Wanted a killer instinct

JUST when the Congress seemed ready to re-enact the script originally written for Rajiv Gandhi’s succession as party leader in 1983, Rahul Gandhi decided not to accept a high position in the party organisation. He rejected pressures from sycophants clamouring for his elevation to the Congress Working Committee, while glorifying him as the ‘symbol of youth’ and ‘light of the future’.

By Praful Bidwai

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Published: Sat 28 Jan 2006, 9:05 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 1:35 PM

It’s hard to say if his decision was driven by humility —“I’m still learning” —or a shrewd attempt to convert inexperience and diffidence into virtue. Regardless of the motive, the decision is welcome. Rahul Gandhi’s entry into the CWC would have fanned disgusting hero-worship and toadyism and strengthened the self-delusion that the party is now ready to rule India on its own. The Congress spoke in two voices at its 82nd plenary in Hyderabad. On the one hand, it pledged to continue status quoist economic policies and “aggressively confront and fight the Left”.

On the other hand, Congressmen wanted their party projected as Left-leaning. Information Minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi described Congress as “India’s greatest Left party”. Another functionary M I Shahnawaz praised Ms Gandhi as an “extreme Left leader”. And Kerala’s Vayalar Ravi called her the leader of “all the poor countries of the world”, like Indira!

The Congress, which had gratefully attributed its 2004 victory to its allies, read the riot act to them. It reminded them of ‘collective responsibility’, and warned them against “crossing the limits of constructive criticism”, thus weakening the United Progressive Alliance’s credibility.

This dual-faced approach highlights the Congress’s fundamental confusion about self-identity and reveals the yawning gap between its ambition to free itself of coalition constraints, and its limited base. The promised “tryst with destiny” remains a fond hope, not a reflection of ground-level trends.

In Hyderabad, the party only had to look next door to comprehend its own hypocrisy. In Karnataka, its ruling alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular) was plunged into deep crisis primarily because the Congress decided to ally with the JD (S) dissident S Siddaramaiah. Matters got further muddied with JD (S) boss HD Deve Gowda’s son Kumaraswamy defecting from the JD(S) and joining hands with the BJP.

Irrespective of whether the coalition government survives the confidence vote, the blame for the Karnataka crisis lies mainly with the Congress. It is the party’s venality and greed for power, coupled with lack of tactical sense that destabilised the Dharam Singh government without strengthening its own power chances.

Similarly, in Bihar, the Congress and allies snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by preventing Nitish Kumar from forming a government last February. The latest Supreme Court judgment strongly indicts Governor Buta Singh for this. Had he not thwarted Kumar, a fresh election wouldn’t have been necessary, which the Congress-RJD alliance lost. Unless the Congress internalises the lessons from such tragicomedies, its claim to be ‘destined’ to return to power will sound laughable.

The Congress must also reconcile its president’s appeal for austerity and selfless service, with its own lack of probity. This stands highlighted by the government’s decision to let Ottavio Quattrocchi take money out of his London bank account without being cleared in the Bofors investigation. The Congress has developed considerable smugness on issues of policy just when a change of direction is called for. Its Hyderabad resolutions reflect complacency. The two resolutions on economic issues fail to recognise the magnitude of widespread unemployment or agrarian distress. From Andhra Pradesh to Maharashtra to Punjab, farmers are finding agriculture un-remunerative, and the burden of debt crushing.

In Punjab, they are leasing out land under “contract farming”, or experimenting (unsuccessfully) with non-food crops — thus suffering a loss of income. Many Maharashtra villages have put themselves up for ‘sale’, in some, farmers have decided to sell their kidneys. Hundreds have committed suicide. In Andhra, the spate of farm suicides (now exceeding 5,000) hasn’t abated after the Congress-TRS came to power.

In such a situation, it’s not enough to demand that food subsidies to the poor not be cut. Nor is it enough to launch ‘Bharat Nirman’, with its marginally increased allocations to irrigation and drinking water. Bharat Nirman campaign seeks to finance roads, power and telecommunications through so-called “private-public partnerships.” This lets the state off the hook of its public responsibility and imposes heavy tolls and user-charges upon public services. On foreign policy and security, the Congress is mealy-mouthed or disingenuous. For instance, it says India’s relations with the United States are based on reciprocity and transparency. This is complete nonsense. Recent unequal agreements between the two, including the July nuclear deal, demand that India chart an independent trajectory.

The Congress piously hopes that the current impasse over Iran would be resolved through a “mutually acceptable solution” in the interests of world peace. This won’t happen. So keen are the Western powers to drag Iran before the Security Council that they don’t want a “mutually acceptable” solution. India is yet again under pressure to vote against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency. And it will succumb.

So long as the UPA persists with its pro-Western foreign policy, India will be condemned to tail the US on all critical issues of the day: whether Iran, Iraq and Palestine, or terrorism, human rights and climate-change. There’s an unfortunate parallel between now and the Congress’s 1983-85 leadership succession. Then, Rajiv Gandhi talked of taking India into the twenty-first century. Today, the Congress talks of making India an economic superpower through the (neo-liberal) reform process.

Rajiv Gandhi’s dream remained just that. Similarly, superpowerhood will mean nothing while hundreds of millions of Indians lack assured access to food, drinking water, healthcare and education. Coupled to this policy disconnect is the Congress’s strategy disconnect. The party lacks programmatic clarity. It has no discernible appeal for the poor. It has no clue about mobilising political support.

The Congress has failed to democratise itself. It’s still praying for manna from heaven —through the charisma of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. But it should know that dynasties are no substitute for radical policy reform or for strategy.

Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and commentator. He can be reached at bidwai@bol.net.in

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