If one reason has to be given for the drubbing suffered by the Congress in Delhi, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, it is the flawed outlook of the party’s first family.
If the Congress has somehow managed to survive the ill wind blowing against it in Chhattisgarh, the explanation seemingly lies in the fact that the state is in a category of its own because of the Maoist insurgency, which wiped off the party’s top leadership in a murderous onslaught. This insensate act of carnage may have generated a sympathy wave for the Congress. Otherwise, the party may have met the same fate as elsewhere in north and central India.
It also has to be said at this point that the gains of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the greenhorn Aam Admi Party (AAP) are mainly by default. They only had to be in the field to rake in the votes from an electorate deeply disillusioned with the Congress. If the latter had not shot itself in the foot, these parties are unlikely to have made much headway.
However, the factors which undermined the Congress were the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’s various missteps, starting with its role in 2010 in persuading the Manmohan Singh government to persist with the then telecom minister Andimuthu Raja till his tainted reputation led to the Supreme Court’s strictures and his incarceration.
However, if Congress president Sonia Gandhi had insisted on Raja’s removal from the ministry the moment when the charges against him surfaced, the Congress might have escaped the series of scams which subsequently afflicted it. It was sleaze at first and then stagflation which fuelled the popular anger against it and led to the party facing its current massive setbacks.
If the charges of corruption were in keeping with the Congress’ long-prevalent cynical “traditions”, the high inflation and low investments were the result of Sonia Gandhi’s failure to understand how India has changed since the opening up of the economy since 1991.
In her view, the country was still in the period when she first came to India as a young bride to Indira Gandhi’s household. Unfortunately, the lessons which she learnt from her formidable mother-in-law were all the wrong ones.
These included keeping the party in power at all costs – even by imposing an Emergency, as in 1975 – and pursuing Left-of-centre policies (although in Indira’s time, these were called Left of self-interest). It was the second objective which led to the virtual stalling of the economic reforms in the last few years, leading to the rising rupee and falling investments by both domestic and foreign industrialists.
The driving force behind the scuttling of the reforms was what has been called Sonia Gandhi’s kitchen cabinet – the extra-constitutional National Advisory Council (NAC). The leftist orientation of the members of this panel of busybodies can be gauged from the observations of two of its former members.
First, Harsh Mander claimed that the Congress’ 2009 victory was due to the rural employment scheme and not the Indo-US nuclear deal. And, then, Aruna Roy bemoaned the fact that the government was placing too much emphasis on reforms. Her comment was somewhat like what the Communist Party of India’s A.B. Bardhan said after the Congress returned to power in 2004 – sensex bhad mein jaye (the sensex be damned).
This strident leftism is based on the belief that the poverty levels in India are still what they were in the 1960s. Rahul Gandhi’s repeated references in his campaign speeches to his party’s concern for the poor reflected this outlook. What he and his mother do not seem to have realized is that a 300 million-strong voluble and aspirational middle class has made its appearance since 1991, which is impatient with the Congress’ feudal attitude of a munificent zaminari (landowning) family providing doles and subsidies to the underprivileged through a mai-baap sarkar.
What is more, even the underprivileged have understood that their conditions can be bettered by a buoyant economy rather than by a continuing dependence on official handouts via a quota system, which fuels caste-based sectarianism. Sonia Gandhi’s insistence on including the caste data in census operations after a gap of 80 years – the practice was stopped in 1931 – showed how her mind was working.
Regressive steps of this nature suggest that if the Congress is to regain the trust of the voters, it has to first shed its pathetic dependence on the dynasty. It would have been all right if the family had been forward-looking as it once was when Jawaharlal Nehru outlined his vision by declaring dams as the temples of modern India. But not when opposition parties are decried, as Rahul Gandhi did, for regarding roads, bridges, airport as the “only markers of progress”.
If the Congress fails to extricate itself from the stranglehold of the dynasty, or if the dynasty fails to reboot itself, the party can only go downhill. That will be a tragedy because the BJP’s communalism remains the albatross round its neck while the Aam Admi Party is still a babe in the woods for any opinion to be formed about its future.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)