Debating India

ELECTIONS 2004

The return of the Congress

Venkitesh RAMAKRISHNAN

Wednesday 2 June 2004, by RAMAKRISHNAN*Venkitesh

Verdict 2004 represents a total rejection of whatever the Bharatiya Janata Party stands for. Success in carrying forward the spirit of the verdict will depend on the policies and political practices of the Congress, which heads the new government.

in New Delhi

VERDICT 2004 is indeed a fractured one, but it contained three, unambiguous political messages. First, it rejected the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government by reducing the alliance to a minority in the Lok Sabha. Secondly, it dismissed firmly the government’s claims - symbolised by the India Shining campaign - about the growth and development the country achieved under it and disapproved of the politics of Hindutva practised by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Thirdly, the emergence of the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress as the single largest party made it clear that an overwhelming mass of people have rejected the campaign against her on the basis of her foreign origins. That also indicated that they do not see her as unfit to hold constitutional office in India.

It was the spirit of these political messages that prevailed at the meeting of the leaders of 19 non-NDA parties as they gathered at 10 Janpath, the residence of Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi, on the evening of May 16, and unanimously asked her to form the new government at the Centre.

All the parties represented at the dinner meeting were not pre-poll allies of the Congress. In fact, many of them such as the Left parties, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) had fought resolute electoral battles against the Congress in several parts of the country. These battles had highlighted the differences these political forces had with the Congress on a variety of issues, both at the level of policy and in terms of day-to-day political processes. Even pre-poll allies of the Congress such as the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) had reserved their opinion about supporting Sonia Gandhi’s candidature for prime ministership until the results came out. But, as the evening’s events proved, none of these parties had any doubt about the fundamental implications of the verdict and the need to imbibe them in letter and spirit. That Sharad Pawar was one of those who seconded the resolution - moved at the meeting by Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief M. Karunanidhi - proposing Sonia Gandhi’s name emphasised this unity of understanding.

Cumulatively, the parties represented at the meeting accounted for 322 members of the Lok Sabha, much above the 272 required for a simple majority. With promises of support from other parties, including the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Janata Dal(S), the support for the Sonia Gandhi-led government is bound to be in the range of 350. But will this substantial support in terms of numbers ensure a stable government? Can the new government come up with clear and concrete policies and implement them accurately, merely on the strength of the contention that the ruling and supporting parties have imbibed the basic spirit of Verdict 2004? By any yardstick, the biggest challenge before the new government will be that of responding to these questions positively. A number of developments in the run-up to the May 16 meeting and after have put greater emphasis on this challenge.

The factors thrown up by these developments include the unwillingness of the supporting Left parties and even parties in the pre-poll Congress alliance - such as the DMK and Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) - to join the new Ministry, the efforts of sections of the Congress to keep out some of the supporting parties such as the S.P. and the RLD from the Ministry, and the massive fluctuations in the capital market, which have been allegedly caused by the conflicting policy perceptions of the Congress and the Left parties on economic reforms.

The fresh campaign unleashed by the BJP and the Sangh Parivar on the plank that Sonia Gandhi should be prevented from becoming Prime Minister because of her foreign origins has also added to the gravity of the developing situation. Leaders of national stature, such as former Prime Minister V.P. Singh - who had consistently advocated the cause of non-NDA parties, including the Congress, throughout the campaign - had requested the Left parties to join the government even as the results were coming out. The former Prime Minister’s view was that the Left’s participation would provide greater stability to the new government. He had also argued that the Left would be able to guide the Ministry’s policy and direction better from within than from outside. He was also of the view that the Left would be able to broad-base its political and organisational sphere of influence by being part of the Ministry.

However, the Left parties - the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the Forward Bloc - have taken a collective decision not to join the government.

A two-day meeting of the CPI(M)’s Central Committee held on May 16 and 17 set the tone for this decision. The assessment of the Central Committee was that the Congress needed to impart greater clarity to its positions on various aspects of economic and foreign policies before the Left decided in favour of joining the government. Issues of special concern for the Left include the positions on strategic disinvestment of public sector companies, labour reforms which advocate "hire and fire" of employees, and the tendency to subjugate all initiatives on the economic front to market-driven forces. On foreign policy, the Left would want to know how far the Congress would reverse the dependence on the United States and Israel that the NDA had cultivated during its regime. Apart from these policy positions, the issue that came up at the Central Committee was the Assembly elections that are due in West Bengal and Kerala in 2006. In both the States, the Congress is the principal political adversary of the Left. Several leaders of the CPI(M) from these States were apparently of the view that it would be difficult to fight the Assembly elections with organisational and political intensity if the Left was part of the government.

The Congress has taken, at least for the record, the Left’s decision with poise. Official responses from the party’s leadership are that the decision, by no means, raises doubts about the Left’s commitment and responsibility towards the new government. However, the decision has evoked sharp responses from the BJP and some independent advocates of economic reforms. In the opinion of BJP spokesperson Arun Jaitley, "the Left is seeking to wield power without responsibility in much the same manner as it did during the United Front government of 1996".

