Is the party over?


back to issue

PERCEPTION has it that India’s grand old party is dying. The debacle in the recent state elections has dealt it a fatal blow. Diehard supporters won’t admit this in public, but behind closed doors they are in a state of extended mourning. Post Gujarat, the Himachal victory gave the party a temporary lease of life, but all it can now look forward to is a decent burial.

Contrast this with another perception, from no more than eight or ten months ago. The time when it was immensely more interesting to talk about Vajpayee’s health than his leadership. The time when Atalji could do no right. Gujarat, Kashmir, Ayodhya, Pakistan, economic reforms – there was hardly an area of politics or policy where he could be accused of strong leadership. Hostage to conflicting coalition interests and parivar pressures, he was a lame duck prime minister, too busy guarding his turf – also called PMO – to worry about questions of governance and legacy.

All we have left of that Vajpayee now is the name. In every other respect he has taken on a new avatar. Statesman, poet, strategist, philosopher, orator, reconciler of difference, maker of peace – the list of his putative virtues gets longer by the day. The ‘doddering’ old patriarch is the new ‘deliverer’; the mukhauta, the mascot. Even his ‘pause’ is now ‘patented’. And just in case you didn’t grasp the import of this momentous discovery, it signifies, we are told, ‘a new doctrine of passivity in political management.’

The moral: Public perception, in our times, is just another name for whatever it is that grabs the fancy of hacks and hustlers in the metropolitan media. Marx talked of capitalism as a destroyer of time. This destruction, it seems, happens primarily through the instrumentality of the mass media. And at the end of it, there remains neither past nor memory, just the here and now. The moment is everything. Those who die today are reborn tomorrow. The gloom and doom that currently surrounds the Congress may not prove as fickle as the earlier mood of anticipation, but reality won’t be the ultimate arbiter of whether that is so.

This is not to argue that the media perception of the Congress has no basis in fact, but to call for a reality check. If the party today is faced with a terminal crisis, it is not one that was brought about by the defeat in the recent polls. As India’s pre-eminent political formation, the story of Congress’ electoral decline is old. While the trend was already evident in 1989, it gathered rapid pace in the five years following the 1991 polls. In 1996, the all-India vote share of the party dropped to less than 30% for the first time in history. In the two general elections since, support for the party has more or less stabilized at that level. This, in other words, is not the story of a sudden life-threatening emergency. The Congress has been on the drip for a while now. That said, it’s all too easy to forget that with all its ailments the party still has the largest vote share in the country.

The danger of over-interpreting the recent verdict arises from another quarter too. In the last two decades, few state governments in India have survived the ‘iron law of anti-incumbency.’ You can count the exceptions on the fingers of one hand. Aside from the Left Front in Bengal, universally acknowledged as a case by itself, there is the BJP in Gujarat, Laloo’s RJD in Bihar, the Congress in Madhya Pradesh and, lately, in Delhi and, of course, Naidu’s TDP in Andhra Pradesh. (The last instance is somewhat different from the rest not only because Chandrababu had a truncated first term but also because his subsequent victory was largely on account of a savvy electoral pact).



There is a common thread that runs through this: the deepening of our ‘electoral’ democracy (the qualification is necessary, because in other respects India has become less democratic). With more and more marginalized and excluded social groups entering the political process, the demands on the system, both party and state, have multiplied. Two consequences have followed. First, a great deal of political churning and re-alignment. With ‘mainstream’ parties, especially the Congress, unable or, more accurately, unwilling to accommodate these new groups, almost all states have seen the emergence of new political players – from predominantly ‘one-caste’ parties to broader-based social coalitions.

Second, it has set up an inverse correlation between social expectations on the one hand and the state’s ability to deliver on the other. The fragmentation resulting from the first has made the polity less stable. The frustration arising from the other has made governments less secure. The two together have usually been enough to vote out incumbent regimes. Politics has become a less forgiving place. There is a silver-lining here for the Congress: it has no incumbency liability in the Lok Sabha polls.

