Note: The Hindi translation of this article was published in the Haribhoomi newspaper on 26-27 January, 2008.
I do not begrudge Narendra Modi, the three-time chief minister of Gujarat, his victory: personally, I think it would be foolish to do so. The last time he won in 2002, he taught the Congress party important lessons, without which ‘the cavalcade of history’ might never have been reversed and the UPA wrested power from the NDA in early 2004.
For one thing, the decision taken at the Pachmarhi Conclave was reversed when Congress leaders met at Simla in the aftermath of Mr. Modi’s second comeback. The party’s obstinate refusal to embrace coalitional politics and aim instead to form a government on its own at the Centre, which formed the crux of the Pachmarhi Declaration, was replaced with a resolution authorizing the Congress President ‘to play a leading role in forming a coalition of secular parties with the sole objective of overthrowing the NDA’. In my opinion, that historic decision marked the beginning of the end of the NDA. This time too, I believe that Mr. Modi’s third consecutive victory, though disappointing in the short term, shall teach us important lessons for the long term. What are they?
Nobody else but you
The most obvious lesson of course is the absolute necessity of developing regional leaders within the party, who can stand up to people like Mr. Modi. It is no secret that he presented himself as the embodiment of “Vandé Gujarat”: through a perverse alchemy of hate- for him, there's always somebody to hate (Pervez Musharraf, for instance) and somebody who hates him (Sonia Gandhi?)- and possibly even good administration, Modi became Gujarat, and Gujarat, Modi. Consequently, any attack on Narendra Modi was projected- and also, perceived- as an attack on Gujarati pride. The Congress simply had no one who could match his stature. That will have to change, double-quick. No wonder then that the media, in the absence of a Congress leader who could rival Mr. Modi, portrayed (wrongly) this election as a contest between him and Sonia Gandhi. Mrs. Gandhi’s ‘maut ka saudagar’ remark was misrepresented by him as a direct attack on him- and Gujarat. Indeed, nothing could have suited him more. (Thankfully, there was one community which didn't buy Mr. Modi's rhetoric: the tribals have returned to the Congress. For more, see this video.)
Rising regional aspirations is a fact that no national party can afford to ignore: in all but four states (Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh), there has been a regional party in power at some point or another. Coincidentally, the next round of elections are to take place in these four states. Much more important, the results of these four assembly elections will set the tone for the next General (Lok Sabha) Elections, which are scheduled to be held immediately afterwards. (Given the badgering the Congress- and the UPA- have taken in Gujarat and are likely to take in Himachal, a midterm poll can be safely ruled out, Nuclear Deal or not.)
An Elephant in a China shop
In this context, it becomes pertinent to mention the BSP supremo and Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Mayawati’s “Mahajot” experiment: emboldened with her victory in UP, based as it was on a formidable inter-caste alliance between the Dalits and Brahmins, who constitute 14% of UP’s electorate (D+B), she now hopes to replicate the UP Model in other states as well. In less than four days, the result of the Himachal Pradesh election will be known. In all probability, the incumbent Congress government will not be returned to power. But anti-incumbency would be just one factor accounting for the party’s defeat. The damage done by Mr. Mankhotia, a one-time right-hand man of chief minister Vir Bhadra Singh who recently defected to the BSP, cannot be underestimated.
Similarly Ms. Mayawati’s lieutenants are in talks with Sibhu Soren, the tribal leader of Jharkhand, and Bhajan Lal, the former chief minister of Haryana who enjoys a considerable following among the non-Jat voters of that state. The idea is to strike alliances between the BSP’s core supporters, i.e., the dalits, and another dominant caste leader in other states as well, along the lines of the D+B combination in UP. Needless to say, Congress will be the worst-hit party should Ms. Mayawati’s Mahajot succeed. Lesson No. One, therefore, is the need to accommodate regional- and caste- aspirations within the party fold, lest people seek an alternative elsewhere.(For more on combating Mayawati's Mahajot, see here.)
Tryst with Destiny
In the broader analysis, that would mean returning to Pandit Nehru’s style of governance: despite his towering- almost dictatorial- stature, he saw himself as ‘primus inter pares’, or first among equals; consequently, his administration was based on evolving a consensus between powerful regional satraps, like Govind Vallabh Bhai Pant in UP, Mohan Lal Sukhadia in Rajasthan, B.C. Roy in West Bengal, and K. Kamaraj in Tamil Nadu, each of whom enjoyed relative autonomy in their respective spheres of influence. This changed during the time of his successor, Mrs. Indira Gandhi. The old satraps gave way to leaders who owed their positions solely to her pleasure; consequently, they saw no compelling need to develop followings- mass bases- of their own. This new style of top-down governance was based on the very factual premise that people, irrespective of where they came from, voted for Mrs. Gandhi; not for her candidates per se. That premise can no longer be justified.
In today’s context, two important changes have taken place. One, local issues have gained ascendancy over national ones, the candidate matters as much, if not more, than the party. Two, in light of the growing threat-perception on members of the Family, all of whom are SPG protectees, the physical barrier between the Family and the masses has grown manifold. They are no longer as accessible to the people as they would like to be: it is yet another reason for developing regional leaders, who can act as a direct link between the people and the Family.
This is not to say that the Family’s following has shrunk in any way. If the crowds attending the rallies, road shows and public meetings of Mrs. Sonia Gandhi and Mr. Rahul Gandhi are anything to go by, then it would be safe to say that the Family is the only institution in India that can legitimately claim to represent all of the nation; indeed, it continues to be the sole embodiment of our unity in diversity. Now, while this is no doubt a great asset- perhaps the greatest asset- in helping us win people’s hearts- and elections- it cannot, of its own, guarantee an electoral victory. Gujarat and UP are two recent examples of this. This then brings me to my Lesson No. Two.
