Reviving the Congress


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IT is a measure of the times the party is in that all talk of a revival of the Congress centres around not one but two questions. Whether or not the party has gained ground since it led the UPA to power two and half years ago preoccupies anyone concerned with the future of Indian politics. This in turn, is intricately linked to the issue of when and how Rahul Gandhi, the heir-apparent moves to centre-stage.

Were it to gain in terms of its support base, the Congress could move from being the largest party in a coalition towards a position of early, if not outright, dominance it enjoyed in the first two decades of independent India’s history.

But this in turn is further bound up with the leadership question. It is sobering to reflect on the fact that for all but 11 of the last 59 years, the party has been led by a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Yet, the present situation is simply without a precedent. Ever since Jawaharlal Nehru became effective head of the Interim Government in 1946, and even more so after the decisive power struggles in the early post ’47 phase, power has flowed from the government to the party and not the other way round.

At the moment, both these issues, the revival of the party and the anointing of Rahul, are in turn bound up with a larger issue of immediate relevance to the country as a whole, namely the performance of the Manmohan Singh government. It is in this light that voters will judge the party and its leaders, the coalition and its future.

1989-2004 marked a distinct phase in Indian politics. No party ever secured a clear majority. No government could last unless it inducted powerful regional parties into the power structure. No one figure or party could set the political agenda. Room for manoeuvre did exit for ambitious prime ministers. V.P. Singh changed the goalposts of the Indian political game by implementing the Mandal Commission recommendations a decade after they were submitted to the government. Narasimha Rao embarked on a process of economic liberalization that has with hindsight proved unstoppable and irreversible. Vajpayee put his own stamp on history by deciding to conduct nuclear tests and declare India a nuclear weapons state, going where no predecessor had gone before. Yet none of these figures, not even Vajpayee who ruled for six years at a stretch, ever managed to be the pivot of the political system the way Indira Gandhi was.


By 1999, a decade after the ouster of the Rajiv-led Congress, the system had settled into a clear bi-nodal mode. Either the Congress or the BJP would get the picture right. Each had no option but to forge a series of alliances. In doing so, their own room for manoeuvre was limited. The Hindutva party had perforce to temporarily suspend its maximum programme. In Congress’ case, its choice of Manmohan Singh rather than a Gandhi family member as head of government is at least in part dictated by a desire to shield its premier clan from the deal-making that is inevitable in any coalition arrangement.

The defeat of Rajiv Gandhi was not simply a turfing out of a ruling party but the start of a new era of coalitions and minority governments. Despite the critical role of the Third Front governments in reshaping the course of politics, by enlarging the scope of reservations (V.P. Singh, 1990) or upholding the principles of cooperative federalism (H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral), the mantle of running a coalition for a full term fell on Vajpayee’s shoulders. The upshot of this was that by the end of 2003, even the Congress abandoned its opposition to power-sharing at the Centre and struck a series of pre-poll alliances to unify the anti-NDA vote.


The coming to power of the UPA marked a major shift for both the Congress and its allies and supporting parties. Even more than Sonia Gandhi’s decision to stay away from public office, the direct participation of regional parties and the external support of the Left gave the government a character distinct from that of all Congress-led ministries in the past.

A look at the results of the 2004 general elections will reveal the weakness of the Congress’ position. As Vijay Sanghvi has pointed out, in 1999, the party won 112 seats of its own. Five years later, the number of seats it won on its own without the assistance and support of allies had shrunk to 83. These include states where it was in a virtual straight fight against the BJP.

Of the 102 Lok Sabha seats in these states and Union Territories, it won only 30. In addition, its vulnerable points in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal remained just as they were. Despite gains in vote share, it won only nine of the 80 seats in India’s most populous state. In West Bengal, it managed to secure six of the 42 seats. In the other two states where it has long been out of power, its allies helped it to secure enough seats for the alliance. In Tamil Nadu, the Congress was content with 10 of the 39 seats, a substantial decline since the MGR-Indira pact days when it was allocated a hefty two-thirds of the Lok Sabha seats by a regional ally. In Bihar, the Lalu-led alliance swept the state but Congress had to be content with only three seats.1


The upshot of this is that the party controls only 18 Lok Sabha seats on its own in the three populous Ganga basin states of West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Tamil Nadu has been a trend setter in this respect: ever since 1971, only in alliance with a regional party has the Congress ever stood a chance.

