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Congress: The 'messiah' school vs. the realists - The Times of India

M D Nalapat ()
1 September 1997

Title: Congress: The 'messiah' school vs. the realists
Author: M D Nalapat
Publication: The Times of India
Date: September 1, 1997

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 Mr 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 textbook correct in his dealings with that
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 Mrs 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 horn 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
Ramakrishna Hegde 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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