Date: 1/16/2003


..............Congress: No upper hand

..................Balbir K Punj

Till about a month back, the Congress was munching on its success. Some 15 States under its belt. Complete loyalty to Soniaji's leadership within the party. A burst of success in Jammu & Kashmir. Now for the national elections two years away. We are coming, said Congressmen. Anyone who had even the slightest doubt about a person of foreign origin leading the nation's government two years hence, were silenced by the string of successes the party had won under her leadership.

After Gujarat, the bottom seemed to have collapsed from the party. The State leaders who were hailed as providing good governance are under attack. More and more Congressmen are doubting whether the party can meet the BJP's challenge under a foreign origin leader. Ms Sonia Gandhi herself is not finding the winning touch. Almost every one of the 15 Congress Chief Ministers is finding his chair shaky. Marching orders are said to be under issue for several of them.

The Congress leadership's conclaves-after the telling defeat the party suffered in Gujarat-have failed to come up with a credible analysis of its performance. The leadership is being accused of soft-peddling the "communal threat" from the BJP. Two top Muslim leaders of the party have publicly expressed their doubt about the party strategy: Mr AR Antulay, former Chief Minister of Maharashtra, resigned as chief of the minority cell of the party, and Mr CK Jaffer Sharief, Railway Minister in the PV Narasimha Rao Government, has resigned from the Lok Sabha. He has sent his resignation letter to the party President with an acerbic comment on the party policy and his State's Chief Minister.

In Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Kerala, top leaders of the party are openly accusing their own Chief Ministers of incompetence and worse. And the central leadership is unable to rein them in, revealing a weakening of the hold of the Congress President over the flock.

Traditional remedies like political posturing and replacement of Chief Ministers are being applied, we are told. The political posturing is that the party-which even a few weeks back rejected anti-BJP alliances as a political strategy- is now saying that it is ready for such tie-ups. The Mulayam SinghYadav-Amar Singh duo must be smiling at the newfound humility of the Caesar who only the other day had contemptuously rejected their overtures for a tie-up in Uttar Pradesh against the Mayawati Government.

The Congress President's advisors are running round with their abacus, adding up the numbers on what tie-ups to line up against the BJP. Silently they are acknowledging that, in the last few years, the BJP has gained the political high ground post-Gujarat as the single national power with a demonstrated national and rational leadership that can deliver.

The tragedy of it all is that the Congress is not even sure that the communal tag it is fixing on its chief rival will generate the winning wave for the 117-year-old party. Its decision to soften its anti-Hindutva rhetoric in Gujarat was a silent recognition that, on the national scene, the confrontation with Islamic fundamentalism with its jihadi 'sword' has truly become a major popular concern. The BJP, on its part, has not allowed this concern to obscure the equally important issues of governance and development. The Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister-even in the flush of their party's success in Gujarat-have hammered in the development angle.

The Congress failed to ensure a fair election in J&K during its rule; the BJP has done it even at the risk of losing its own representation in that State Assembly. The economy is looking up, despite the BJP-led NDA not having the full strength in the Upper House to push through the reforms it wants. In spite of this handicap, the country has a food surplus in year of drought, a sugar abundance, low inflation, the lowest interest rates for housing loans and other capital investments, a huge infrastructure thrust in roads, communications and transport, a high level of foreign exchange reserves and financial reforms that would stem capital outflow. With India determined to be a superpower in information technology and a strong contender for global leadership in science and technology, surely Congressmen must be having nightmares about their fond hopes of return to power being shattered.

It is against this background that the Congress is trying to get under the quilt of the Marxists. Comrade Harkishen Singh Surjeet has his communal tag to isolate his political enemies and confound his allies. This he did during the Congress supported-Janata regime that wobbled to its death within 24 months, leaving the Janata in splinters with some of them finding a political raft in the NDA captained by the BJP. Seasoned Congress leaders in the Sonia junta do not trust Mr Surjeet either. That is why the party's bending to accommodate the "secular" crowd in its "anti-communal" tie-up is not moving forward into an alliance.

With whom to ally? With Mr Mulayam Singh who is the party's worst enemy, having stolen their Muslim votes, or with Mr Surjeet's party which is the Congress's chief rival in the critical States of West Bengal and Kerala- the only two States where it counts as a serious contender for power? Or with Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav, whose governance has degenerated to a kidnap-extortion-plunder racket? The Nationalist Congress Party is the only natural ally and Mr Sharad Pawar is right now cooing. But that alliance or even return of Mr Pawar to 24 Akbar Road will impact only in Maharashtra, while Mr PA Sangma's Meghalaya has a fractured regional political landscape.

So this "grand alliance" is not taking the Congress far-in the other three States going to the polls this year, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the Congress directly confronts the BJP, with others hardly a force to reckon with-certainly not Mr Surjeet's party. That brings the Congress back to square one. Some within the charmed circle of 10, Janpath apparently feel that the go-it-alone strategy will at least preserve the party's credibility with the masses.

But alliances, however, clever are no substitute for a programme. It seems the Congress is stonewalled in taking on terrorism, which is the burning issue before the people as they see the diverse institutions of civil society- Parliament, temples, educational institutions, public transport, even homes-threatened by planned subversion with trained saboteurs biding their time in the communal ghettos only to surface to deliver their deadly cargo. The other alternative-to create a national alliance against terrorism-would bring the party into the mainstream of a united struggle to isolate the jihadis. But that requires the party to first settle a certain internal confusion. This confusion leads it to label a struggle against organised and foreign-inspired, communally nurtured terrorism as communal attacks on its age-old vote bank which it lost along the way and is desperate to retrieve.

If the Grand Old Party chooses to close its eyes to the conspiracies of the Dawoods and the Memons, the string of madrasas springing up along the border, the nexus between drug lords and flag-bearers of a section of Indians, the organised infiltration into civil society by the underworld, the subterranean links this network has with global terrorism under a religious flag, it is no wonder the country unites to create an alliance against the Congress.