Debating India

CONGRESS

Alliance qualms

Saturday 28 August 1999, by RAMAKRISHNAN*Venkitesh

Innately uncomfortable with coalitions and electoral alliances, the Congress(I) struggles to come to terms with the new realities.

ALL through the recent years, the Congress(I) has been bogged down by a certain elemental flaw in its attempts to pursue coalition politics. This relates to its basic political slogan of stability, which the party argues can be attained only by single-pa rty governance. The party leadership has found it difficult to suborn this idea to the essential need in the context of many States to form coalitions or reach an understanding with other parties. And even on occasions when the party has tried to do so, much of the time it has ended up without being able to forge an effective coalition or understanding.

The case this time is no different. The Congress(I) has functioning coalitions or understandings only in a few States such as Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Kerala. In Gujarat, the party was spared the trouble of forming a problematic alliance when former Chief Minister Shankarsinh Vaghela’s Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP) merged with it. While proposed alliances with forces such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have failed to materialise, those with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Republican Party of India (RPI) have been stormy and ineffectual. This dismal show is all the more evident in the background of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s success in firming up the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), notwithstanding that formation’s many infirmities and woes, such as that relating to the entry of the Janata Dal (United) into the combine. Simply put, the BJP has adapted itself better to the era of coalitions.

In the Congress(I), such adaptability has been conspicuous by its absence. What has characterised the Congress(I)’s manoeuvres on this front since the fall of the Atal Behari Vajpayee government is a lack of clarity in analysing the party’s own strengths and weaknesses, accompanied by a tendency to flip-flop. Thus one saw party leaders such as P. Shiv Shankar admitting after the dissolution of the Lok Sabha that the Congress(I) should have agreed to form a coalition government after the fall of the Vajp ayee Ministry, and following up the statement with talk about pre-poll alliances on the basis of a common manifesto.

However, by the time the Congress(I) Working Committee held its first meeting in the context of the elections, all talk about alliances on the basis of a common manifesto had vanished. It had been replaced by the discourse on the "momentous" Pachmarhi de claration of September 1998. The Pachmarhi declaration had advanced a line against coalitions and made it clear that in special cases coalitions could be considered but only if the Congress(I) had supremacy within them. Protestations from leaders such as A.K. Antony, Sitaram Kesri and Rajesh Pilot that it would be unrealistic in the present context to hang on to the Pachmarhi declaration were brushed aside by Sonia Gandhi loyalists such as Arjun Singh, Pranab Kumar Mukherjee and R.K. Dhawan.

Much of the discussions on coalition formation was held in the background of this "ideological entanglement" within the party. The difference in the approach of individual leaders got reflected in these discussions. The Tamil Nadu-Pondicherry deal negotiated by pro-coalition CWC members Antony and Manmohan Singh resulted in an arrangement that involved the Congress(I) accepting 12 seats out of 40, leaving 23 to the dominant partner, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). In negotiating t his deal, the Congress(I) gave up its Pachmarhi position that it would not accept the role of a junior partner. The deal reflected a realistic assessment of the party’s present strength in Tamil Nadu.

BUT this was not the case during negotiations the Congress(I) had with the BSP and the RJD in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar respectively. In both cases, the local Congress(I) leaderships showed a tendency to overestimate their own strength and put forward unre asonable demands before alliance partners. When the negotiations with the BSP started, the Congress(I) demanded half of the 85 seats in Uttar Pradesh. The BSP, which secured 21 per cent of the popular vote in the State in the last elections as opposed to 6 per cent by the Congress(I), naturally would not agree. Claims about the Congress(I) having since undergone a revival were not acceptable to the BSP leadership. In particular, its vice-president and former Chief Minister Mayawati would have nothing of that kind.

When it became clear that the BSP would not offer more than 25 seats, the Congress(I) steadily climbed down. Finally it accepted what was on offer. The Congress(I) also agreed without protest to other preconditions laid down by BSP supremo Kanshi Ram, su ch as the extension of the alliance to the Assembly polls and projection of Mayawati as the chief ministerial candidate.

