The Congress seems to have no hand to play now. How did a party with such long years of experience and political capital come to be in a mess like this? Ashok Malik reads an alarming diagnosis
SO WOULD the UPA government do a replay of the Baba Ramdev episode, swoop down on Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan with a police (and maybe paramilitary) posse for a second time this year, disperse the crowds and force Anna Hazare into a hospital bed? The rumours flew thick and fast on 24 August, following the failure of the all-party meeting at the prime minister’s residence.
In the end, it didn’t matter if the rumours were true or false. The fact is they were believable.
The urban middle classes, Manmohan Singh’s most loyal supporters for seven years, and a formidable Congress constituency in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, had begun to believe the worst of their government.
That evening Manmohan admitted the government was “in a bind”. It was left with an impossible choice. To surrender further to Hazare and his Jan Lokpal team would completely dismantle its credibility and authority. To take tough action would be to invite public outrage, another media circus and inevitable international criticism.
How had the bravado and bluster of two weeks ago come to this?
In some senses, the UPA managers had learnt no lessons. As talks broke down between Hazare’s colleagues and the government, there was an unseemly and unnecessary controversy over whether a minister had said, “Anna’s fast is his problem”. All along, there was resort to wordplay, semantic dexterity, plain hypocrisy and wild hope that the problem would disappear. On 23 August, ministers were openly saying that the throng would thin after the Janmashtmi weekend. The following day, they were confidently speculating that afternoon rain in the Capital would drive people away. All along, since Hazare began his fast, there was the smug belief that his health would deteriorate and he would retreat.
Was this pathetic fatalism what the Congress’ mighty politics had been reduced to?
Even in the hours before the all-party meeting, government sources were briefing mediapersons and insisting “multiple levels of talks” were underway with the Jan Lokpal Bill activists, Team Anna was “not cohesive”, and the government was “uncertain of Anna’s own position”.
The prime minister’s opening statement at the all-party meeting made it apparent this was not quite true. For all the so-called “multiple levels”, there were only three serious interlocutors from the Hazare camp — Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi and Prashant Bhushan. They had made very specific demands. While it was impracticable for the government — for any government — to accede to all those demands, the fact remained they were cohesive.
Indeed, it was the government that had been anything but cohesive on the Lokpal Bill. Take the issue of bringing the prime minister under the ambit of the Lokpal, a concession the government was only too willing to make as Hazare’s fast entered week two. Just days earlier, there had been much bluster and astonishing political cleavage on this score.
At least two Congress Cabinet ministers privately claim they had sought to bring the prime minister within the purview of the Lokpal Bill. Yet the draft the government tabled in Parliament had no such provision. It was always clear this was going to be a bone of contention with the Hazare-led civil society activists as well as sections of the Opposition. Nevertheless the government was blasé about it.
At his interaction with selected editors on 29 June, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh even said, “I, for one, have no hesitation in bringing myself under the purview. But there are Cabinet colleagues of mine, who said, ‘Sir, this is not your personal concern that matters. We are legislating for the people of India.’ There are many members of the Cabinet who feel very strongly, that bringing the institution of the prime minister (under Lokpal), will create an element of instability, which at times can go out of hand.”
There was a strange dichotomy that Singh was admitting to here. “There is no doubt a strong case for keeping the prime minister out of bounds for the Lokpal,” said a senior civil servant, “but Manmohan says that is not his view. However he is allowing himself to be overruled by junior Cabinet colleagues. So is he right or are they right? If he doesn’t share their view, why doesn’t he insist on his opinion prevailing? On the other hand, if he is convinced his Cabinet colleagues are right, then why does he say he has a different view?”
Those seemingly straightforward questions actually sum up one of the Congress’ existential dilemmas: the continued and by now laboured attempts of the Manmohan camp to somehow sequester him from his party and the rest of his government. It has been apparent in the manner in which Manmohan has pleaded he is not responsible for corruption and blamed scandals on the autonomy of his Cabinet ministers, on alleged legacies of previous governments or on the exigencies of coalition politics.
It has led to a situation where there is a significant trust deficit between Manmohan and influential political voices in the Congress. This was obvious in the runup to the Hazare protest that began on 16 August.
This period coincided with Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s departure abroad for surgery. She left day-to-day management of the party in the hands of four individuals — her son Rahul Gandhi, Defence Minister AK Antony, Ahmed Patel, the Congress chief’s closest political aide, and Janardhan Dwivedi, the party’s leading media manager.
SIMULTANEOUSLY, MANMOHAN put together a four-man group to tackle the Hazare challenge. This comprised the prime minister himself, Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal, Home Minister P Chidambaram and Rahul. This quartet met and decided to take a hard line against the Jan Lokpal activists, leading to, among other things, Hazare’s earlymorning arrest on 16 August and incarceration. “When this meeting was taking place,” said a senior Congress functionary, “Ahmed Patel and Antony were made to wait outside the prime minister’s room for 45 minutes. It was ridiculous.”
In essence, there was zero coordination between the political and administrative wings of the Congress. When the clumsy police action backfired — it had been preceded by one of the two ministers in Manmohan’s four-man team warning a civil society protester, “You tell your friend (Hazare) to watch out. We’ll put him in Tihar Jail” — the Congress had little sympathy for its prime minister.