Then there is the disconnect between general and state-level elections. The Indian electorate may or may not have come of age, but it often votes differently in assembly and parliamentary polls. For proof, one has to look no further than the states where the Congress had, just recently, fared so poorly. In the state-level elections in the then undivided Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan in 1998, the BJP faced a rout. In the Lok Sabha elections held there not long after, the party staged a spectacular comeback.

Consider also a little arithmetic. Last time round, the BJP, with or without allies, had peaked in almost all states where the NDA can expect to do well this time. From Gujarat (20/26) to Orissa (19/21), from Andhra Pradesh (35/42) to Bihar (40/54), from Delhi (7/7) and Haryana (10/10) to Madhya Pradesh (29/40), Rajasthan (16/25) and Maharashtra (28/48). Among the major states, Uttar Pradesh alone bucked the trend, with the BJP falling well short of the half-way mark. Given the current state of the BJP in UP, even assuming that Kalyan Singh will join the party, that figure is unlikely to change much. As for other lesser battles, there is, realistically, only one way for the BJP-led front to go: down.



The reasons which should worry the Congress are not adequately reflected in the big picture – the loss of three states. The devil, as always, lies in the detail. Of all the theories that have been invoked to explain the Congress defeat, there are two whose ramifications are far-reaching and will influence the course of the next parliamentary polls. The more enduring of the two is the question of logistics. While this covers a range of issues, from media management to fund raising, space constraints will limit us to what is rather a small part of it – the decline of the Congress as an organization; a development which goes back to Mrs G’s time, but which has, in the past decade, begun to take a far graver toll on the party’s fortunes.

In traditional theory, organization was seen to be important to the Congress in three ways. In an earlier issue of Seminar (526, June 2003), James Manor outlined these as ‘gathering and transmitting accurate information upwards, representing the views of important social groups, and arranging political bargains with and between those groups.’ While these reasons remain valid, the experience of recent polls indicates that organizational strength is critical in other ways too. From careful checking of electoral rolls, to mobilization of supporters on polling day, it can often prove the difference between victory and defeat. Indeed, the phrase ‘micro management’ – much bandied about in the wake of BJP’s recent win – would have made no sense had the Congress mobilised the organizational resources required to deal with this electoral minutiae.



In Rajasthan, almost a fifth of the assembly seats were decided by a margin of less than 1,000 votes. A majority of these went to the BJP, thanks to the organizational muscle of the RSS. Admittedly, the Congress was never a cadre-based party, but it was never so lacking in institutional presence as to hire daily wage earners for ‘booth management’, even in parts of the state capital Jaipur. No one can say the Congress does not know the way out of this. The key, as many have argued, lies in democratizing the party and holding organizational polls. But even with Sonia’s preference for regional autonomy, the task looks a little beyond the party leadership, at least in the near future.

Then there is the breach in the party’s tribal citadel. The extent of the loss is staggering – every four out of five tribal seats at stake. No anti-incumbency feeling can explain the BJP’s wholly unexpected windfall (an unprecedented 77 tribal seats out of 99). Compare this to the last general elections, when the support for the Congress among the tribals remained at a solid 40% (11% more than its overall vote share) despite its otherwise poor showing. Had the Congress managed to hold on to its tribal vote, the results would have been significantly different.



It might still have lost Rajasthan, but perhaps not Chhattisgarh. The credit for the BJP’s achievement belongs almost entirely to the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, a Sangh outfit which has employed the oldest fascist trick – the ‘social service’ model – to build up a formidable network of local support. Like fascist organizations elsewhere in the world, it has bridged the infrastructural blackhole left by an absent state with its own delivery of health-care, literacy and ideological training.