However, the party did try to add one rider to the agreement: that the alliance should not be confined to Uttar Pradesh but should be extended to Madhya Pradesh. Clearly, the Congress(I) wanted to benefit even more from the potential of the BSP leadershi p to transfer its votes in any direction it deemed fit. This proposal, however, was not acceptable to the BSP, partly because its Madhya Pradesh unit had felt betrayed by the Congress(I) in the last Assembly polls. On that occasion, the BSP had supported the Congress(I) in more than half the seats in the State on the basis of an understanding that a leader from among the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes would be considered for the position of either the Chief Minister or Deputy Chief Minister. A fter the elections, the Congress(I) failed to do this.

As the talks with the BSP failed, in Uttar Pradesh the Congress(I) was compelled to have a minimal understanding with Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD). The RLD was given eight seats and the Congress(I) retained the remaining 77. Although this means t hat the Congress(I) gets to contest more seats, there is not much hope of winning most of them in the absence of an alliance with the BSP.

SIMILAR is the situation in Bihar, where at the beginning of seat negotiations with the RJD the Congress(I) demanded 25 of the 54 seats in the State, although the party had won only five seats and 7.27 per cent of the vote in the previous elections as co mpared to 17 seats and 26.58 per cent of the vote won by the RJD. Significantly, 10 Congress(I) candidates forfeited their deposit in the last polls.

RJD leader Laloo Prasad Yadav initially offered 11 seats. But the Congress(I) would have none of it. Finally, after repeated discussions involving CWC member Pranab Kumar Mukherjee and Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, the RJD leader offered the Congress(I) 13 seats. This was apparently acceptable to the Congress(I) central leadership, including Sonia Gandhi. However, following threats of a revolt in the State unit, Sonia Gandhi asked Laloo Prasad Yadav for mo re seats and the RJD leader agreed to add one more seat to the Congress(I)’s quota. Still the State unit of the Congress(I) held out, claiming that its level of popular support entitled it to a minimum of 17 seats. If this was not granted, they would lea ve the alliance, warned the Congress(I) State leadership. This has caused a deadlock in the Bihar alliance and created bad blood among the RJD cadre, whose wholehearted support is essential for the Congress(I) to be able to improve its position in the St ate. The RJD, on its part, is of the view that it has shown utmost flexibility in the interest of uniting the secular vote in the State and that the Congress(I)’s demand for 17 seats is unjustifiable. Whatever the outcome of this impasse, it is certain t hat secular unity has been impaired in the State, and that does not promise a better deal for the Congress(I).

IN Maharashtra, the Congress(I)’s refusal to accept the fact that its strength has diminished in the wake of the departure from the party of Sharad Pawar and his supporters has put its alliance with two groups of the Republican Party of India - the Praka sh Ambedkar and Gavai groups - in jeopardy. Claiming to retain its strength despite the split, the Congress(I) has denied the RPI groups many seats including one in Nagpur, which has a high concentration of Dalits. Observers are of the view that such a s tand would cost the party dear all over the State.

IN the midst of this dismal picture on the alliances front, the only sources for optimism for the Congress(I) are its time-tested coalition in Kerala and the new understanding reached with the Left parties in Punjab. In Kerala, the party was able to win back the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), which had vacillated towards the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front initially, and complete the seat arrangements in quick time to get a headstart in the campaign. In Punjab, the understanding with the Left parti es is working smoothly. This situation is bound to help the party in both the States.

However, in its proclivity to turn even favourable circumstances into a situation of adversity, the Congress(I) leadership, including party president Sonia Gandhi, has been making several mistakes that could impair the party’s prospects even in these Sta tes. Sonia Gandhi’s statement while releasing the party’s manifesto to the effect that the Congress(I) has no plans to form a coalition government after the elections is a case in point. There are apprehensions within the Congress(I) that it would affect the party’s chances in Tamil Nadu. For it is evident that AIADMK supremo Jayalalitha’s basic purpose in forging an alliance with the Congress(I) was to get a share in power if and when the Congress(I) is in a position to attain it. So the party leadersh ip has added an air of uncertainty even into an advantageous situation because it is unable to see the writing on the wall.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

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

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