UP Congress chief Rita Bahuguna Joshi’s outburst against the chief minister of the state was not in the best of taste to say the least. But if we move away from the moral outrage bit that, to be fair, is bound to be provoked when a senior woman politician shows herself to be so cavalier about the issue of rape, what we are unmistakably left with is a serious case of lack of mental application.
It’s too early to hazard predictions about whether, and to what extent, Joshi’s speech will peg back the Congress’s incipient comeback in UP. But this much is certain — it won’t help. For all her experience in mass politics, Joshi would do well to study Rahul Gandhi’s focused style to learn the lesson that the way forward for her party is by concentrating on development.
By now it is no secret that the Congress’s unexpected success in UP resulted from its initiatives in rural development and poverty alleviation. The Congress hardly has an organisational base in the state and it has no caste or community-based coalition in place — it barely has activists on the ground in numbers. What the Congress needs to do is convert this weakness into strength by reinventing its political idiom.
One of the lessons, it appears to many observers, is that the 2009 general elections could be signalling a shift away from communitarian politics towards a more rational style of mobilisation in which material self-interest bulks larger. Thus, for instance, the Congress’s countrywide success on the back of a populist, left-of-centre, welfarist platform backed by the beginnings of actual delivery where it matters.
Thus, too, Nitish Kumar’s success and the failure of Mayawati, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan to stick to the Hindi heartland. That is not to mention the clear evidence that the emotive, majoritarian political style of the BJP has played itself out decisively, leaving it a party in search of a reason for existence.
If these indications hold true in the medium term, Joshi and the Congress would be advised to keep hammering away at the development arena where they are bound to show Mayawati up — not only has Gandhi junior grasped this comprehensively, so has the party’s pointman in the state, General Secretary Digvijay Singh, who is no stranger to the politics of development as a constituency-building exercise.
An outburst such as Joshi’s does all the wrong things. First, it deflects attention from the development issue and gives an underperforming government breathing space. Second, it helps fuel Dalit (or community) anger and strengthens weakening communitarian channels of mobilisation, strengthening the hands of politicians like Mayawati and Yadav.
So when Joshi gets back to meeting Mayawati on the development wicket, while setting in train a programme of mass contact and organisation building, she must, with Gandhi, Singh and others, be aware of one more thing: Mayawati’s political programme is not confined to the evocation of caste solidarity and the symbolism of monumentalising — the Bahujan Samaj Party does have a serious material programme connected mainly to the issue of implementing quotas and giving Dalits access to land. The Congress has to engage Mayawati on that terrain.
Suhit Sen is a Kolkata-based writer