The implications of this go far. The Congress, it is well-known, is no longer a ‘rainbow coalition’ or ‘catch-all’ party, which draws ‘the same level of support from all sections of society.’ It is, in Yogendra Yadav’s phrase, now a ‘cleavage-based’ party, which, except in states like West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, has little support among those at the top of the social and economic pyramid. It draws its sustenance largely from social and religious minorities located at the other end. While the better-off among the dalits and scheduled tribes have moved on to greener (and saffron) pastures – the BJP in the North and the West and regional parties elsewhere – the poor have, by and large, stayed put. The Congress cannot afford any erosion in this support.

So how does the Congress deal with this challenge? Depending on the time frame one chooses, there are, I think, at least two answers. But first a word about the history that has brought the Congress to its present predicament. While the precise starting point for this history can be a matter of some debate, there can be little doubt about the real moment of crisis. Support for the Congress was falling for a long time, but the downward curve hit a point of inflexion during the Rao-Manmohan era of liberalization. The middle class which this gave birth to has inflicted the greatest wounds on the party. A revolution, it has been said, devours its own children. The Congress has been devoured by the children of its own revolution.

In the immediate analysis, the Congress has no hope of bringing the prodigals back to the fold. It must, therefore, turn its attention to those whose loyalty it still commands. The challenge facing the Congress, in other words, is about putting in place a clear pro-poor agenda. It is one of working towards alliances with those political parties which have already enlisted these impoverished sections. It is about giving leaders representing such groups a higher profile and visibility in the party set-up.



But, most of all, it is about recognizing that this country has moved into a new political reality, namely, ‘the post-Congress polity.’ In the foreseeable future, the party cannot return to power on its own. Even with the backing of the poor and the marginalized, it can, at best, emerge as the single largest bloc around which other like-minded groups can coalesce. There is simply no escape from coalitions. And if that means renouncing the prime ministerial claims of Sonia Gandhi, then so it must be.

The economic story of the last five years presents the Congress with a wide window of opportunity. India may be shining brightly for its rich urban denizens, but in the countryside they haven’t felt the warmth much. This may be a year of good monsoon, but the longer-term picture in the farm sector is dismal, with productivity stagnant, investments tapering off, and the prices of agricultural produce falling. The latest NSS survey, for 2001-2 – and this, remember, was not a drought year; agriculture in this period grew at a healthy 5.2% – paints a picture of widespread rural misery. Apart from the widening gap between urban and rural consumption, there are fully 33 million or 3.3 crore new entrants to the poverty list. Add to this the inability of India’s organized sector to create new jobs, over several years, and the ground is ready for Sonia’s ‘fail-good’ pitch.



That still leaves us with an intriguing final question. Can the Congress, in the long run, remain content with being the party of have-nots? Should it turn its back totally on the middle classes, which it once tried to woo – but without much success? The answer, I believe, is no. First, because liberalization (or, more accurately, LPG – liberalization-privatization-globalization) is now more than a fait accompli. It is an irreversible process. Across the world, it has rewritten the old rules of state sovereignty. You can of course determine its pace and priorities. But as a mainstream political party in government, you cannot take a blanket ideological position against it. Swimming against the tide may look heroic but it is also hopeless. (This is of course assuming that LPG is the kind of unmitigated evil that many on the Left believe it is. It isn’t.)

Second, the place to fight the rightward shift in the Indian polity – best understood in the context of an identical historical movement across much of the world – is at the Centre. Anti-market rhetoric as part of tactical flexibility can occasionally be useful, especially if you sit on the opposition benches, but as a credible economic blueprint or long-term political strategy it has no future.

In India, there is an additional factor to consider. In absolute and percentage terms, the country’s middle class is, and will remain, a small minority for a long time to come, but it has assumed – some would argue, it has always had – a cultural-ideological leadership role which is far in excess of its size. Call it India’s Sanskritisation imperative, but this influence – thanks to the proliferation of the media – is set to grow. The Congress cannot afford to be out of the loop while that happens. In the past decade, the party has had precious little success in courting the middle class. Can it do anything different to avoid a similar humiliation in the future?



