Can Sonia Gandhi bail out Congress?
Syed Ali Mujtaba
The big debate in India is about the prospects of Indian National Congress in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections. There are also discussions about the leadership qualities of Congress President Sonia Gandhi and chances of Congress and allies cobbling a majority in post poll scenario. The debate is extended to prospects of Sonia Gandhi becoming the next Prime Minister of India.
India’s oldest party; Indian National Congress is at cross roads. Its three solid pillars; upper caste Hindus, Muslims and Harijans, on which Congress once stood has collapsed. Congress, inability to recover its lost ground remains one of the main reasons of party’s dismal performance in last couple of elections.
The Upper caste Hindus that traditionally voted for the Congress due to party’s freedom movement baggage remains disenchanted. Even having miniscule electoral strength, the upper caste remains a dominant force in India. Congress accommodated them in large numbers but due empowerment of the masses, was forced to accommodate representatives of other castes into its fold. This led to their growing disenchantment, which combined, with other factors contributed to their desertion from the Congress camp.
Likewise, Muslim community which felt insecure due to being victimized for the Partition of the country, voted for Congress on its promise that the community would not only enjoy equal citizenship rights but also be given minority rights to flourish in the country. However, anti- Muslim communal riots that became regular feature during Congress rule made Muslims realize the futility of blindly supporting this party. The destruction of Babari masjid under Congress rule was the defining moment for Muslims to desert the party.
Harijan's are the other category, which traditionally voted for the Congress. This was because Congress protected their interests through an act of constitution that give them 12 per cent reservation and placed them under the schedule caste category. Then, Congress cultivated schedule cast leaders like Babu Jagjivan Ram who became a rallying point for the Harijan’s to vote for Congress. After Jagjivam Ram, Congress could not find any leader to match his stature, which contributed to the growing disillusionment of the Harijans towards the Congress party.
Among all these groups there has been a increasing realisation that Congress except paying lip services and evoking freedom movement legacy have done nothing more to assuage their aspirations. Congress inability to launch any specific programme and policies to attract these groups led them to pull out their support from the Congress party.
Congress also failed to take cognisance of the wide range changes that has been taking place in Indian politics since 1967 to 1989. Congress, which had a free run since Independence, got its first jolt when it lost majority in nine states in 1967 general elections. Indira Gandhi tried to play the socialist card and nationalised the banks and scrapped Privy Purses of the princely states in 1969 to regain party’s popularity. However, she did nothing specific in terms of evolving any policies and programmes to woo the voters.
In fact, if any one has to be blamed for sordid affair of the Congress in which the party is today, then it is Indira Gandhi, the iron lady of India. Her second phase of power from 1980 to 1984 was much more damaging for the party than the first, when she promulgated national emergency in 1975. In her second phase, Indira Gandhi started visiting matts and darghas in search of votes. She was responsible for mixing religion with politics and her hobnobbing with the Akalis in Punjab created a situation, which could be tackled only by operation Blue Star. Ultimately, Indira Gandhi had to pay the price of her own life, but by then, Congress party had lost much of its credibility.
Rajiv Gandhi who inherited her mother’s legacies made his best efforts to revive the fortunes of the party. He ushered in telecom revolution and enfranchised the voters of 18 years of age but he too fell into communalist trap. His use of Congress’s parliamentary majority to undo the Supreme Court judgement in Sha Bano case created a Hindu backlash. Rajiv tried to do the balancing act by opening the gates of Babari masjid at Ayodhya and further allowing the Hindu groups to perform Shilanayas there, for the construction of Ram temple. Rajiv Gandhi, which won accolades for pushing India into an era of high technology, drew flake for his regressive policies in handling inter-community affairs of the country. Finally, when he left the scene in 1991, Congress was still weaker, than before.
Narshima Rao who headed the party after Rajiv Gandhi could also not do much to generate any euphoria for the Congress party. His rule was marked by dissension in the party and he remained busy gathering parliamentary support, by ‘hook or crook’. He tried gaining some popular support for Congress by embarking on economic liberalisation but the destruction of Babari masjid, under his Premiership, further battered the party’s image.
