The advantages of irrelevance

Having won over the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Manmohan Singh government can push ahead with the Indo-US nuclear deal, and hope to complete its full five-year term. If the government survives the trust vote, Congressmen will be delighted, since they are terrified of an early election, given that inflation is running at 12%.

Their delight will be tempered by the bitter knowledge that the once-mighty Congress is steadily decreasing in political relevance, in state after state. Yet, ironically, its growing irrelevance in the states has actually helped it survive in New Delhi. Even dark clouds have silver linings, sometimes very broad ones.

When the Congress won more seats than the BJP in the 2004 general election, it was far short of an absolute majority, and sought the assistance of every possible party to cobble together a ruling coalition. It sought the support of the SP too. But Mulayam Singh Yadav said absolutely no. He feared that a Congress government in New Delhi might find ways to cut him to size in Uttar Pradesh or even oust him, and then stage a comeback in India’s largest state. Mulayam feared that the Congress might win back the support of UP Muslims, who had defected to him in droves after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. So, he declined firmly to support the Manmohan Singh government.

Why then has he suddenly changed tack, and saved Manmohan Singh’s bacon? Because he is finally convinced that the Congress has become irreversibly irrelevant in UP, and should no longer be viewed as a threat. In the 2007 state assembly election, Rahul Gandhi, heir apparent of the Congress, himself spearheaded the party’s state campaign, and aimed to win back lost ground. Alas, the Congress came a pathetic fourth in the state election, far behind the BSP, SP and BJP. Despite Rahul’s efforts, the Congress tally of seats actually fell from 25 to 22. The party won just 8.4% of the popular vote, down from 12% in 2004.

Its decline in the state worsened in the five by-elections in the state in April this year. The BSP swept all five seats, and the Congress lost its deposit in four of the five. The once-hegemonic party of India had become a pathetic also-ran.

This, above all, explains why the SP has decided to support the Manmohan Singh government. It can afford to do so because the Congress has become irrelevant in UP. It is now a party to be used, not feared. The only parties that matter now in the state are Mayawati’s BSP and Mulayam’s SP, with the BJP and Congress playing minor roles. In this scenario, Mulayam can use the Congress to harass Mayawati, by pursuing corruption and income tax cases against her more vigorously. And he can hope to come back to power in UP in the next state election by having the Congress as a very junior ally.

This drives home the point that, in a highly fractured polity, weakness in some regions can translate into an advantage in New Delhi. In the 1990s, this factor played to the advantage of the BJP. It had some strength in the Hindi-speaking heartland, and in Gujarat. But in other parts of the country it had little or no strength. Yet, it managed to come to power in 1998 with the assistance of sundry regional parties.

For most regional parties, their main local foe was the Congress party. Hence, they were willing to support the BJP simply as their enemy’s enemy. The TDP, AIADMK, BLD, Samata Party, and others joined Vajpayee’s NDA government. The very fact that the BJP was so weak in their respective states meant they faced no threat from it locally, and that made it a more attractive partner in New Delhi.

The Congress was upset to see professedly secular parties like the TDP and Samata Party joining hands with the BJP. It made strong declarations at its Pachmarhi summit about spurning opportunistic regional parties, and seeking to return to power on its own. Yet, this had the practical effect of pushing regional parties further into the BJP camp.

Those delusions of grandeur have gone now. The Congress has declined in one state after another, and knows that it cannot rule without allies. It has submitted to constant humiliation by the Left Front for four years in New Delhi, knowing that this is the price for survival.

Yet, this humiliating decline is now proving to be an advantage. Lalu Yadav, who for most of his political career had viewed the Congress as his main foe in Bihar, realised in 2004 that the Congress had become so irrelevant in the state that he could afford to ally with it. That realisation was what made the current UPA government possible: Lalu could join it without jeopardising his own position in Bihar.

The same thing has now happened in UP. There, too, the Congress has become irrelevant. And so Mulayam can afford to support the Manmohan Singh government in New Delhi. Rahul Gandhi may be a pale shadow of what was once an all-powerful Gandhi family. But that actually enhances his attractions.

What do you think?