Congress in coalition
  mahesh rangarajan

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THE general elections of May 2004 saw a new set of power equations emerge in New Delhi which have no clear precedent in our political history. The National Democratic Alliance, which had brought the poll date forward, fell far short of the required numbers and for the first time since 1996, the BJP slipped to the second slot in the House of the People.

Though unanimously the choice of her party, Sonia Gandhi declined a chance to lead the new government and preferred to continue as party president, a post she combined with chairperson of the new ruling alliance. In doing so, she broke with the precedent since the time of her late mother-in-law, whereby the Congress president heads the government. After more than a quarter of a century, the party separated the two posts, though there is little doubt where the fount of power lies.

Instead, Manmohan Singh, the architect of economic reforms in 1991-96, became prime minister. In doing so, he became the first Sikh, in fact the first non-Hindu ever to serve as head of government in independent India. On a visit to the Bangla Sahib gurdwara in the capital, he said India could not afford and would not permit massacres as in Gujarat in 2002 or in Delhi in 1984. The Congress’ return to a principled secular line was complete in symbolic and in substantive terms.

Equally important was the composition of the ruling alliance and its support base. The 63 strong bloc of Left party MPs of which the CPI (M) is the largest opted to stay out of office. But the strategic alliance of the Congress and the Left forged in the six years of the Vajpayee period is the lynchpin of the new dispensation. The unity is built around a steadfast opposition to the Hindutva party and its alliances. It did not extend to an electoral alliance except in key states like Andhra Pradesh and there is a range of issues especially on the economy where their perceptions and instincts differ. But that such an arrangement has come about shows not only how much the two sides have changed but also how far the polity as a whole is undergoing transformations.

The third and critical issue is of power sharing, a new experience for the Congress. Turning back on the Pachmarhi resolution, and in line with the Shimla sankalp or resolution of winter 2003, the Congress is for the first time heading a coalition government. Pre-electoral alliances had been crucial to winning states like Bihar, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu. They also gave the combine a fighting chance in Maharashtra, where polarization helped them contain and limit the NDA.

The new government was not even fully in place when the BJP leadership decided to launch a movement against a foreign born citizen holding the office of prime minister. Having found the people at large rejecting the argument that citizenship is determined by a person’s origin, a section of the party hoped to turn the tide by paralyzing the new coalition. Sonia Gandhi’s decision to step back and refuse to hold any government office was a political masterstroke which deprived the premier opposition party of a major plank. What was even more unprecedented was the sight of veteran anti-Congress politicians, who were now allies or partners, queuing up to endorse her candidacy. In this sense, the offensive launched by K.N. Govindacharya and his acolytes only reinforced the unity of the new ruling front.



But the real challenges before the new alliance in power lie not only in its management of complex political equations but in meeting the aspirations and hopes it has raised. Any assessment has to begin by examining the structure of decision-making at the apex. As Chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance and of the National Advisory Council, Sonia Gandhi has no role in government. But as the prime minister has often said, the government will be guided by the programmes of the alliance.

In one fell stroke, this reverses not only the trend of the later years of Indira Gandhi but also the longer heritage of strong heads of government being the pivot of the political system. The showdown between prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Acharya Kripalani saw the latter give way. Nehru also challenged and took over the party when he saw Purushottamdas Tandon take it in a direction he did not see as desirable. In the Indira years, what began as a conflict with the Syndicate in 1969, resulted in the subordination of the party leadership to that of the head of government and eventually the amalgamation of both posts. There is also little doubt that despite its cadre-based structure, the BJP too saw the centre of power gravitate away from the party to the government in its six year long spell in power.

There are of course no parallels between Manmohan Singh and the old Syndicate. Unlike them he was an economist and administrator through most of his life, only entering the political arena in 1991. He lacks both a strong political base or the ambition to challenge the leadership. Nevertheless, the dualism of power and administration will be put to the test in a time of crisis. This would be true in any parliamentary democracy, but it is truer still of India and one under a Congress government. The prime minister after all, long ceased to be a first among equals or a mere keystone of the cabinet arch.



