What does Congress stand for?

Why has the Congress Party suffered its worst ever defeat? Mainly because it has gradually ceased to stand for any clear goals except moneymaking. As an umbrella party, it claims to stand for all sections of society. It is now learning that if you try to represent everybody and everything, you may end up representing nobody and nothing.

The Ayodhya affair was a turning point. The Congress wanted to protect the Muslim vote it has long banked on, but also wanted to win over militant Hindus who were gravitating to the BJP. In the end, it fell between two stools. Voters gravitated either to the BJP or to the two Yadavs, all of whom were perfectly clear about what they stood for. The Congress stood merely for hypocrisy.

The same problem of credibility has affected another traditional Congress vote bank, the Harihans. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) know exactly what it stands for – an aggressive, caste-based share of governance, and of the loot involved – and such single-minded aggression has begun to look more attractive to voters than crumbs form the Congress table.

All the sectarian parties know what they stand for – a particular religion, caste or region. The Congress Party would like to say it stands for all sections of society, but in fact it has no unequivocal agenda, and looks increasingly like a two-faced money-making network of patronage.

In theory, Mr Narasimha Rao could have tried to establish a clear identity as a reforming liberal. You need not be sectarian to have a clear agenda – if you persuade people you will deliver good governance, free of sectarian slants, you can win hands down. But good governance and true liberalisation mean much more than deli censing industries – they imply creating a rule-based society, which, in turn, means purging in the sort of umbrella politics the party has come to represent. And with opposition chief ministers wooing private and foreign investment, the congress has ceased to look distinctive even on this score.

During the British Raj, the congress spearheaded the independence movement, and so had a clear agenda that give it enormous appeal and stature. The independence struggle required it to appeal to all sections, which it did very successfully. Although it continued with its umbrella-party approach after independence, it developed a definite socialist agenda under Jawaharlal Nehru. It abolished zamindari, launched a programme of rural and industrial development, and gave hope to the minorities (Muslims, Harihans, tribals) who had been crushed byte upper Hindu castes in traditional India. It was a party with a social purpose.

Power made the Congress increasingly corrupt and callous as the years went by. Increasingly, it became a money-cum-patronage machine that failed to deliver the goods it promised. Yet it continued to carry conviction well into the 1980s.

An important reason for this was the inability of its rivals to pull together. They repeatedly tried to create anti-Congress fronts, which soon collapsed. In 1967, congress splitters formed Samyukta Vidhhayak Dal coalition in more than half the country, but these proved short-lived.

This gave the Congress a new electoral plank. Although it was ceasing to have a clear policy agenda, it could claim to be the party of stability. This point was driven home when the Janta Party, which was elected with a huge majority in 1977, collapsed after two years. It was driven home again when the V P Singh government of 1989-90 collapsed in less than one year.

However, the winds of change had already begun to blow in the 1980s: Jyoti Basu in West Bengal Ramakrishna Hegde in Karnataka, N T Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh, M G Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu and Achuta Menon in Kerala proved that opposition parties could provide stable state governments. Indeed, the Congress high command tended to change chief ministers in so many states so often that opposition state governments began to look more stable than congress ones.

The state elections of 1990 threw up stable opposition governments for the first time in north India too. The BJP governments in four northern states encouraged communalism and were dismissed in 1992. But they had already demonstrated that they were stable. Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav in Bihar and Mr Biju Patnaik in Orissa also proved they could last a full term. So, in the 1990s, the Congress claim to be the only provider of stability had begun to sound hollow. It sounded even hollower after BJP won power in Gujarat and Maharashtra, and survived the strains that followed.

If you no longer have a clear idea of what you stand for, and if you stand for, and if you are no longer the sole provider of stability, you must expect to be deserted by voters. I believe this explains much of the Congress debacle in the general elections. There are no doubt other reasons, like its terrible decision to ally with AIADMK. But its steady loss of state assembly elections shows that the real lies much deeper.

The party’s claim to represent secularism is ceasing to convince Muslims; its claim to being a liberaliser is losing steam because it is unwilling to force the pace, and because other parties have caught up with it on this score; its claim to represent the poor is ceasing to convince harijans; its claim to represent national goals is ceasing to convince regional voters, who now opt for regional parties. Instead of meaning everything to everybody, it is beginning to meaning nothing to anybody.

It would be silly to write the obituary of the Congress. It remains a strong force in many parts of the country. But it will regain its old state only if it recognises that it has an identity crisis, and does something about it.

The last decade has witnessed the steady rise of parties based on religion, caste and regions. This parochialism is a natural result of the decline of public morality. Many parties have contributed to this decline, but the Congress has ruled most of the time and must bear the lion’s share of responsibility. When money muscle and influence are seen to be the only things that work, national goals and ideals sound very hollow. In such circumstances, voters naturally turn to sectarian groups, which begin to look more attractive and idealistic then national ones. The process is well under way and cannot be reversed without a sea change in public morality.

The future strategy of the congress cannot be based on the hope that other combinations will forever break down, forcing people to return to the Congress fold. It will have to decide what it stands for, and change its character correspondingly. It is idle for Congressmen to believe that replacing Mr Rao with Mr Rajesh Pilot or Mr Karunakaran will solve the party’s identity crisis. The problem lies much deeper. It lies in the politics of conviction, of knowing what you actually stand for.

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