All about numbers
It’s one thing to have mammoth crowds come to catch a glimpse of, and listen to, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi and Mr. Rahul Gandhi, but completely another to get them to vote for the Congress. While they do the former on their own, the latter necessarily depends on the party organization. The single biggest reason why the Congress performed so miserably in UP was because there was no party organization to transform the crowds into votes. In my opinion, therefore, the greatest achievement to come out of Mr. Rahul Gandhi’s involvement in the UP election, is that at least now, the Congress has an organization, howsoever rudimentary, in that state: a beginning has been made.
A similar situation, although not quite as dismal, was faced in Gujarat. A frequent complaint among party workers, particularly the youth, was that they are asked to get involved only during elections. Indeed, that is true of the Congress party everywhere. The organization- or whatever little there is of it- seems to exist only between elections; in the interregnum, it does the customary ‘Zindabaad’ whenever a leader comes to town but beyond that, it has very little direct interaction with the electorate. Take the example of Chhattisgarh. Elections are due in less than a year. Final revision of electoral rolls ended two weeks ago. Now ideally the party organization should have been mobilized to ensure that names of party voters don’t get left out, particularly of those voters who’ve come of age. Nothing of the sort happened. On the other hand, the ruling BJP launched a massive statewide Mission 2008 campaign, in which its workers silently went door-to-door registering voters’ names (both real and fictional).
The reason for this isn’t hard to find. Unlike the left and right parties, the Congress doesn’t have a cadre. The traditional argument made in favor of not having a cadre is twofold: one, the Congress isn’t really a party but a movement; and two, given the large number of Congressmen, it is simply not economically sustainable. Unfortunately, neither argument holds water. Yes, Congress was a movement when it led the struggle for India’s freedom. No so anymore, especially when we’ve run out of Big Causes to fight for. To get the Congress to become a movement again, what is required is another Big Cause, along the lines of ‘Quit India’ and ‘Garibi Hatao’. But as pointed out earlier, when local issues have paramountcy over national ones, what we have today are a whole lot of small- but important- causes rather than any one all-unifying Big Cause. As far as the second argument- of financial viability- is concerned, well, if the Communists and the Sangh (BJP included) can do it when they’ve been in power a lot less than we have, then surely there is no reason why we can’t. Countless number of people have gotten very rich principally because of their association with the party- and its high time they gave something back to the party: let’s call it noblesse oblige.
The undeniable fact is that politics isn’t just about elections. It has become a full time occupation. Workers have to be on the field, interacting with the electorate, 24/7. To expect them to do so ex gratia would be, frankly speaking, absurd. Who will, after all, take care of their basic requirements, their bread and butter, if not the party? In any case, nobody is suggesting that each and every Congressman be reimbursed, but just a select few, chosen objectively on the basis of the quality of their work and the amount of time they can devote to the party. Something of the sort already exists for national level party office bearers; all that needs to be done is to extend it below, at least to block-level if not booth-level. Once a cadre is in place, I’m sure party leaders can think of plenty of ways to keep them both busy and productive. (Incidentally, this blogger has already suggested how this could be done.)
Which hill station is best?
A third lesson doesn’t come directly from Gujarat, but from the Congress’ first experience- call it experiment- with coalitional politics: the four years of UPA government. To put it simply, it presents itself in the form of a question: is it possible for the party to compete with its allies regionally while cooperating nationally? If the answer is a pure and simple ‘No’, then we’re back to Pachmarhi. What the UPA experiment has shown, however, is that the dilemma has begun to resolve itself.
The Congress was once the principal opposition to Mr. Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD in Bihar, Mr. Karunanidhi’s DMK in Tamil Nadu, and the Communists in West Bengal. Now, with the UPA, we’ve been reduced to playing second fiddle to them, especially since they constitute the Congress’ three main allies in the UPA. In all these three states, the role of the principal opposition has been taken by Mr. Nitish Kumar’s JD (U), Ms. J. Jayalalitha’s AIADMK, and Ms. Mamta Banerjee's Trinamool respectively, all of whom are naturally predisposed towards the NDA. The reason is quite clear: people in these states believe that their interests are better served by supporting players who better represent their regional aspirations; the Congress, on the other hand, is seen as incapable of doing so, dictated as it is by ‘considerations from Delhi’.
Needless to say, Congress party workers in these three states feel, plainly speaking, let down; they feel that compulsions of UPA have encroached upon the Congress’ self-interests in their respective regions. I believe that it was for them that the Congress President, in her address to the AICC Session at Delhi last month, specifically mentioned the need ‘for workers in Bihar, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal’ to revive the party. The idea, it would appear, is to reduce the Congress dependency on its allies.
Strangely enough, this brings the end back to its beginning: the only way to do so is to promote regional leaders within the Congress, who can take on both the Laloos and the Nitishes, the Karunanidhis and the Jayalalithas, the Communists and the Mamtas, not to mention the Modis, and in the process, provide a space of nurturing growing regional aspirations within the party itself.
Simla is all very well, but Pachmarhi still remains the goal towards which the Congress ought to strive. If the past is anything to go by- after all, he did teach us our most valuable lesson the last time he won- then the Congress has more to be thankful for to Mr. Modi than even it can imagine.