In the case of the Congress, the past would indicate that other options would be explored if the equations shift in the party’s favour. The entry of Rahul Gandhi to the Lok Sabha brings another generation into play. And there is little doubt that the initiative for leadership rests with the Congress president. One axiom from industry is to see the division of labour as akin to that between a chief executive officer and a chief financial officer. But the Indian prime minister has been and remains much more than a mere financial official or a head of the cabinet. The government in India, even under non-Congress regimes, has tended to be prime ministerial and not mere cabinet rule. Think of Vajpayee’s initiatives on the foreign policy front or V.P. Singh’s gamble on the Mandal Commission. Whether or not the consultative system set up today will work will only be known when a major challenge surfaces.

There is a second distinction, not of party and government but of party and country. The Congress as a party has never been quite the same without a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family at the helm. India’s voters may have rejected the BJP and its allies and done so again in the crucial state assembly elections of Maharashtra in October 2004 as well. But it is still a long way off from giving the Congress the kind of endorsement it got under Indira or Rajiv.



It is a sobering thought, but the 145 MPs it commands in the Lok Sabha is ten less than when it first lost a general election in 1977. Not only that, it has but a handful of MPs from the three crucial Ganga basin states of West Bengal, UP and Bihar and remains a marginal presence in Tamil Nadu. A careful analysis of its 145 seats throws up a very interesting statistic: as many as 54 have been won in the absence of allies, only a little more than a third of its present strength. Of the larger states, it swept only one, Andhra Pradesh, without a major regional ally.

None of this detracts from the fact that its alliance beat back the NDA. The party took a leaf from the BJP’s book and even reached out to adversaries, old and new. Though what we have is a coalition in which the Congress is the major player, perhaps emerging as the dominant player, many other players such as Laloo Prasad Yadav and Sharad Pawar are highly skilled practitioners of coalition politics and will work hard to protect and expand their zones of influence. This became starkly evident in the Maharashtra elections where Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party emerged with more MLAs than its estranged parent party. It is being driven home daily by Laloo Prasad Yadav in his measly offer of less than a dozen seats for the Congress in the forthcoming Bihar assembly polls of early 2005.

Not only is the Congress yet to dominate the country, it is still in the process of working out how to restrain and control its allies. Thus far, the formula has worked: it has allowed the allies space to safeguard their own interests. And as long as the BJP retains the position of the dominant and vocal party of opposition, it will actually help cover the cracks in the ruling alliance. It is only if and when the saffron party’s fortunes dive further that divisions in the alliance will come to the fore.

What we have is not a return or revival of the Congress-dominated political order of the pre-1989 variety, but the early stages of a new kind of Congress led multiparty alliance system. In the past, the party contained diverse and often contradictory currents and groups within its ranks. It has not as yet re-grown to encompass enough space to accomplish that. For instance, it has no major leader of the agrarian classes to match Pawar, nor a Dalit leader of the stature of a Mayawati or Paswan. In fact, it has for the first time had to bring region-centred parties into the government, ceding critical economic ministries like telecommunications (to the DMK) and railways (to the RJD).

This is not a highly original point, as even a cursory look at the composition of the Lok Sabha would bear this out. Even adding up the MPs of the BJP and the Congress sees them fall short of the 300 mark, indicating a continuing salience of the non-Congress, non-BJP groups. Most of the larger groups are now in the Congress camp but it will have to ensure that their political interests coincide with its own. And equally important, it will have to ensure quality governance while keeping the flock together.



The key to the equations lie in the relationship of the Congress and the 63 strong bloc of Left MPs. The ties of the two are closer than at any time since the alignment with the Communist Party of India in 1969-77, but there is a major shift in the nature of relations. As many as 56 of the MPs of the CPI (M) and its allies have won their seats contesting against the Congress or its allies. Further, they rule two states with comfortable majorities and are a formidable opposition in a third.

Unlike in Indira Gandhi’s time and especially after the Congress split, there is no major external force in the form of the USSR acting as a catalyst for a concord of Congress and the Left. Nor are the Left parties really dependent on the Congress’ goodwill or hostage to its changes of mood as was so tragically the case with the Communist Party of India in the Emergency period. But conversely, the long ideological assault on the Congress legacy of pluralism and the Left’s own core constituency in the six-year spell of NDA rule has driven the two together.



There was never any doubt that the Left would back a Congress-led front in its bid for power. This was a position articulated by H.S. Surjeet in the wake of the 1998 Lok Sabha polls even before the results foreclosed the option. The defence of Sonia Gandhi’s right to be an equal citizen entitled to the highest public office found the Left on the same side of the fence as the Congress. Her strident attacks on the Hindutva forces also set up the possibility of a working relationship. In particular, in the remaking and overhaul of cultural and educational institutions much will hinge on the ability of the two to work together.