Sibal and Chidambaram had taken a legalistic and somewhat imperious position on Hazare. “It is obvious the prime minister is comfortable with this technocratic approach,” said a minister, “but it was always a non-starter. Why was Vilasrao Deshmukh kept out of the Anna committee? As Maharashtra chief minister, he had long experience in neutralising Anna Hazare.”
Eventually, Deshmukh was brought in as an SOS measure, and used the services of a religious guru and a senior Maharashtra civil servant to reach out to Hazare. It was too late. The prime minister has never been comfortable with Deshmukh or his controversial image. Yet if he is a political resource, cold-blood pragmatism requires he be used. Quizzically the prime minister never did this.
The public response to the Hazare fast surprised and, in the words of a senior Congress functionary, “rattled” the government. On Janmashtmi evening, two Congress ministers were discussing the crowds on the streets of Delhi, and elsewhere. “But won’t it fade away after the holiday weekend?” one asked. “I’m not sure,” replied the other, “there’s a lot of negative energy out there.” A Congress politician found herself driving down the India Gate area, watching flag-waving youth on motorcycles. “It was like a World Cup victory,” she said, “but the mood wasn’t happy or celebratory.”
The instinctive response of the party was to bemoan Sonia’s absence. Would that have made such a difference though? Besides, Rahul was running the Congress as well as privy to the Hazare-related decisions. “Let’s face it,” said a Congress office-bearer, “if Mrs Gandhi had been there, there would have been greater coordination between the party and the government. Rahul probably just went along with what Manmohan and his ministers decided.”
There are other, structural issues that concern the more astute politicians in the Congress. The preponderance of young people who came out on the streets was ominous. “This is India’s youth bulge,” said a senior minister, who feels he has been marginalised by Manmohan and the prevailing regime, “it’s as restive and impatient as, say, the Arab youth bulge. There is an anti-incumbency sentiment built into it.”
‘Rahul is our best bet,’ felt a minister. ‘But, so far, he has practised the politics of grievance. Perhaps he needs to temper it with the politics of aspiration’
The demographic reality of a very young Indian population in the coming decades will pose a political risk. “These energies will need to be channelled,” felt a minister, “and Rahul is our best bet. But so far he has practised the politics of grievance. Perhaps he needs to temper it with the politics of aspiration.”
There is a telling argument there. For the past seven years, the UPA’s principal calling card has been a welfarism that has paid dividends electorally but also been derided as a policy of giveaways. Whether it is in Bhatta-Parsaul or elsewhere in Uttar Pradesh, or in Odisha — where he placed himself squarely against the Vedanta project — Rahul has tapped into a reservoir of grievance and discontent. The Hazare spectacle is suggestive of how Rahul — and the Congress — can be outflanked in the politics of grievance, by those who ‘grieve’ with greater gusto and more emotive theatre.
Any talk of the party wanting an early election to break out of this mess is discounted. “Far from that,” says a minister, “we need two years to ensure the current anger dissipates. We need to change the headlines. However, this also means Manmohan will have to go before the term is over and there is now no choice for Rahul. We cannot possibly have another 70-plus stopgap.”
Others are unwilling to put all blame in Manmohan’s corner. “It’s true he’s more comfortable with non-political types,” says a former Congress MP who knows the party well, “but some of Sonia’s favourites, like Antony and Jaipal Reddy are just incapable of taking decisions. Janardhan Dwivedi directed the media campaign through Manish Tewari and Renuka Chowdhury and only ended up getting Anna more sympathy.”
The implication is clear. Like Manmohan, Sonia too is distrustful of the crafty political animals and state chieftains in her party, worried that they cherish their autonomy and their black arts. They can only be overcome — or bypassed — if Rahul can push ahead with the Congress’ national narrative based on governance, stability and the broader sense of India.
Till a few weeks ago, this national narrative and political coherence was the Congress’ biggest plus when compared with the BJP and its factionalised leadership in Delhi. After the Hazare fiasco, that national narrative has had holes riddled through it. Unless the Congress wins big in Uttar Pradesh in April-May 2012 and rejuvenates the Rahul platform, it faces some serious questions as it prepares for 2014.
THE MIDDLE-CLASS revolt against the Manmohan government has only added to the Congress’ menu of worries. It is difficult to believe this was the party that won a handsome victory — picking up 206 seats, just 66 short of an absolute majority — in the Lok Sabha election of 2009.
Today, it has pretty much squandered that mandate. If the Union government looks comatose, if not crippled, and seemingly unable to take almost any policy decision, the weakening in key states indicates the limits of Congress rebuilding, even with Rahul’s best efforts.
In Bihar and Tamil Nadu, the Youth Congress had impressive organisational elections monitored by Rahul. It was expected this process would lead to incremental votes for the party in Assembly elections, but the Congress got wiped out. In Andhra Pradesh, where the Congress won 33 of 42 Lok Sabha seats in 2009, the party is contemplating decimation. It faces the fury of Telangana and, in other parts of the state, the rebellion of YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, son of late chief minister and Telugu strongman YS Rajasekhara Reddy.
