Debating India

Congress plays partisan politics

Monday 4 December 2006, by NAYAR*Kuldip

The problem with the ruling Congress is that it has run out of ideas. It is indulging in cheap gimmicks. The separation between the loyal and the others, the pure and the impure, is the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh brand of the Congress. It is parochial and dangerous. It smacks of arrogance of power. True, the Congress is leading a coalition for the first time at the Centre and it has to herd the flock closely. But it cannot divide the nation into the Congressmen and the non-Congressmen.

Congress leaders do not seem to realise the harm they are causing to the country’s emotional integration. They should introspect why the nation which blindly followed it, has mostly left it. Years in the wilderness have not taught the party any lesson. The Congress and the country are not synonymous. At least the Congress with its long tradition of unity and pluralism should not be guilty of something which the parochial elements may exploit. The party is still groping for something that can give it the image of being pro-poor, pro-Dalit and pro-minorities. So a new policy on reservations may lessen the party’s support among the Other Backward Classes, because the vocal, influential section among them belongs to the creamy layer. But increasing seats in technical institutions over the years may not regain the upper caste confidence it has lost. A more harmonious approach is needed. The Haj subsidy to Muslims has made another minority community, the Sikhs, demand that their expenses to Nankana Sahib or Panja Sahib in Pakistan be also partially defrayed.

The Manmohan Singh government, despite having run through half its term, has very little to show in terms of achievement. The Cabinet reshuffle, though a substantial one because of changes in the major portfolios of defence and foreign affairs, does not add any value. There is no doubt that A.K. Antony who has been elevated to the post of defence minister, belongs to the Christian minority. But he is not an evangelist, nor a firebrand to go down well with the Christians frightened by the anti-conversion bills which BJP state governments are pursuing relentlessly. I personally think that Antony would have been better in external affairs. Pranab Mukherjee, no doubt, brings maturity, but Antony would have added freshness to the misty corridors of the foreign office.

The latest device intended to attract attention rather than fulfil useful purposes is the garibi hatao programme. It is going to boomerang because people associate the programme with the Emergency. It was at best an economic package to counter the harsh rule that the extra-Constitutional authority, Sanjay Gandhi, had introduced. The manner in which the institutions were destroyed at that time - the press gagged and one lakh people detained without trial - is fresh in people’s mind even after 30 years. And of all the persons to announce the programme was information and broadcasting minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, a drumbeater of the Emergency. Why can’t the Congress pick people with a cleaner image (A.K. Antony is a welcome example) and go back to its old tradition of associating itself with the common man and his problems?

The Congress is fortunate that the BJP, the main Opposition party, is immersed in communal politics which the nation as a whole does not accept. Nonetheless, it is difficult to explain what overtook the Congress to divide the country politically. True, it feels irritated about the stance of some non-Congress states, particularly Uttar Pradesh. But this is in the scheme of things which a federal structure represents. The answer does not lie in the conclave the Congress held of its party chief ministers exclusively. At best, it is a "sectional" response to the country’s problems which demand a consensus. This sort of political caste system was never prevalent earlier. Whether the Centre was ruled by the Congress or non-Congress government, it was a concerted effort. During the regime of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, all states except Kerala were under the Congress. But Nehru was particular to invite Kerala to every meeting he would convene to discuss the country’s problems. He used to write a fortnightly letter to all chief ministers to give them a sense of participation at the Centre. Even Mrs Indira Gandhi, who made no secret of her dislike for the Opposition, did not divide the country into Congress and non-Congress states. Whatever her other limitations, her approach was always national. The conclave had before it serious subjects like agriculture, India-Pakistan relations and the Naxalites. There was useful discussion. Some policy announcements were made. But the party’s forum is not the right platform to do so. Why is the Centre reluctant to call a meeting of the National Development Council which has all the chief ministers and Union Cabinet members on it?

The new agricultural policy that Dr M.S. Swaminathan, an expert, has outlined in his report for a second Green Revolution requires the active participation of all states, not those of Congress-ruled alone. Nearly 40 years ago, the first Green Revolution made India self-sufficient in food grains. The second one needs not only massive investment but a united response to ensure food for 1.4 billion people in a decade’s time.

To give agriculture topmost priority is a welcome step. But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s exhortation to Congress chief ministers to be "role models" implies that non-Congress states cannot be role models. Agriculture is a state subject. Even if all Congress chief ministers were to concentrate on agriculture, they would cover only one-fourth of the country. The Congress-ruled states are: Assam, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi. Both Maharashtra and Jammu and Kashmir are coalition governments. How can four states plus two half-states usher in another Green Revolution? The conclave had not invited even Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar because he did not belong to the ruling party.

If my memory does not fail me, I do not remember even the BJP, during its rule at the Centre, convening a separate meeting of BJP chief ministers to discuss national problems. Probably the Congress got the idea from the time the BJP high command instructed its chief ministers not to apply VAT in their states at a time when the rest of the states did so. The BJP has adopted the same attitude of not prescribing the books that the Centre has published. It is going to play havoc with the students - and history - if their books are revised every time there is a change of government at the Centre.

If the Manmohan Singh government can rise above party interests, it will, indeed, be an achievement.

See online : Asian Age

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