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Reconstructing a scene

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Suhit Sen
Suhit Sen
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Forget political morality. At best it’s a shibboleth. At worst, a bad joke. Forget legal and constitutional niceties as well. That’s an extremely grey area that hasn’t been satisfactorily sorted out, until root-and-branch reform of some description is carried out. The question then is through what lens we should see the Congress’s amateurish, not to mention ill-advised, attempts to cobble together support for invoking Article 356 to dismiss the Samajwadi Party-led government in Uttar Pradesh. The obvious answer seems to be politics.

It is fair to say that the Congress has to define its identity in counterpoint to the BJP, the reverse also holding good. It is becoming obvious that there is no fundamental difference between the two parties over questions relating to economic policy, and political idiom and style with respect to a large number of issues. Both parties try to build constituencies on the basis of an arithmetic heavily influenced by caste equations, sectional interests and regional alignments. At a more basic, perhaps naïve, level, is the point that both parties use the same kind of anti-democratic strategies, which include recourse to muscle and corporate financing, both outside the framework of law, while popular mobilisation remains largely a sporadic, parasitic and electoral exigency.

Given that there is little to choose between the Congress and the BJP, the former has to distinguish itself as an inclusive, secular, broad church as in counterpoint to the Sangh parivar’s majoritarian, exclusivist and primordial idiom in rhetoric and practice. That is where the Congress made a tactical blunder in its campaign to unseat a government that enjoyed a majority in the legislature. Since the BJP — and the BSP always tending a little off the wall — were also gunning for the UP government, it became easy for SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav to tar all these parties with the same brush. And Yadav had a point. Even shorn of his spin, the Congress failed to define its location in the political spectrum. Had it not failed to do so, it would have realised that the benefits accruing from unseating Yadav would be easily offset by the negatives flowing from an association, however veiled, however indirect, with the BJP.

Which brings us to the more important point. Having discounted the rhetoric of morality, constitutionality and legality, the only ‘logical’ explanation for the virulence of the anti-SP agenda is the spirit of personal vendetta occasioned by the anti-Sonia Gandhi stand Yadav took at the time of the no-confidence vote in 1999 and the Congress’s attempts to string together an alliance. If that is the case, it reflects poorly on a party that had barely any hope of benefiting from unseating the SP. The party leadership surely must have known, given its state of organisational déshabillé in UP, that whatever the dispensation in the state, it isn’t going to make significant progress in the impending assembly elections. Unseating the SP would only have benefited the BJP and BSP.

Surely, someone in the upper echelons of the party should have voiced these concerns. But then, that wouldn’t have been the Congress way of doing things. The unfortunate part of the story is that there seemed to have been a window of opportunity soon after Sonia Gandhi was persuaded to head the Congress. The party’s Pachmarhi conclave in 1998 seemed to have had a whiff of glasnost and perestroika about it — with the party leader calling for an organisational revamp. That was possible then and it is still possible now. But it needs investment and patience. Especially in UP, where at present all the Congress is good for is presenting itself to its opponents as a piece of rag — to wipe the floor with.

But the Congress cannot go much further unless it rebuilds its organisational network, brick by brick. And the best way to go about that is revisit the party’s history, 1920s onwards. Pre-Independence, the Congress did have a working framework, however episodic its mobilisational initiatives might have been, fanning out downwards from the Congress Working Committee, through the Pradesh committees, down to mohalla and panchayat committees. It wasn’t a completely coherent network, but that was offset by the fact that the Congress was more of a movement than a party — and in that avatar had deep roots in society.

After the transfer of power, the party leadership continually obsessed about fine-tuning the organisation, giving it greater coherence and ensuring that a disciplinary regime kept the lines of transmission unclogged. In the Nehruvian era, there was significant success in holding the organisation together, however flawed it might have been. But the populist political style Indira Gandhi brought with her corroded this achievement. Arguably, the Congress is still to recover from that phase of its history.

But it has to get its house in order in UP if it wishes to remain the major player in national politics. And it is important that it does — because the party has a major role to play in cementing the centre in Indian politics, something the BJP is both incapable of doing because of its majoritarian and anti-modern ideological moorings and the exclusionary constituencies it seeks.

Suhit Sen is Deputy Editor, Down To Earth