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Friday, 1 January 1999

Rao's Achilles' Heel Allies, Not Rebels, are the Real Foes

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)


For most of its 110-year existence, the Congress has had obituaries
written about it. And yet, whenever public disenchantment with
the party's functioning assumes life—threatening proportions, a
tail of leaders sloughs off, and in the diversion thus created, the
main party escapes oblivion. Such a process has been visible
throughout Congress history, which is replete with discontented
individuals — whether voluntarily or otherwise — shaking off its
coils and getting banished to the fringes of public life.

Before independence, those in favour of a different approach
towards the British were forced to leave, joining formations such
as the Justice Party. After freedom, both socialists such as
Jayaprakash Narayan and conservatives such as Chakravarty
Rajagopalachari found it impossible to function within a Congress
dominated by Jawahar1al Nehru and broke away to found new
political structures.

However, it was during 1966-84 (the period of Indira Gandhi's
dominance) that flux within the party reached unprecedented
proportions. There were formal splits in 1969 and 1978, and
major changes in the composition of party units at both the
central as well as the state level. In particular, during 1969-71,
almost an entire layer of state and central leaders was replaced,
Despite the fact that most of the new entrants swore by Indira
Gandhi, no chances were taken by her, and from 1973 onwards
internal democracy within the Congress ceased. Elections to
party posts were abandoned in favour of nominations, with the ,
result that a ’power base' was defined as proximity to the leader
rather than acceptance by the workers. This had its impact on the
health of the organisation and, by 1975, the Congress was in
political retreat, although the Emergency gave it two more years 
in power before the 1977 defeat.

New Faces
During 1977, a substantial clutch of leaders once again left the
party, largely because it was no longer in power. As a result,
when party lists were drawn up for state assembly polls in 1978
and the Lok Sabha polls in 1980, many new faces emerged, and
the grassroots workers once again became active, with beneficial
results. After the 1980 polls, however, the ticket prospects for
base-level workers (as opposed to the well—heeled who were able
to cultivate the top leadership) receded yet again. The reason
why the baneful effects of this were not evident in the 1984
parliamentary polls was that the youthful figure of Rajiv Gandhi
symbolised a dramatic change from the past, the expectation
being that the young inheritor of the Congress mantle would
soon blow away the chaff that had been clinging to positions of
power, Alas, apart from a public show of anger against 'power-
brokers' in 1985, very little got done to reopen the clogging
arteries of the ruling party.

After P. V. Narasimha Rao took over in June 1991, he rapidly
re—established internal democracy within the Congress. However,
as in the case of Indira Gandhi in 1973 he discovered by 1992 that
the individuals who were propelled forward by the democratic
process were far different from those whom he himself would
have voted for. For example, the highest number of votes in the
elections to the Congress Working Committee were polled by
Arjun Singh. In many Pradesh Congress Committees, 'established'
leaders found their candidates outvoted. Just when the Congress
was on the brink of a change in its composition as momentous
- as the one that took place during 1969-71, the Working Committee
halted the entire process on the grounds that 'full attention'
needed to be paid to local elections taking place around that
time. Keeping the support of the grassroots needs an entirely
different orientation from cultivating a handful of top leaders,
and many in important positions of responsibility within the
Congress hierarchy were relieved that all the nonsense about
democracy was buried once again.

Same Tendency
The decline in the political support base of Narasimha Rao can
be traced to the decision to abandon inner—party democracy
within the party. Like Rajiv Gandhi before him, the Prime 
Minister turned for support to the nominated warhorses of the
earlier era. As a consequence, the lists of party candidates for
each election were replete with the names of the friends and
relatives of the satraps. Despite the experience of Rajasthan and
Delhi a year back, when candidates whose sole merit was
closeness to those granting tickets were trounced, the Andhra
Pradesh and Karnataka lists showed the same tendency. Today,
in spite of the results in those two states, the Bihar, Orissa and
Maharashtra lists are dominated by hangers-on of Jagannath
Mishra, J.B. Patnaik and Sharad Pawar. Should the Congress
improve on its earlier performance in the six states going to the
polls, it will be despite the strenuous efforts of the party's central
election committee to ensure its defeat through wrong choice of
candidates. And yet, such inability to take remedial action is
endemic in a structure that relies on non—elective methods to
choose leaders and candidates.

'The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves'.
Over the past two decades of the nomination raj, a clique of
leaders has formed within the Congress that relies on
manipulation and cultivation of their superiors rather than
mobilisation at the base. Such a system, based as it is on personal
interest rather than on ideology or any concept of the public
good, feeds on and is in tum fed by patronage. As most such
favours depend on access to the governmental structure, it is no
accident that a Jagannath Mishra is perceived as being close to
Laloo Yadav or a J. B. Patnaik is considered to be the best asset
of Biju Patnaik in his bid to hold on to power. It is not only
Vazhapady Ramamurthy in Tamil Nadu who has complained
that more solicitude has been shown to non—Congress chief
ministers than to the interests of the local Congress units. The
same complaint has been heard from party units in almost every
major non-Congress state.

Fractured Parliament
While political operators within the ruling party may salivate at
the prospect of using their manipulative skills in a hung
Parliament, the danger is that their antics within the Congress
may lead to a fractured Parliament in which no party crosses the
200—seat tally that makes a stable government potentially viable.
Should the single largest party in the new Lok Sabha have less 
than this number, the prospects are for a shifting coalition much
like the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal regimes that ravaged many
Hindi-speaking states after 1967. If one excludes the Janata Dal
National Front (which is itself a coalition), only the Congress and
the BJP have the ability to generate 200-plus seats.

Should the Congress persist with its descent, the BJP will
form one pole of the political arena, with the smaller parties at
the other. Neither pole is likely to provide a stable government.
Should Narasimha Rao see the present crisis within his party in
disciplinary rather than in basic policy terms, he will find his
party’s free fall intensifying despite the suspension of his principal
detractor. Great political leaders, even while taking action against
their opponents, have usually appropriated the platforms of the
dissidents. Unless Narasimha Rao follows up the action against
Arjun Singh with a democratisation of his party’s structure, his
victory will be a pyrrhic one.

However, such a reintroduction of elective methods into
Congress functioning will go counter to the interests of most of
those who have backed Narasimha Rao in his action against the
former HRD minister. And yet, unless history is repeated and
such individuals find themselves purged through a democratic
process, the ills afflicting the Congress will remain and intensify.

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