There have been significant accretions of strength due to upheavals in the Opposition camp in two states that have historically been very critical for the Congress: Karnataka and Maharashtra. In the former, the induction of Siddaramaiah has given the party a strong boost among the lower OBC communities who felt marginalized in the larger scheme of things in the Janata Dal. Historically, the latter has been dominated by the landed Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities. Similarly, the most significant Maratha leader in the Shiv Sena and former Chief Minister Narayan Rane has brought into the party a critical support base, not only in his native Konkan region but even beyond its bounds.

Both states are somewhat exceptional in the ability of the Congress to absorb large, amorphous support groups into its fold. It is still difficult to envisage just how such a process would work in the Ganga basin states or for that matter in West Bengal or Tamil Nadu. In each of these macro-regions, the political space is occupied largely by groups that came to power in the post 1967 phase of politics. It is possible for the Congress to forge tactical or even strategic alliances with such groups. Hence, the DMK and Lalu are part and parcel of the Congress-led alliance government at the Centre. The Left in turn has now completed two and half years of cohabitation with a Congress government that cannot survive a day without the support of the Left MPs in the Lok Sabha. Yet, the very aspiration of such parties to substitute and displace Congress as a ruling force at the state level prevents its revival on the ground.


Nevertheless, the party’s constraints do not arise merely from external circumstances beyond its control. They are also rooted in its own chequered past. One way to assess the present scenario before the country’s oldest political party is to keep in mind the legacy of previous Congress prime ministers.

Indira Gandhi refashioned the party twice in the two historic splits in which she played so central a role in 1969 and again in 1978. Her central contribution was to replace the complex, multilayered party machine with a single transmission belt to the masses. Concomitant with this was the steady erosion of the inner-party machinery that had developed a consensual model over the years.

Having been endangered in office by a powerful Syndicate, she systematically undercut its two founts of power: the party hierarchy and the regional leaders. By 1980, even District Congress Committee heads were being appointed by the president of the AICC. These trends were not reversed by either of her successors who served in the twin posts of Congress president and prime minister. Rajiv Gandhi’s talk of ‘power brokers’ was never quite followed up with any systematic attempt to rebuild the party. It was during his tenure that its base in Uttar Pradesh dissolved as it was reduced from a major player to a marginal one.

Much more serious was the actual transition to a family-based model of leadership, a first in the history for the party at a pan-Indian level. It is indeed the case that there were precedents for this, as with the Shukla brothers in central India who were groomed by their father, the chief minister, Ravi Shankar Shukla. It is commonplace to refer to the apprenticeship of Jawaharlal, but it was under Mahatma Gandhi much more than his father, Motilal Nehru. There is as yet no serious evidence of any such grooming of Indira Gandhi for succession by her father. If anything, the Syndicate’s choice of Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1964 only completed a process of elevation that had been set in motion even before Nehru’s death on 27 May 1964.

It was under Indira that first Sanjay in 1975 and then Rajiv in 1980 were pitch-forked into the leadership structure of the Congress party. In a sense, the Congress was only an early trend setter. Today no less than 14 parties have clan-based systems of power at the apex.


But none of these formations is as central to the country’s political future as the Congress. After all, the party has been the premier opposition force when out of power. Its return to office after eight years was accomplished via alliances, but there is no doubt it is the largest party in the coalition. The question is whether the party can face up to the challenge of expanding its social and political base while leading a government in office.

There have indeed been past precedents. In the run-up to the 1971 mid-term polls, Indira Gandhi redefined the issues in Indian politics. She claimed that it was not she her-self, but poverty that was the issue. In making abolition of poverty the leitmotif, she undercut the Left while preventing the Old Guard from challenging her on programmatic grounds. Though her regime floundered in crisis within two years of the historic win of 1971, her ability to set the agenda was perhaps unmatched.


Ironically, for a person whose central appeal was to the minorities and the underprivileged, the next phase of expansion of the Congress political base in the early 1980s followed a very different trajectory. From 1983 onwards, she positioned her party as a defender of national security. Even before the anti-Sikh massacres in Haryana in February 1984, she had subtly played on fears of mass conversions to Islam and on terrorism in Sikh majority Punjab and the Muslim majority Vale of Kashmir. The result was that the huge mandate for Rajiv in the winter of 1984 was as much an outgrowth of Congress politics of the previous few years as it was due to sympathy for his assassinated mother.

The upshot is that neither option now exists for the Congress. The expansion of the government spending in 1969-71 is not easy to repeat in the age of economic reforms. Even the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme budgeted at 13,000 crore rupees falls way short of what could be a vote winner. Promising one member of each poor family 100 days of wage labour may create a new consciousness of rights among the rural poor. But the party lacks the machinery to cash in on such a scheme the way that Indira did with bank nationalization.

