Debating India

CONGRESS (I)

Questions of leadership

Saturday 28 August 1999, by MURALIDHARAN*Sukumar

in New Delhi

AN acute leadership deficit is an obvious reality of the election scene today. The Bharatiya Janata Party claims to be on a roll towards victory, and by its own admission made a serious error of judgment in seeking to recruit the authority of the armed forces commanders for its political campaign. What is most striking about this supposed error is the tacit acknowledgment that even a Prime Minister who has been anointed, in the imagination of his adoring flock, as a leader to be "trusted in war and peac e", has to prop up his claims by invoking extraneous authorities.

Overlooking the glaring impropriety of press-ganging the military into a political campaign, the mural that provided the backdrop to Vajpayee’s public meeting at Karnal, Haryana, on August 20 could be interpreted in different ways, none of which would do any credit to the government or the party he leads. It could be viewed as an effort by a political leadership that has presided over the erosion of various institutions to garner the vicarious benefit of identification with the armed forces. Among all t he instrumentalities of the state, the armed forces today enjoy unprecedented public acclaim as a consequence of the war in Kargil. The mural depicting the three armed forces chiefs (as well as assorted objects including the Prithvi missile) either signi fied the recruitment of the military command as co-equals of the political leadership or, more alarmingly, as patrons and benefactors. Either way, the representation of the armed forces commanders at a political rally can only be construed as a serious e mbarrassment for a country that has always kept the military isolated from political partisanship and set great store by the principle of civilian control over the soldiers of the republic.

As in the case of the brutal manhandling by the police of a college girl at one of his election rallies in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, Vajpayee was quick to express his regret at the lapse. Under pressure from the Opposition, the BJP in its turn owne d up to its mistake without further evasion or equivocation. But the admission of leadership infirmities has not been undone.

Within the Congress(I), occupation has often been considered the entire basis of legitimacy. P.V. Narasimha Rao could weather every manner of adversity during his tenure as Prime Minister and Congress(I) president without facing serious challenge from wi thin the ranks of his party. It was, finally, judicial stricture and indictment in several cases of corruption that laid him low.

Even the less-than-compelling claims of Sitaram Kesri managed to pass internal scrutiny, including the first leadership contest in decades, although he plunged the party into one reckless misadventure after another without gaining for it any dividend. He was finally cast aside by the restoration of dynastic legitimacy. Evidently, dynasty is the only force that can overturn the legitimacy of occupation within the Congress(I).

DYNASTIC associations do not, however, confer an abundance of political discrimination or judgment. As the contest for the party ticket for the Lok Sabha elections sharpened, there were several people within the top hierarchical structure of the Congress (I) who were prepared to question the soundness of Sonia Gandhi’s judgment. The buzz grew still louder after the grossly mismanaged drama of Bellary.

The Congress(I) strategy is premised upon a restoration of its role as the central pivot of Indian politics - the party that represents the nation in microcosm and is hence the presumptive party of governance. The absolutist claims of dynastic legitimacy mesh easily with this intent to restore single-party dominance in the Indian polity.

At the same time, there are queries about how credible a candidate for Prime Minister Sonia Gandhi really is. While a natural politician like Vajpayee revels on a public platform and finds himself most comfortable in addressing a large assembly extempore , Sonia Gandhi has to seek protection under layers of access control by her zealous followers and stick to carefully scripted speeches. A recent survey of the electorate found that more than her foreign origin, Sonia Gandhi’s lack of political experience was perceived as the more serious disqualification as far as her credentials for high office were concerned.

For the Congress(I), the subtle projection of Manmohan Singh is an insurance against the miscarriage of the Sonia effect. The former Finance Minister serves a multitude of functions for the party. First, he is recognised as a reluctant politician, one wh o entered the hurly-burly only in order to revive an economy that seemed to be headed towards terminal illness. He introduced a deeply controversial package of policies without attracting any acrimony towards himself. In a milieu where political passions are often raised to fever pitch over marginal differences on substantive issues, Manmohan Singh seems to embody the virtue of bureaucratic neutrality. With politicians as a class generally being in disfavour with the general public, Manmohan Singh’s spe cial characteristics may well prove attractive.

Acknowledging the claims to leadership of the former Finance Minister - who has, incidentally, served in every senior official position connected to economic policy, from Chief Economic Adviser to the government to Governor of the Reserve Bank of India a nd Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission - would involve certain hard choices for the Congress(I). First, it would institute a situation of dyarchy within, which has never served the party well. However ardent Manmohan Singh may be in expressions of loyalty to the Gandhi dynasty, occupation of high office is known to confer a certain self-belief that could run contrary to the absolutist principle on which the Congress(I) runs. This could threaten the secure hold of the dynasty on the party and make for a situation of endemic instability.

Sonia Gandhi’s rather unequivocal disavowal of any intent to field either of her children as candidates for the Lok Sabha renders the family’s hold just that bit more tenuous. There are expectations, however, that both Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi will go t o work in the family’s traditional constituencies of Rae Bareli and Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. They could involve themselves closely in the Congress(I) campaign from these constituencies, seeking to establish their credentials for a future contest.

THE thinking within the Congress(I) is that in the remote eventuality of the party gaining a near-majority in the Lok Sabha, Sonia Gandhi would be an axiomatic choice for Prime Minister. But if the Congress(I) falls well short and the rival BJP-led coali tion is also unable to put together a viable government, then Manmohan Singh could become a pivotal figure in the construction of new alliances. Prospective allies may have reservations about Sonia Gandhi’s leadership. But precisely because of his seemin g bureaucratic neutrality, Manmohan Singh is expected to be a more agreeable figure across the political spectrum.

Even the Left parties could submerge their serious reservations about the economic philosophy that Manmohan Singh represents, in certain conditional assurances of support.

As always, the Congress(I) is far from being internally united on these strategic perspectives. There is a section within that which is dependent for its political sustenance on the patronage of the dynasty and may have reason to feel threatened by the e mergence of alternative power centres. This section would have a vested interest in pre-empting the former Finance Minister by setting in motion the kind of inscrutable forces that have often in the past turned certain Congress(I) victory into ignominiou s defeat in particular constituencies. A Manmohan Singh who fails to gain entry into the Lok Sabha would hardly be a candidate for party leadership. His initial campaign appearances seem to indicate that the bureaucrat is beginning to find his political feet. But in the Byzantine inner processes of the Congress(I), there are enough instrumentalities available to cut the ground from under his feet.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

Volume 16 - Issue 18, Aug. 28 - Sep. 10, 1999

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