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Sunday, December 05, 2021

Congress’s Naya Daur

Can the party get anywhere near remapping its old grand coalition?

Written by Seema Chishti |
January 26, 2009 2:23:34 am

At a recent seminar in Delhi,activist Jean Dréze described his encounter with a woman voter in Allahabad in 2007,who told him she had voted for the “haath” (the Congress’s symbol of the hand). When quizzed for the reason,the farmer-woman looked blank for a bit but then said she didn’t think the other symbols did anything for her; the hand,she reasoned,was her biggest asset,and a party with that as a symbol,perhaps,had something for people who worked with their hands,she did not know the party candidate,but concluded it was her best bet.

It is not clear if the Congress has thought of things and its pitch for 2009 in this way. But if you put their recent statements and assertions in perspective,a few things emerge,which might cheer the ghost of the avid ornithologist and co-founder of the Congress,Allan Octavian Hume.

It’s a cliché,though an appropriate one,that the Congress has always tried to be the broadest church possible,the juggernaut of a coalition before coalitions became the norm. Nehru and those with Nehruvian ideas have wrestled with the likes of Purshottam Das Tandon to define what the idea of India is. The mother party has since its inception boasted of being exactly that,a Congress of several opinions,views and hues. And with this election coming up,it may have decided to again be the Everything party — co-opting elements of the Right and the Left. Its success or failure may depend though,on not only how much it can steal of what are seen as Right and Left agendas,but how much of both of these it can be,while maintaining its Congress-ness — something others expecting more “clarity” would like to describe as its slow,blumbering and sometimes meandering ways,its words and silences.

The Right’s agenda on internal security (though likely to be reinvented by the BJP perhaps as the polls come closer) has been usurped by the Congress. The UAPA,the new federal agency,the positioning of the new home minister,with his political nimble-footedness,would have frustrated many in the opposition. Changing the typical Congress discourse — seen as “shy” of talking about internal security — the party has gone about changing the laws,breathing fire about Pakistan’s role and taking assertive positions with visiting diplomats,still not effectively,ruling out “action”,something that was originally seen as the BJP’s preserve. Interestingly,if the Congress were to have completely gone the POTA way,it could have amounted to what they did with the Ayodhya Shilanyas in 1989,tried to transform into a “soft-BJP” — losing their own character,arousing suspicion in the minorities and leaving those keen on a stronger right-wing tilt,to move towards the “real thing”. Basically falling between two stools. But now,despite uncomfortable questions by A.R. Antulay,and his offer to resign,the party and government gave a detailed statement,distanced themselves from the act,but demonstrated the fact that they remain a broad-based party by not acting against him,thereby not allowing the issue to become larger than what it was,once they let it be.

What is more complex and interesting is what has been happening on the side of the economy. In effect,a government termed “pro-reform” (as a pejorative) by their erstwhile Left allies,will hope to bat this election out on the strength of its rural employment scheme and Bharat Nirman. While several in the party,of another persuasion,rue what they have seen as a takeover by the “reform lobby” in government,they admit that what the state has come to mean,with its social security agenda,unrecognised labour sector offer and noises reflecting its approach to the appropriate mix expected in a developing economy between the state and the markets,has struck a chord. Recent NREGA studies even have critics swearing by what the NREGA has come to mean to India’s darkest corners. According to a field survey done by NREGA activists in six north Indian states in May-June 2008,as these states constitute “40 per cent of India and 62 per cent of the scheme’s money in 2007-8”,reveals how 81 per cent of those is going to live in kuccha houses,and how 73 per cent of those in the net belong to SC/ST families. Astute and critical social activists Dréze and Ritika Khera say it is improving lives of rural poor “slowly but surely”. Politically,it is not clear how much the electorate in a national election will reward the incumbent Central government for this,but what is clear is that on the Left side of the argument,the centrist Congress has again effectively challenged the Left’s assertion of being the sole guardians of the aam aadmi. The anti-nuclear deal campaign of the Left,which could have tarred the Centre as “pro-US”,is also,somehow after the departure of George Bush and the ascent of Barack Obama,not left with much steam.

The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies has analysed poll data for the past few decades,and especially concentrated on what happened to the Congress’s voteshare,post-1991 (seen popularly as the watershed post-Congress years) and found a steady erosion in support from upper-caste Hindus and women,and only a reluctant backing by minorities and others for the Congress. This is especially true of the decade after 1991. Between 1991 and 1996,the Congress’ voteshare slumped by a dramatic 16 per cent. After the 1999 elections,though,things appear to have improved and a steady climb ensued.

Now,it appears to rediscover its touch and ability to catch them all. The Congress must shrewdly do more to steal away from parties opposing it from the Right and the Left,and give its centrism some muscle. The impact of economic reforms on elections and popularity is still a bitter and hotly contested debate,but those within the party,who feel the 1991 reforms “cost” the Congress,concede that the Congress has demonstrated the ability to combine a reform-friendly approach along with the NREGA,Bharat Nirman and the farm-waiver to thrown the net wide,and neutralise what could be the impact of the market on the vulnerable.

So in case a Congressman wants to update the minutely detailed History of the Indian National Congress by Pattabhi Sitaramayya,s/he might find it useful to record that changing to stay the same,continues to be the constant endeavour of India’s oldest political party.

seema.chishti@expressindia.com

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