The question of playing on communal sentiments does not arise. The post-1998 Congress has returned to its traditional role as a defender of pluralism. Yet, even here it is notable that there are other, strong claimants to the loyalties of the minorities. It is no coincidence that the Sachar panel recommendations are to be taken up on the eve of the state assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. Yet, the state with the largest number of Muslims is one where two powerful formations, led by Mualayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati, vie with Congress for votes. Even more, in May 2006 Kerala saw a surge of support for the Left Democratic Front among Muslims even in erstwhile bastions of the Muslim League, a Congress ally.


The poor and the minorities apart, it was the cultivating communities that played a key role in the ouster of the NDA in 2004. These disparate groups whose future is tied to that of land and a range of agricultural activities have been crucial to the rhetoric of the ruling UPA. Yet, the two major prongs of outreach have had mixed results. Reservation for the OBCs in higher education, recommended by Mandal in 1980, not acted upon by V.P. Singh a decade later, are today being put into effect by the Congress on the initiative of the Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh. On another front, the government has been quick to point to the accretion of credit for the rural sector to relieve the economic woes of farmers.

It is here that the intricacies of policy come up against the constraints of realpolitik. Reservations for the Scheduled Castes in post-independent India played a key role in cementing their loyalties with the Congress for at least two generations. But there were symbols of empowerment in the party of whom Babu Jagjivan Ram was only the most prominent. Similarly in the South, where the party stayed abreast of Backward class-based social assertions, men like Kamaraj Nadar in the Tamil country and Devaraj Urs in Kannada-speaking India led the charge. There is a remarkable paucity of such energetic and dynamic leaders in today’s Congress.

This applies even more forcefully for the peasant communities of North India than it does for the Mandal castes and classes. Even Sharad Pawar, a veteran Congressman who now heads the splinter NCP, has been unable to define and implement an agricultural agenda that can enable farmers to cope with reform and weather the shocks of the market. The import of wheat, oilseeds and pulses are a testimony of the failure of the UPA to re-engineer the countryside in a manner that strengthens the farmer via public action. This neglect of agriculture, now a structural feature of Indian politics in the post-reforms era, is in stark contrast to the 1980s. At the time, under both Indira (in her second innings in office) and Rajiv, there was a concerted effort to technologically upgrade agriculture. By avoiding this obvious route, the UPA may well have denied itself a firm social base.


Amidst the expectations of entrusting Rahul Gandhi with new responsibilities in the party, it might have helped if there was some serious attention to the pressing issues that underlie the party’s present predicament. The foundations are a lot less firm than they look. The inability to revitalise the party machine will undercut even vote winning measures such as reservations for the OBCs, empowerment of minorities via education or ceding land rights to the Scheduled Tribes.

So much attention has been focused on the Sonia-Manmohan equation that a more critical political fallout of federal systems has been lost sight of. Schemes that reach out to the underprivileged can indeed reinforce loyalties. This has been evident with formations as diverse as the Dravidian parties in the South and the Left in the East. Congress faces an uphill task as some of the states critical to its project of national revival are under rule of opposition parties. This is specially the case in much of North India. Where the party has a strong grassroots presence, as in central and western India, it can take up issues of implementation and recover lost ground. Where it does not exist as a substantial presence, it may see a rival actually reap the rewards of patronage.


The half-way mark of a federal government often sees it lose its way. This has evidently not happened with the UPA. But the Congress has miles to go if it wants to add to its strength and convert its present position as the largest partner in the coalition to a dominant presence. Its major threat is less from an opposition in disarray, still less from recalcitrant allies. The issue is of people’s expectations which to quote the late Rajiv Gandhi are ‘scary’. The farmers and the poor, the minorities and the middle classes rang out the old and rang in the new in the summer of 2004. It is their hopes and fears that need redress with much more urgency and finesse than has been evident. There may not be many clouds on the horizon this winter of 2007 but the tides do turn.

And nothing matters more than the quest for livelihood and security. The sheer assertiveness of the peasantry in Gurgaon, Haryana and Raigad, Maharashtra in defence of their land in the face of corporate claims under the SEZs is a sign of things to come. If the UPA does not deliver, and not in intangibles like growth but what really matters – jobs and prices – it may find the winds change faster than anyone had imagined possible.



1. Vijay Sanghvi, The Congress, From Indira to Sonia, Delhi, pp. 246-247.