(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)
Although there has lately been a fair amount of comment about
the linkage between the coming assembly polls in Andhra
Pradesh and Karnataka and the future of the Prime Minister, it
would be accurate to say that the elections will determine the
Congress party’s future as well. Political bandwagons roll down
as well as up, and a defeat in these two states would have a
ripple effect on the polls in six states scheduled for early 1995.
A poor showing there would affect the results of the parliamentary
poll that would follow soon after.
As realisation of the danger of throwing the baby out with
the bathwater dawns on the faction leaders in the ruling party,
a more united effort can be expected. In any election, the last
three weeks are usually crucial in determining the result, and
last-minute unity will, therefore, efface much of the negative
perceptions created by continual Congress bickering. However,
as yet there is little sign of such unity. Senior leaders of the ruling
party in key states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are looking
at the coming assembly polls as affecting mainly the Prime
Minister and are, therefore, delinking themselves from them
when pressing for strategies in their respective states.
In place of efforts at building up a pan—Indian base, these
days almost all leaders in the party are focusing on regional vote
A banks. Thus, for example, Sharad Pawar is concentrating on
Maharashtra and Arjun Singh on the Hindi belt. Implicitly, it is
being assumed that the era of powerful national leaders is
drawing to a close, and that the future will witness coalitions of
powerful regional leaders within the Congress party in the
manner of the 1966-69 'Syndicate'. The only stumbling block in
such a course is the Prime Minister himself, who has built up a
pan-Indian image for himself.
Should the ruling party lose in Andhra Pradesh and
Karnataka, however, the Prime Minister would find his influence
within his party severely limited. The Congress cadres have ever
displayed a propensity to supinely follow a leader, provided that
he or she can pull them to electoral success. After election
defeats, however, defections are common. There was an army of
top leaders who broke away from Indira Gandhi, not when civil
liberties were demolished during the Emergency, but immediately
afterwards, when the Congress party lost the 1977 parliamentary
polls. At the state level, even charismatic Congress leaders such
as Karnataka’s Devraj Urs found their flock deserting them soon
after an electoral defeat. Should the assembly polls go badly for
the ruling party, Narasimha Rao would get reduced from the
national leader of his party to a faction leader.
Recent electoral results have shown the importance of
individual candidates in elections. In the assembly polls that
took place in some Hindi-belt states less than a year ago, the
Congress party did badly in those seats where considerations
other than electoral merit guided the selection of candidates. In
Delhi and Rajasthan especially, many seats were lost because
relations and cronies of leaders were preferred over genuine
party workers in ticket distribution. This was pointed out by the
Janardhan Reddy committee set up by the AICC to analyse the
However, the behaviour of Congress leaders in the states
going to the polls a month hence indicates that no lesson has
This is, especially marked in Karnataka, where senior party
leaders are vying with one another in promoting the names of
friends and cronies for assembly tickets. A union minister wants
tickets for both his son-in-law and his son, while a former chief
minister is threatening to leave the party unless his son is given
the ticket (his son-in—law is already an MP). Apart from their own
relations, each Karnataka leader — armed with lists of hangers-
on in each constituency — is fighting the others in promoting the
cause of their acolytes.
After the Congress lost power to the Janata party in 1983 in
Karnataka, it swept the state in the 1984 parliamentary polls.
Smelling victory, the Congress leaders of the state crammed the
list of candidates for the 1985 assembly polls with hangers-on.
The result was a second humiliating defeat at the hands of the
Janata party, which had been far more selective in the choice of
candidates. Looking at the scrimmage now going on for tickets
in Karnataka, it looks as though 1985 may get repeated. That is,
unless the Prime Minister steps in and ruthlessly allocates tickets
on the basis of prospects of victory.
Although at first glance the splintered opposition in both
Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka may appear to benefit the
Congress party — with the BJP, the Janata Dal and the Bangarappa
Congress fighting with each other in Karnataka and the Telugu
Desam, the BJP and BSP at war with each other in Andhra
Pradesh — in reality anti-Congress voters may decide to club
together and choose the candidate who seems most likely to
defeat the ruling party. This could reduce the Congress tally in
both states to a level below the majority it presently enjoys.
However, should the Congress party field voter-friendly
candidates, the negative impact of the anti-Congress feelings in
the two southern states could get counter-balanced.
It would be too much to expect from the state leaders of the
Congress to give up their ingrained habit of promoting cronies
and relations. Unless the Prime Minister himself intervenes to
curb the nepotistic tendencies of his flock, the going for his party
— and for himself — is unlikely to be smooth.