Bread or circus. Interests or ideology. Pragmatism or passion. What is it that ultimately sells in the great Indian election bazaar? There is, alas, no one answer. Most winning formulas are based on a clever braiding of the two. Neither bread nor circus, on its own, is usually enough. (There are exceptions. Think of Gujarat 2002. But even in his obsession with Mian Musharraf, Modi found time to talk of the Narmada waters.)

Much has been said about the role of Advani’s 1991 rath yatra in the BJP’s spectacular march to Delhi. What has not been said as often is that the Ramjanambhoomi movement was, above all, a great political circus. Advani’s Toyota rath was the vehicle which took it to every important town and city in the Hindi heartland.

On second thoughts, the circus metaphor is perhaps too antiquated to capture the rhythms of India’s post-liberalization polity. A more probable metaphor for contemporary popular and political culture – if am allowed a little speculation – is that of a motion picture. The roots of the BJP’s success since the late 1980s lies in its ability to transform itself into something like a live celluloid drama. Star cast and storyline, song and dance, heroes, villains and vamps, soppy sentimentality and smug morality – watching the BJP in the last decade and a half has been like watching a Bollywood blockbuster. It is aesthetically poor, intellectually undemanding, politically regressive, but, for many Indians, it’s compelling. Compared to this lowbrow entertainment, the Congress has the feel of a grainy period classic. Old timers may thrill to its sense of nostalgia. But for the India on the go, it’s cold turkey.

For two hundred years, the upper caste Hindu has lived with an immense sense of his own lack, thanks to the bruising historical encounter with the all-powerful other – the colonizing West. This anxiety – too painful to acknowledge, too powerful to disown – has lived with him ever since. It has occasionally found expression in the form of self-irony, even self-hatred. But mostly it has been raised as an interrogative: The question, why did (Hindu) India fail as a nation, culture or civilization?



The Hindutva script – combining narratives of (past and present) Hindu victimhood with exhortations of (imminent or future) glory, think of ‘India shining’ – is an extended answer to that haunting question. You can hear its distant echoes in figures as diverse as Bankim and Vivekananda, Aurobindo and Tilak (quite apart from the Hindutva pantheon, Savarkar onwards). Hindutva may not have a pedigree, it has a long past. The reason it never got top billing earlier was because it had to contend with alternative and competing storylines – the one authored by Nehru being the principal one. But with the latter losing viewership, its TRP ratings have soared.

The strength of Hindutva lies in that it, superficially, masquerades as a rational argument, seemingly open to debate and denial. But, in actual fact, it is what Freud might have called dream work or discursive displacement. And as dreams go, it is far removed from reality. This is not surprising. Because anxieties, as any shrink will tell you, have no rational resolutions, whether they afflict the individual or a whole collectivity. That is why Hindutva is ultimately not about self-assurance but self-importance, not about acceptance of self but rejection of the other, not about quiet pride but exaggerated conceit.



The Congress failed to lure India’s new middle class because it tried to do so on terms set by the BJP. This is partly because, by the mid-80s, it had lost much of its earlier conviction in Nehru. But also because Nehru’s grand narrative was written for a different time, space and society. It urgently needed updating and improvising.

The Congress lacked the ingenuity to fill up the gaps that appeared. Faced with a vacuum of its own and threatened by a rampaging BJP, it was forced to borrow – some times hesitantly, often shamelessly – from the enemy’s repertoire. Digvijay Singh’s attempt in Madhya Pradesh is only the most recent example of such imitation. Call it a remake or a remix, but the result, going by the evidence, hasn’t been a hit.

The only way the Congress can win over the affections of the middle class, or sections of it, is for it to come up with a script of its own. But while doing so, it must find a way of addressing the elemental anxiety which Hindutva has so powerfully exploited and encashed. To think that the gaudy exuberance of Hindutva can be countered with gritty documentaries of development, governance and injustice is to grossly misunderstand the nature of the box office. Think of a Bollywood potboiler without songs. An Ankur or Aakrosh is no match for the runaway success of K3G.