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Wake-up call for the Congress

The Karnataka outcome is also in a way a reflection on the UPA government, its policies and its four years in office. Pankaj Vohra examines...

india Updated: May 25, 2008 22:28 IST
Pankaj Vohra

The outcome of the Karnataka assembly polls is perhaps the last wake-up call for the Congress before it gets into a preparatory mode to take on its adversaries in the parliamentary elections that do not seem very far from now. While the BJP needs to be congratulated for its impressive show in the southern state, it is the Congress that has to take the blame. Imagine a party that had six members in its working committee from the state and yet lost out decisively. The BJP will now eye Andhra Pradesh and Orissa and add to the Congress’s worries.

It was known from the very beginning that the Congress was not going to form the government in Karnataka from the comments of virtually every senior leader when asked about the possibilities of the outcome. Everyone seemed to suggest that the Congress would be the single largest party, a polite way of admitting that it was far from forming the government. Several leaders who visited the state to campaign returned with the feeling that there was no organisational network anywhere and though crores had been spent during the ticket distribution process, no preparations at the ground level appeared to be evident.

Senior leaders from Delhi were criss-crossing the state in helicopters without any clear objective but to only log in time to show Sonia Gandhi how they had helped in the campaign. There were complaints that the general secretary in charge was not accessible and in any case, it was a tall order for Prithviraj Chavan in the first place to get Karnataka back for the Congress. There had been some misgivings during the ticket distribution process when tickets were denied to relatives of some senior Congress leaders. The buzz was that tickets were being demanded so that these leaders could use their positions to collect funds from others states which they were looking after as party office bearers. But such unkind things do get stated when decisions are taken not purely on the basis of merit.

What has come out from the Karnataka polls is that the Congress, which was in power in more than 15 states in 2004, was losing one state after the other. Many in the party attribute the losses to lack of planning and accountability by the concerned office bearers. While the figure of 15 states as well as the victory in the 2004 parliamentary polls were achieved through the efforts of the Congress president, the party was on the decline primarily because of people close to Sonia Gandhi who were taking wrong decisions to assert their supremacy.

There were states that were lost because the general secretaries in charge were unable to see things correctly or because decisions were foisted on them. In fact, it is this extensive cronyism that has eroded the party’s organisational base in most states. These are powerful people whose aim is first to increase their own power— political as well as financial.

The Congress in a way is a strange party where voices of dissent do not come out directly but through signals. In the next few weeks, there will be statements, which may sound innocuous on the face of it but may carry a political meaning behind them. Seasoned leaders are going to push things to test the limits they can go to without inviting disciplinary action. The time when things could be taken for granted is over and the senior Congress leaders will need to use their astuteness and influence to keep many of the ambitious leaders in check.

The Karnataka outcome is also in a way a reflection on the UPA government, its policies and its four years in office. The central government will therefore have to proceed very carefully and not in an abrasive manner in which some of its members have been conducting themselves. It is payback time for people who are going to strike back if the government does not do course correction. It is significant that 180 Congress leaders (mostly former MPs and MLAs) met last week in the Parliament Annexe to take stock of the situation and to apprise the Congress President of their views.

As it is, there is a growing perception that this government was functioning more through bureaucratic ways than through political governance. Some of the key members of the Cabinet as well as the government have not performed as per expectations and the reason why they are still in office is perhaps because some people close to the Congress President would rather have under-performing (or non-performing ) ministers in the Cabinet than efficient ones.

The poll outcome should be treated as a time for introspection. The Congress must explore new alignments and new pastures but should be careful while dealing with parties like the Samajwadi Party. The over-enthusiasm at the UPA ‘anniversary dinner’ on part of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to reach out to SP General Secretary Amar Singh is fine as long as it gets the party some political dividends. But the Congress must ensure that in UP, where Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have their parliamentary constituencies, it should be able to revive itself. In Bihar too, the Congress is not expected to grow under the shadow of Lalu Prasad Yadav and his RJD.

There is also resentment within the party that only 25 odd people were holding all the positions. The principle of ‘one-man, one post’ must be immediately invoked, the Congress President being the sole exception. Rajiv Gandhi had enforced this strictly and there is no reason why certain people should give the impression of being more powerful by getting their cronies more posts than one. For instance, Prithviraj Chavan would be better looking after the PMO and personnel department instead of Karnataka, which was a disaster. Similarly, Saifuddin Soz should either concentrate on Kashmir or on his ministry. There is no point in making everyone an all-rounder when they are not that. These are not the only examples. Karnataka CWC members have proved how much of a liability they are. The case is the same in other states.

The only consolation the Congress can have is from a ‘joke’ doing the rounds: that any party that wins in Karnataka will not be able to form the government in Delhi subsequently. (This has been true for last 30 years.) But then, no party has the sense of humour to appreciate such a joke. Between us.