The contention of independent advocates of economic reform was that the Left’s non-participation in government would raise doubts about the commitment of the new government to carry forward the reform, leading to the flight of international capital from the country and a massive downslide in the capital market. The reasons for the DMK and the MDMK’s non-participation have not been elucidated by the leaderships of the parties. The DMK has maintained that it will join the government at a later stage. In any case, the decision of these two parties has not generated as much debate in public forums as that of the Left.

The efforts of sections of the Congress to keep the S.P. and the RLD out of the government have attracted the attention of the media and the public. Both the S.P. and the RLD have shown their willingness, in ample measure. But sections of the Congress, especially those from Uttar Pradesh, are of the view that admitting the two parties in the government would impede the revival of the Congress in the two States. "We have to fight them constantly," said a senior Congress leader, "to gain greater organisational and political grounding in the State." The leader added that the Congress had now evoked popular appeal in the States after a long gap and that the party would be committing political suicide if it allowed the two parties to join the Ministry at the Centre. By all indications, it was Sonia Gandhi’s submission to pressure from U.P. Congress leaders that resulted in the "communication gap" in the matter of formally inviting S.P. and RLD leaders to the May 16 dinner meeting she hosted. S.P. president and U.P. Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav left for Lucknow in a huff when it became clear that he was not invited.

However, CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet’s timely intervention, which came in the form of a request to S.P. and RLD leaders to accompany him to the dinner, helped keep the non-NDA parties together. According to S.P. general secretary Amar Singh, Surjeet’s intervention and his own non-egotistic response in accepting the CPI(M) leader’s request facilitated the preservation of the spirit of the verdict. "We suffered a vile campaign throughout the election process that we were going to join hands with the NDA after the polls. But it is surprising that we are being rebuked even though it is clear that we caused the maximum damage to communal forces in India’s most populous State." Amar Singh added that the S.P. and the RLD would continue to remain steadfast against communal forces and in the secular camp, even if the unfounded campaign against the parties continued.

Clearly, the non-NDA parties have a long way to go before the spirit of Verdict 2004 acquires the concrete dimensions of a functional coalition. The massive fluctuations in the capital market, the reactions they have caused in a section of the middle class, and the inability of the prospective dispensation - including the leaderships of the Congress and other non-NDA parties - to counter the sense of panic, are in no way helping build confidence about the process of evolving a functional coalition. A committee has been set up to prepare a Common Minimum Programme (CMP) under the chairmanship of former Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, who is assisted by Jairam Ramesh and Pranab Kumar Mukherjee. There are hopes, both within the Congress and outside, that the CMP would help stem the turbulence in the markets. Even then the new coalition will have a tough task in handling the fresh campaign of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar seeking to stop Sonia Gandhi from becoming Prime Minister.

The campaign, which first came in the form of a threat from former Union Minister Sushma Swaraj to resign from the Rajya Sabha along with her husband Swaraj Kaushal, is growing in intensity. The old Hindutva warhorse Govindacharya even started a "movement" called the Rashtriya Swaabhiman Aandolan in quick time with the express intention of "protecting the self-respect of the country from cultural domination". Several leaders of the Congress, the Left and other non-NDA parties have expressed the hope that Sonia Gandhi will meet these challenges and overcome them with confidence.

Early signals from the Congress president have, however, been contradictory. While her decision to leave out Mulayam Singh from the list of invitees was perceived as a non-magnanimous act at the personal level and an inopportune step politically, the manner in which she addressed the Congress parliamentary party on May 15 was rated as exemplary. Speaking at the meeting, she described the mandate for the Congress and the Left as an "immense responsibility". She pointed out that the Congress should "acknowledge that the people of India have chosen us to represent their aspirations, not our own". Signing off, she gave a message against complacency: "There is now a momentum generated by our revival - let us not squander it."

According to the seasoned political observer Hariraj Singh Tyagi, a long-time associate of the Socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia, Sonia Gandhi has several positive things going for her as a politician. But he is also of the view that her vulnerabilities are unique and somewhat formidable in comparison to other Indian leaders. Tyagi perceives the Gandhi-Nehru family connection, which has a pan-India presence, as an advantage. The fact that she can run the government with just the support of her own pre-poll alliance and the Left - without overly depending on regional parties with limited agendas - is also a positive factor. And so is the fact that she heads a party that has ruled India for 45 years, which has no dearth of experienced people. The flexibility that she has shown in forging alliances and accommodating different parties throughout the campaign is also seen as a positive trait. But her own administrative inexperience is a vulnerability, as is her foreign origin. Her actions will be under greater scrutiny than that of other leaders. If she can walk the tight rope in managing these vulnerabilities and hone her strengths to perfection, says Tyagi, the new government will not be found wanting not only in terms of stability but also in terms of direction and sense of purpose.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

Pic 1: KAMAL NARANG ; Congress president Sonia Gandhi with the leaders of alliance parties in New Delhi on May 16.

Pic 2: RAJEEV BHATT ; Outgoing Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee.

Pic 3: RAVEENDRAN/AFP ; Congress supporters outside Sonia Gandhi’s residence in New Delhi on May 13.

in Frontline, volume 21, Issue 11, May 22 - Jun 04, 2004.

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