Wednesday 3 March 1999

Congress Leadership to Decide on Future Strategy

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

After Bihar, and a possible election in Kashmir, the way is clear
for the Lok Sabha polls. Over the past year, the Indian voter has
alternately humbled the BJP, the Congress and the Janata Dal,
thus leaving these parties guessing about his preference for
control of the next Parliament.

The party apparently in the most comfortable position is the
BJP. Strategists within it say that the goal is power 'not in 1996
but in 2001'. By that year, they say that voter disgust at other
national formations will result in a saffron wave. The catch is
that, quite apart from 2001, even 1996 is away far enough for
conditions to change. The BJP has first to square the circle of
being ’moderate’ while backing the Shiv Sena, and welcoming
foreign investment while swearing by Swadeshi.

The Janata Dal is also in a reasonably happy position, largely
because it has so little to lose. Should it be able to entice outside
groups such as the AIADMK and the SJP to its fold, the JD-led
National Front may be able to win enough seats to create a hung
Parliament, in which it can bargain for a significant share in
power. With the selection of J. B. Patnaik as the Congress chief
minister, ID strategists say that their party is back in the
reckoning in Orissa. It has already trounced the Congress in
Bihar, and appears set to vastly improve its Lok Sabha
performance in Karnataka and Kerala, while improving its tally
in states such as Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.
Although the Congress has the most to lose in the coming
polls, it has shown little sign of serious attention to itself since
the Tirupati session a couple of years ago. In that session, the
victory of Arjun Singh, A. K. Antony and Sharad Pawar in
elections to the Working Committee led to the assumption of full
powers by the AICC president, with even the general secretaries
unable to exercise their discretion except on trivial matters.

Around the leadership, a suite of leaders has emerged, most
of whom have followed the Rajya Sabha route, and who are
therefore more conversant with the manipulation of small groups
of office-bearers than with influencing large masses of voters.
Possibly the last major opportunity for influencing voters by
macroeconomic policy was the Union budget. Political analysts
say that fiscal statements leave almost no impact on the under-
privileged, "though they may influence the middle classes".

Seeing as how the Congress has lost almost every urban area
since Tirupati (with the exception of Gwalior), AICC office-
bearers were disappointed that significant reductions did not
take place in direct taxes. At the same time, the ’import-friendly’
measures announced by the finance and commerce ministries
may, in their view, "turn small businessmen away from the
Congress". However, individuals close to the leadership counter 
this by pointing out that "if the measures lower the price level,
as they are intended to, the political impact will be positive".

However, there is a recognition that the BJP has been able to
position itself better as the defender of domestic interests.
Fortunately for P. V. Narasimha Rao, his rival Arjun Singh
has dented his image by welcoming all anti-Rao elements. After
his alliance with Kalpnath Rai, the former HRD minister’s anti-
corruption rhetoric is taken less seriously, while his linkup with 
N. D. Tiwari (whose social perceptions are well-known) has 
eroded his "justice for the 1mderprivileged" plank. Within the
Congress, the perception is growing that Arjun Singh's crusade
is less to vitalise the party than to wage a vendetta against the
Prime Minister. However, this does not mean that support for
the existing leadership is strong.

The tendency among Congress leaders to pack electoral lists
with relatives, hangers-on and discredited incumbents has cost
the party dearly, first in Delhi and Rajasthan, then in Andhra
Pradesh and Karnataka, and now in Maharashtra and Gujarat. In
Orissa and Bihar as well, the success rate for new faces — even
from within the established parties — was far higher than for
familiar names.

However, Congress cadres do not expect the stranglehold of
the Old Guard to get broken at the time of selection of candidates
for the next Lok Sabha. As for those disaffected enough to openly
attack the leadership, the objective has shifted from the capture
of the party organisation to setting up a new group that would
align with the National Front. Now that expulsion — which
would play into their hands — is no longer a worry, such
individuals can be expected to aggressively articulate their
policy differences with the leadership. Meanwhile, both the BJP
as well as the National Front may be expected to intensify their
criticism of the Rao Government, in order for each to edge out
the other as the ’real' alternative.

Supporters of P. V. Narasimha Rao point out that the country
is enjoying ’unusual’ social tranquillity and progress under his
rule, but admit that the perception of a ’weak’ leadership has
taken root, and agree that this has to be changed if the Congress
is to return to power under Rao. The April 5 CWC session will
discuss how to retrieve the nationalist plank from the BJP and
the social justice plank from the National Front without "deviation
from the present policies". This may prove a difficult task.

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