a surreal quality to the whole thing. First it was only Mr. Prasad and Mr. Paswan. The foes-turned-friends-turned-foes attacked each other with a ferocity made worse by their status as Cabinet colleagues. Were these the same men who, only eight months ago, swore eternal friendship in the cause of secularism? Welcoming Mr. Paswan's Lok Jana Shakti Party (LJSP) to the RJD fold, Mr. Prasad had told Frontline: "Of course I had differences with Paswan but when he quit the government reacting to Gujarat I knew he would be a valuable ally in the fight against the fascists." Last month, Mr. Prasad had this to say of "the valuable" ally: "The Telecom Ministry was taken away from him, so he raised the post-Godhra riots." The new terms of endearment between the Cabinet Ministers would embarrass street bullies.

The Congress has not quite descended to these levels yet but the party is already showing signs of its old imperiousness. In Maharashtra, it insisted on the Chief Minister's post despite the NCP's larger tally and then deliberately chose a Chief Minister who did not vibe well with Mr. Pawar. (Was this the Congress that voluntarily took the backseat in Jammu and Kashmir?) More recently in Jharkhand, the Congress and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha carved up most of the seats in an intended snub to the RJD. Mr. Prasad retaliated by raiding the Congress' ranks (the defectors included old Congress hand and former State unit chief Sarfaraz Ahmad). In Bihar, the Congress excluded itself from the RJD-Left alliance by demanding a hugely unrealistic 100-odd seats, and has since further muddied the waters by teaming up with the LJSP. Is this shrewd Congress strategy to prevent Mr. Paswan's defection to the rival camp? Or is this plain greed on the part of a party that is desperate to reclaim its glory days in the Hindi heartland? If it is the former, Bihar voters have a lot of hard work to do. They must attend Ms. Gandhi's rallies, hear her veiled criticism of Mr. Prasad and then in the larger interest of the secular cause decide not to take her seriously. If it is the latter — which seems more the case going by the soaring ambitions of the GOP's restless cadre — then the Congress might as well disband the UPA and return to the comforting oblivion of the Pachmarhi Declaration era.

Ms. Gandhi must rein in the Congress cadre — and do it now. The RJD may well emerge as the largest single party in Bihar, in which case the Congress will undoubtedly come to its aid. But there is equally a danger that campaign trail rivalries and misunderstandings will spill over into the UPA's functioning. The Congress has no future except as part of an alliance, and the evidence lies in the 2004 Lok Sabha results. The party's new friends contributed more to its success than it might want to admit. The Congress' 145 seats and 26.4 per cent vote share reflected an increase of 31 seats and a decline of 1.9 percentage points as compared to 1999. The allies gained both in terms of seats and votes. Their seats increased from 23 to 77 and their vote share from 5.7 per cent to 10.1 per cent.

As Yogendra Yadav and E. Sridharan point out in the Economic and Political Weekly (December 18-24, 2004), "if the UPA overtook the NDA it was because its allies brought in fresh support. Coalitions were vital for the victory of the Congress-led alliance in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. These seats contributed more than half of the seats that eventually fell in the UPA's kitty." Alliances aggregate votes in such a way that a small addition of votes often yields a far bigger increase in terms of seats. In 2004, the Congress made a better alliance than its rival, which explains why the former gained 69 seats and the latter lost 89 seats for a difference of only half a percentage point. That the Left supports the Congress alliance is no consolation because the Left is not a threat to the UPA's unity.

The Congress reached out to friends when the arc lights were trained on the BJP. Back in media glare, it seems unwilling to show the same warmth to them. The BJP's camera obsession and its neglect of its allies (it lost five crucial allies before the Lok Sabha elections) cost it a third term. Eight months into office, the last thing the Congress ought to do is affect BJP-like arrogance.

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