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A crisis of political courage

Instead of collecting small victories in the shadow of impending defeats,the Congress needs to inject itself with some political adrenaline

Written by Suhas Palshikar | Published: May 22, 2013 3:16:24 am

Instead of collecting small victories in the shadow of impending defeats,the Congress needs to inject itself with some political adrenaline

The assembly outcome in Karnataka was that strange moment when the victor is unable to draw much benefit from the victory but thinks that it is in a position of advantage,and the vanquished can take recourse to excuses,thus leading both to self-delusion. The results of the assembly election themselves did not bring much surprise — the Congress was expected to win and nobody expected the BJP to fare better than it did. As is the case with any assembly election in the year preceding the national election,the key question,however,is: what does this mean for the national level contest?

The smaller part of this question is if the Congress can expect to bank upon its victory in Karnataka as an indication of the changing tide. For some time now,parties that win elections in the proximity of a parliamentary election tend to perform well from those states in the subsequent parliamentary election. So,the Congress has reason for hope. But will this hope be realised?

The latest victory of the Congress is in one sense very unreal. There is mystery about how much of this has happened due to B.S. Yeddyurappa and how much the Congress managed on its own. For instance,of the 79 seats it won last time,the Congress has been able to retain only 50 this time and its inability to retain almost 40 per cent of its own seats should be cause for worry. Besides,of the 121 assembly seats it won,at least 24 victories are with a margin of less than 5,000. It is tough for the Congress to translate these victories into dependable leads in a parliamentary election. In other words,for the Congress to perform well in the parliamentary election,the onus will be on the newly elected government and it will have only under 10 months to win over sizeable support among different communities (particularly the Lingayats) and register a good performance in the urban areas of the state.

But the larger issue is: Can the Congress capitalise upon its Karnataka victory? Beyond Karnataka,does this victory bolster the party more generally?

Obviously,a victory in a crucial state in the south is bound to give some succour to the Congress. The party is surely not in the greatest of health in the southern states. In the last two parliamentary elections,Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu,and to some extent Kerala,contributed to the Congress’s victory substantially. But the Jaganmohan factor and the indecision over the Telangana issue practically ensure a Congress rout in AP. In Tamil Nadu,the Congress has been in alliance with the DMK for the last two elections and has benefited from that alliance. If they swam together the last two times,now is the time for them to sink together.

The Congress is probably not in a position to switch over from the DMK to the AIADMK. The AIADMK would be less than interested in a pre-election alliance. At the most,the Congress can think of doing a Bihar in Tamil Nadu. In 2009,when it realised that its state-level partner was thoroughly discredited in Bihar,and unlikely to bring any advantage,the Congress snapped the alliance with the RJD and chose to go it alone. But as in the case of Bihar,it might end up not winning many seats — since in TN,the party simply does not have an organisation in place to fight on its own and win many seats. So,with or without the DMK,the Congress’s prospects are rather bleak. In Kerala,being a party in power will bring its own limitations on the Congress’s success and,in any case,Kerala tends to throw up outcomes almost following the logic of alternation and it would be hard for the Congress to win seats beating that cycle.

It is indeed doubtful how many seats the Congress can thus pick on the basis of a smart alliance here and a good assembly outcome there. Both in 2004 and 2009,the Congress benefited from the existing circumstances. But that does not take us away from the fact that the Congress has been avoiding the crucial political steps for it to gain electoral advantage. It has almost come to believe that the limitations of the BJP and fragmentation in the state parties can win a majority for it. The crisis of the Congress party is not merely one of performance and/ or image (and it suffers from both),it is a crisis of political courage.

Ever since the anti-corruption agitation erupted two years ago,and a number of scandals engulfed the government,the Congress’s response has vacillated between brazenness and resignation. The party has displayed this trait again and again since 1999 — that even as it lacks a popular programme,a popular leadership (not just nationally,but in states) and an adequate social base,it has crucially lacked politics. The party hopes to remain in the game of politics either by virtue of the fortuitous circumstance or by petty manipulation,but most often without doing much politics. Weaving coalitions and calculating seats in each state involves manipulation and smalltime politics. Expecting the BJP to make mistakes is like lazily waiting for circumstance.

These traits do not make it a political actor in its own right. Doing politics involves thinking big and forcing others to walk within the framework you set. For instance,rather than clinging to power to the last day of this Lok Sabha,the Congress could have thought of many moments when it could choose to go back to the electorate on the plea that it wanted to rebuild itself and shape strategies for better governance. Even now,in the backdrop of the victory gifted by the BJP in Karnataka,and in view of two of its crucial bills facing parliamentary stalemate — the food security bill and the land acquisition bill — the Congress could go to the electorate asking for a mandate for its “policies”. It will be audacious,but being audacious is part of “doing politics”. Going for early polls is just one possible step to rid itself of the overcautious strategy characterised by non-politics. Instead of collecting small victories in the shadow of impending defeats (in four states come November?),the Congress needs to inject itself with some political adrenaline. And before next April,this is its last chance of doing so. Once it misses this moment,it would be entangled in small-time politics of carving a majority without mandate.

The author teaches political science at the University of Pune

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