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Saturday, 13 November 1999

The 'Messiah' School Vs. the Realists

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


Sitaram Kesri's generous promise to Prime Minister Gujral that
he would not be disturbed for another year begs the question of
likely developments within the Janata Dal, Should there be an
attempted palace coup within the ruling party, then Congress
support may not be enough.

Indeed, it is this very support that has created enemies for
Gujral within the Janata Dal. While H. D. Deve Gowda had
attempted to create a Karnataka-model non-Congress electoral
alliance at the national level, the present Prime Minister has been
text book correct in his dealings with the party, refusing to get
involved in its internal dissensions. This does not suit those who
would like to see a straight fight between the BJP and the non-
Congress ruling parties in the next elections, with the Congress
virtually eliminated by dissensions and splits.

The embryo of the future can already be discerned. The lead
position is still with the BJP, its handicap being the narrowness
of its support among other formations. The second contender is
the collection of regional and "national" parties (almost all with
clearly-defined regional bases) now in national office. Bringing
up the rear is a weakening Congress party, with its national vote
falling below the 30 per cent level for the first time.

While the conventional wisdom is that a combination of the
non-BJP parties can prevent that party from doing well, the fact
is that such an amalgamation may in fact benefit the saffronites.
For example, anti-Congress voters may switch to the BJP rather
than vote for a Congress nominee in constituencies where the
“secular alliance" has given the seat to that party.

In the same way, supporters of regional parties may balk at
voting for the Congress if asked to do so by their chieftains, and
may support the BJP or its allies instead. Conversely, hardcore
Congress supporters may refuse to back regional groups, even
if asked to do so by the AICC.

Within the Congress, there are two strands of thought: the
first is the "messiah" school, which holds that the entry of Sonia
Gandhi will so galvanise the electorate that it will jettison other
loyalties to bring back the Nehru family raj. While there exists
a keen competition among Congress worthies for the title of
"First Follower" (of Sonia Gandhi), Arjun Singh appears the
natural choice for this honour. This group would like Sonia
Gandhi to take over the leadership formally and then begin
working her magic.

The second is the "realist" group, which recognises the
changes that have come about in the psyche of voters since 1947.

This segment, working under the direction of Sitaram Kesri,
has two strategies: first, to position the Congress as the main
opposition in as many states as possible, even if in the process
JD or CPM feathers get ruffled. Thus the Narasimha Rao policy
of indulgence to old friend Jyoti Basu has been given up in
favour of the Dasmunshi-Banerjee line of attack on the Left
Front, both in Bengal and Kerala.

It is hoped that this will result in a doubling of Lok Sabha
seats from these two states. A problem area is Gujarat, where the
Vaghela ministry may be having adverse repercussions on the
Congress base.

While targeting both the BJP and the Left parties as enemies,
the Congress strategy is to take away as many groups as possible
from the anti-Congress "secular" formation, now led by Harkishan
Singh Surjeet and H. D. Deve Gowda. Thus both Mulayam Singh
Yadav and Kanshi Ram are being wooed in Uttar Pradesh, Laloo
Yadav in Bihar and privately Jayalalitha or the TMC in Tamil
Nadu. A quick calculation is that the Congress can secure over
220 seats on its own should enough of such alliances fructify.
The “messiah" group is attempting to create the impression
that without a Nehru family member (even one born in Italy) the
Congress cannot do well. They are pointing to the 1984 success
of the Congress led by Rajiv Gandhi, though others say that in
that post-assassination mood, even Pranab Mukherjee would
have been able to engineer a massive win for the then ruling
party.

Privately, many high-level Congress functionaries admit
that in the emerging political culture, dynastic logic does not
work. Further, that ugly comments about the lengthy foreign
stays of the Gandhi family siblings and the business dealings of
friends and relatives may in fact hurt the party’s interests.
However, in public they join in the chorus of Sonia Lao Desh
Bachao.

In fact, while the vote-getting abilities of Sonia Gandhi may
be an untested proposition, what is clear is that a party where she
plays a dominant role will be much less able to attract support
from other formations. For every Moopanar who compares her
to Annie Besant, there is a Ramkrishna Hedge who says that only
a democratised Congress will become a worthwhile poll partner.
Just as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad is acting as a dampener on
the efforts of the BJP to attract allies, the Sonia factor is scaring
away formations from the Congress.

It is also preventing the party from an honest introspection
into just why it has slipped so badly. Such an exercise would
show that the creation of a family dictatorship and the adoption
of policies that were tailored to personal needs were primary
factors behind the collapse.

Unless the Congress party can fashion a new India-relevant
platform, in which it marries nationalist goals to the needs of a
globalised market economy, it is unlikely to evoke resonance
within the electorate. By chasing after saviours, the party office·
bearers are distancing themselves even further from the demands
of the new electorate.

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