It’s a fact that no Congress leader did any thing significant to build the party at the grass roots whose foundations started crumbling in post independent India. All the general elections from 1971 to 1991 where Congress gained majority was not because of party’s any specific policies or programmes but due to a political wave created in its favour following some specific event. The past callousness of Congress leaders is haunting the party today.
Another noticeable feature in Indian politics was that the political space in the country started getting crowded with the mushrooming of several political parties. The trend was set by Janata party coalition experiment in 1977. Apart from the traditional left parties, there was rise of some socialist parties, which were offshoot of the Janata privar. The BJP, which sprang out of Janasangh, was able to acquire a national character on its own. There were also several regional parties that sprung up, notable among them were Telegu Desam in Andhra Pradesh, Samajwadi party and Bahujan Samaj party in Uttar Pradesh and Janata Dal party in Bihar.
Every political party, which cropped up thrived at the expense of the Congress. In such crowded political atmosphere, India’s oldest party found difficult to manoeuvre its way. Moreover, Congress lost its sense of direction in the unfolding of events that rallied on Mandir verses Mandal politics. Congress ambiguous stand on both these issues became its undoing. Congress with all its political promises could not capture the imagination of the resurgence middle class, which was overgrowing in independent India. Congress evoking its hoary past, and feeding them with stories of Chacha Nehru and Bapu, could not move these electorates to its fold. Congress inability to strike an emotional chord with the upward mobile new generation Indians remains one of the most glaring short coming of the party.
Moreover, Congress party itself had been under turmoil since the demise of Rajiv Gandhi. Narshima Rao who led the party after Rajiv was unable to rein in Arjun Singh, ND Tiwari and late Kumarmanglam who left the party, questioning his leadership. What was a trickle under Narshima Rao became an exodus under Sitaram Kesri, who succeeded him as the new Congress president. It was at this point that Sonia Gandhi; the Italian wife of Rajiv Gandhi stepped in to take over the reigns of the Congress.
Sonia Gandhi apart from being the missing link in Congress’s dynastic rule symbolises the beginning of a new era in the party’s history. The credit goes to her for saving the party from the brink of disintegration and holding it together. She has breathed a new lease of life into Congress by contesting intra-party elections and totally revamping the party after being elected as its president.
Sonia Gandhi has led Congress to victory at several assembly elections and shared blame for its defeat. She is the first Congress president to periodically assess the performances of the Chief Ministers of Congress ruled states. The party is currently is power in 12 states of the country. Sonia Gandhi by holding Congress conclaves to review the political situation of the country has given enough demonstration of her leadership qualities.
There has been repeated assault on Congress for having a person of foreign origin as its party president. Even some Congress leaders like Sharad Pawar, PA Sangma and Trariq Anwar left the party on this issue. In spite of these criticisms Congress cadre elected Sonia Gandhi as party’s president demonstrating their full faith in her leadership. The controversy of native verses foreigner lost much of its sheen when Sonia Gandhi won the 1999 Lok Sabha election from two separate constituency one in the north and other in the south of the country. Electorates by giving overwhelming support to the Italian Bahu have silenced those who claimed that Indian of foreign origin is unacceptable to the masses of the country.
If Sonia Gandhi is a liability for the Congress, then it is also a fact that she is also the only asset of the party. There is nothing exceptional about Congress minus Sonia Gandhi. There is no other leader who can match up her stature in Congress party. Sonia Gandhi remains the singular driving force and the star campaigner of the party. There is no denying the fact that currently the fate of Congress party is conjoined with Sonia Gandhi.
In the ensuing Lok Sabha elections, Congress has recognised the necessity of coalition politics and is busy sewing up some formidable alliances. This has brightened the prospects of party to come to power. However, it will be too early to cast any judgement on the outcome of the poll results. The question of Sonia Gandhi becoming the next Prime Minister of India arises only when Congress is able to cobble up majority and its entire alliance partners agree on the choice of her leading such front. The answers to these questions could be found only in the post poll scenario but the fact remains that the chances of such a probability cannot be ruled out!
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a television journalist currently working in Chennai, India. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org