Sunday 10 October 1999

'Masterly Inactivity' no Longer an Option for PM

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

Soon after the declaration of results of the assembly polls in
Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Goa and Sikkim eight days hence,
the Congress Working Committee is expected to meet and
review the performance of the party. During the past year, the
CWC meetings have been perfunctory, with usually the only
'decisions' being taken to "leave it to the Prime Minister".
According to the CWC members, however, should the Congress
fare badly in the polls — especially in Andhra Pradesh and
Karnataka — the coming meeting is unlikely to be tame.

The Congress has for long been a party both federal and
feudal. Whenever there is a leadership change, regional leaders
meet to select an individual whom they expect will respect their
autonomy. Although her subsequent conduct makes this hard to
believe, Indira Gandhi was preferred over Morarji Desai in 1966
because she was regarded as more tractable. The relative youth
of Rajiv Gandhi encouraged a similar view in 1984, while in the
case of P.V. Narasimha Rao seven years later, it was age and poor
health that generated the belief that he would be docile leader,
far more so than his challenger, Sharad Pawar.

So much for the federal aspect. Once ensconced, however,
the feudal strain takes over, the primary reason being that the
clutch of "central" leaders that form around the Prime Minister
cannot resist intervening in their territories of interest, and can
only do so under cover of the authority of the party leader. In a
reversal of the saying that "togetherness breeds contempt’ the
”central" leaders usually displace the regional chieftains influence,
often by casting doubts on the latter's "loyalty" to the leader
selected by them just a short while ago. Thus, in each state a
faction opposed to the regional chieftain springs up, that is given
(sometimes not very hidden) encouragement by individuals
close to the party leader. S. B. Chavan has played this role in
Maharashtra and Janardhan Poojary in Karnataka, to name just
two. So long as the party leader fulfils her or his function of
delivering votes, the regional chieftains accept these irritations
as a part of the "Congress culture". However, should the flow of
votes dry up they begin to demand greater autonomy. It is this
process that is expected to begin should the poll results indicate
an anti-Congress sweep.

There have been three distinct periods in the style of
functioning of the present Prime Minister. For around the first
year and a half since assuming office in 1991, he re-introduced
inner-party democracy into the Congress party through
membership drives and elections. Just when the process seemed
on the brink of introducing changes, in the composition of the
regional party leadership as significant as those that occurred
between 1969, (when Indira Gandhi broke away from the
"Syndicate") and 1973 (when the victories of Mavericks such as
Chandra Shekhar and Vayalar Ravi in inner—party elections
diminished her interest in giving grassroots workers control
over selection of their leaders and led her to introduce the
practice of nomination from Delhi), the Prime Minister abruptly
put the entire process on hold by 1993. The reason given for this
was that "the party leaders wanted it so". They, it seemed, did
not want a break from the culture of "Leave it to the leader", and
bowing to this democratic wish, Rao obliged. Whatever one may
make of this rationale, the fact is that from 1993 onwards the
nomination system made a complete comeback, thus once more
establishing the power to select local leaders at the central rather
than at the grassroot level. Senior party leaders claim that this
return to the "centralised" system of party management was
followed by a third stage, which has gone on since mid-1994,
around the time of Rao's return from the US tour and subsequent
bout of indifferent health (a bout that lasted for a month after the
tour). This is the period of a "near-total freeze on political
decisions" whether it is reshuffling the Cabinet or announcing
major policy changes. However, this has not been followed up
by any grant of autonomy to the regional units, with the result
that centrally backed individuals such as the Shukla brothers in
Madhya Pradesh or Karnataka PCC president Krishna Rao enjoy
an influence out of all proportion to their grassroots support.
Attempts to prise out such individuals from authority have
foundered on the rock of the central leadership’s stoic reluctance
to agree to any changes. At the same time, the dissidents have
not been able to get top·level support for their operations to
further destabilise the existing regional leaders, especially i.n
Maharashtra, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Andhra
Pradesh. Thus the intra-Congress situation in these states — two
of which are going to the polls in the current round — is one of
an uneasy stalemate that in turn has led to a significant lessening
of political activity within the party organisation.

Even if the more pessimistic forecasts come true and the
Congress loses control of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka,
Cabinet-level sources say that there is almost no possibility of an
immediate challenge to the Prime Minister’s authority. In fact,
should Rao get back to the political and administrative activism
of his first 18 months in office, he could find his position
reinforced by the time the next round of state polls are held in
February 1995. This would, according to them, involve giving a
greater say to state units in making high-level personnel changes
going in for a thorough Cabinet reshuffle and making policy 
changes, such as a budget, friendly to the Indian middle class,
the worker and the domestic manufacturer than has been the
case for the past three years. Such activism would defuse
attempts to held him to account for any December'94, they claim.

Going by Rao’s track record, the odds favour such a return
of activism. However, should the current phase of a freeze on
activism continue, followed by reverses in February 1995, there
is likely to be a take-off of dissidence to levels that could lead to
a 1979 situation by mid-1995. In such an eventuality, groups
within the Congress party could break away to join the National
Front-Left Front parties or even the BJP, thus hastening the
timetable for the parliamentary poll. Alternatively, within the
Congress party there could be pressure for a leadership change.

While Rao’s present rivals may find themselves out of the
reckoning, so might his more obvious supporters, such as
S. B. Chavan, as they may not be able to carry the rest of the team
with them. What scenario will ultimately unfold is as yet not
clear. However, it is clear that the Prime Minister cannot any
longer consider masterly inactivity as a winning option.

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