Some rifts, however, arise from their very different character as political formations. These differences are still manageable due to the commonality of wavelength on combating the BJP. In a sense the soft Hindutva phase of Congress, which began in the second Indira period with the metropolitan council elections of Delhi in February 1983, only ended in the late 1990s. The support extended to the United Front was one step in the direction of a common cause with other pluralist parties, but it came undone as Congress found its own base under threat. Sonia as campaigner-in-chief had set the tone in 1998, but a year later still tried to pitch for a one party government when Vajpayee lost a vote of confidence. Since then, the Congress and the Left have both grown wiser and brought a degree of maturity to their relationship.



But there are other, more serious, pitfalls mainly due to the very different ideological orientation, social character and intellectual make up of the two groups. The Congress after Narasimha Rao is a more pro-reform party than ever before in its history. So much so that it seemed to drag its feet on the promise of an Employment Guarantee Act once it came to power. The idea of a minimal job guarantee in rural India goes further than what even the left-wing parties have done. Unlike the promise of easing and substantially increasing credit for the farm sector, the enactment of the legislation has been a bitterly fought battle with a clear polarization on ideological lines. Those opposed to it point to the size of the wage bill, the problems of leakage and the uneven nature of administrative abilities in different parts of India, in particular the regions of the north that need such measures the most. The Left and the sections of the Congress and allies that back the bill have countered by showing that what is involved is at most around half the outlay on defence.

But what is really critical is the political significance of such a measure. The nineties may have seen an economic boom, but the groundswell of support for the opposition arose from deep disaffection that the benefits were so unevenly distributed. The decline in the rate of job creation in the farm sector and the growing disparity between town and country marks a reversal of the trends of the late Indira and Rajiv periods, 1980-89. With the sole exception of the Vajpayee regime of 1999, every single government since 1971 has been voted out of office. The Congress in turn needs to remember how fast the resounding majority of 1971 and the state assembly poll victories of a year later faded into a distant memory after the onset of economic crises in 1973-74.



Food riots and petro-product fuelled inflation did as much to erode Indira’s appeal among the poor, as did the emergence of a formidable alliance of opponents led by JP. Just as the promise of banishing poverty worked wonders in 1971, the slogan that the party was one of the common folk helped stitch together a more tenuous but still adequate base of support in 2004. But the constancy of this base will hinge on the ability to make a difference and the jobs scheme and job-generating measures in rural India will be the key to political success.

If anything, the combine of the Congress and the Left can check and balance one another. The former is in tune with the needs of globalization and the latter can be a strong lobby for the underclass which is being exposed to the harsh play of market forces in a country which is deeply unequal. The past provides at least three state level examples which today’s rulers can draw from. One was Maharashtra in 1974, a rare state whose rural employment scheme even earned rich praise from JP. It was one of the few states outside the deep South where Indira’s name still brought in the votes in 1977.

The other is the instance of West Bengal where rural farm growth, especially of rice and fish production, has given the Left Front a base no Communist party ever has enjoyed in a free and fair electoral system anywhere in the world. The third is the work under M.G. Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu where state-sponsored delivery of welfare such as in the mid-day meal scheme, secured a host of development goals while also deepening the base of socio-political support for a ruling party.

True, these are case specific instances and their principles will have to be abstracted for more general application. After all, the Left may well stall many of the Congress measures for reform. In turn, the Congress has a long history of elbowing aside allies once it grows adequately strong. The balance will be hard to strike and difficult to maintain but the cost of failure will be enormous for all concerned.



The challenge of doing so may well decide the long-term fate of the present alliance. It will have a larger significance as well. The political order faces a serious challenge in its ability to combine stable governance with meeting the aspirations of India’s vast underclass. The NDA tried a mix of strident nationalism and rank sectarianism as in Gujarat, and hoped that certain key modernist projects such as telecom and roadways would rally support. But by the time it got around to income-enhancing welfare measures it was already into the last leg of its term.

The late Rajiv Gandhi often said that a popular government actually has an effective mandate for about two and a half years. He was close to the truth and by that yardstick, by the end of 2007, the key measures that make a difference ought to be in place and they have to make a difference. This, more than any political strategy, will decide the fate of the Congress-led coalition.