The spate of scandals has also hurt. The Commonwealth Games swindles have been blamed on Suresh Kalmadi but the fact is perceptions of wrongdoing also contributed to a negative rating for Delhi’s Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit in two Independence Day polls conducted by different media organisations.
Of the states where the UPA won a significant number of seats in 2009, only West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh offer optimism. In West Bengal, however, the pendulum has swung decisively in the direction of Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress, which is far stronger today than it was two years ago. Mamata will give the Congress only a handful of seats in north Bengal and virtually none in south Bengal, but the national party has no option. In Uttar Pradesh, it is ahead of the BJP by common reckoning, but Mayawati’s BSP and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party remain the ones to beat.
In BJP-stronghold states such as Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, the Congress is virtually absent. The Madhya Pradesh unit of the party, for instance, has thrown up a series of national figures all of whom cancel out each other. The upshot is the appointment of Kantilal Bhuria as state Congress president, despite the recognition that he is “not chief minister material”. In Karnataka, the street opposition to the BJP government has come from the Janata Dal (Secular), run by the HD Deve Gowda family, while the Congress has lost ground in regions such as Old Mysore, where it had a formidable presence as recently as 2008.
The fact is the Congress faces a talent scarcity born of its failure to nurture wholesome and yet politically effective state leaders. In their own way, Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik and Narendra Modi are attempting to exploit the politics of aspiration in their states. They may not always be succeeding but the fact is there are no analogous Congress agents of change.
In Maharashtra, Prithviraj Chavan is probably the most honest chief minister in a long, long time. However, he is completely out of his depth in a government dominated by land sharks from his party as well as its partner, the NCP. In Himachal Pradesh, where elections are due in 2012, the Congress will once more go back to Virbhadra Singh, who is 77. “There is no-body else,” shrugs a party functionary, “we can’t seriously fight an election in Himachal by projecting someone like Anand Sharma as chief minister.”
A strange phenomenon seems to be gripping the Congress. It has attracted administrative and managerial talent in New Delhi, whether in the government and its allied agencies, or in Rahul Gandhi’s inner team. Grassroots politics also requires another, edgy and sometimes unprepossessing talent; the Congress is no more a natural home to it.
This is true not only in the states, but in New Delhi as well. The duality between a technocratic prime minister who will run government and a party president who will run politics seems an interesting political innovation in good seasons. When the going gets rough, however, the limitations of this model are exposed. In its own way, the Anna drama has done just this.
THE CONGRESS’ all-India architecture did not crumble overnight and will not be rebuilt overnight. Its pan-Indian middle class appeal, on the other hand, has slipped rather rapidly. Anna Hazare and his associates have been cleverer in using public holidays — the Independence Day weekend, the Janamashtmi weekend and the promised 30-31 August push, which will coincide with the Id-ul-Fitr break — as well as social media tools such as Twitter and YouTube and, of course, in tailoring television frenzy to their advantage.
The Congress blundered in its responses. A series of spokespersons — from Sibal to Soni and Tewari to Chowdhury — came across as brash and over-aggressive
“In a sense, this is bigger than the JP movement or the Bofors agitation or the Mandal-Mandir years,” says a BJP veteran with experience of all those mass mobilisations, “there was no 24/7 television then, no media revolution. And the Congress is clueless coming to terms with that.”
This shortcoming was obvious. With all the government’s spin-doctoring and communication capacities at its command, the Congress blundered in its responses. A series of spokespersons — from Sibal to Ambika Soni and Tewari to Chowdhury — came across as brash and over-aggressive or living in a 1970s cocoon.
Nothing illustrated this better than the Congress hunt for the supposed conspiracy behind Anna Hazare. Party spokesperson Rashid Alvi put it ham-handedly when he wondered why the Americans were bothered with the Jan Lokpal Bill agitation and thought aloud about the foreign hand, but he wasn’t alone. Other theories Congress functionaries came up with included:
• The crowds at Ramlila Maidan and other cities in India were mobilised by the RSS and Hazare was only a front
• A telecom tycoon, allegedly unhappy with the UPA government, was funding the Hazare movement
• A media group, using its proximity to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar — who in turn was in touch with Hazare — was attempting to bring down the government
In all this there was a sense of makebelieve and a refusal to accept that while the massive turnout in favour of Anna Hazare did not necessarily reflect an affirmation of every letter and nuance of the Jan Lokpal Bill text, it certainly represented a groundswell of disquiet against the government, and the Congress.
So what happens next? Will the government just limp along for three years? Will there be large-scale attempts to jump ship in July 2012, when the next president is chosen? Will the Congress’ assembly line of geriatrics push their own candidature, preferring a six-year sinecure to the uncertainty of a general election in 2014?
Alternatively, will the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election transform the party’s current defeatism into an exciting new era? Till the other day, the battle for the secretariat in Lucknow was important for how the Congress reimagined its future and drew the roadmap for generational change. After Anna Hazare, that Uttar Pradesh election is no longer just important. It is critical.
Ashok Malik is Contributing Editor with Tehelka.