Advantage Congress, but…


Inder Malhotra | New Delhi | 26 October 2009 |

The general euphoria surrounding the Congress post the recent Assembly polls are highly misplaced: the party has not won but not, not lost.

For a rather uneasy coalition of the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) to win the state of Maharashtra for the third time running – and that too in spite of its appalling governance for an entire decade – is surely a hat trick. But this is a fact that obscures the truth, especially because of the extravaganza of jubilation unleashed by the Congress. However, even those jumping with joy know that their victory is by default. They haven’t won. It is the fast declining BJP and fragmented Opposition that have been deservedly defeated. Many Mumbai voters that voted for the Congress-NCP combine have frankly admitted that they did so unhappily for want of a viable or even serious alternative. Their description of all politicians of Maharashtra, whether in power or out of it, was: sab chor hain (all are thieves).

It also needs to be underscored that but for Raj Thackeray and his Maharashtra Navnirman Samiti (MNS) the rickety Shiv Sena-BJP alliance would have done better despite its many glaring shortcomings. To spite his cousin Uddhav and Uncle Balasaheb, Raj cut the ground from under the Shiv Sena-BJP feet in 38 seats. He won 13 of these for his own outfit and made a gift of the rest to the Congress-NCP combine. This should explain why, for short-term gain, the Congress-led government has been shamefacedly pampering Raj and the parochial, divisive and violent forces led by him. The long-term consequences of this can be as catastrophic as those of the building up of Bhindranwale in Punjab during the time of Indira Gandhi. (The 25th anniversary of her assassination falls this week.) In any case, Raj and his acolytes have already announced that his 13 followers in the Vidhan Sabha would “control” the House because the ruling combination has only scraped to the halfway mark of 144 seats in out of 288.

To this must be added the problems that would arise within the Congress Party and between it and the NCP of Sharad Pawar.  The struggle for the chief minister’s chair is going to be acute even if everyone makes a show of bowing to Sonia Gandhi’s choice presumably in favour of Chavan. Pawar, for whom the exit is nigh because he wants to transfer the NCP leadership to daughter Supriya Sule, was hoping to be in a better bargaining position after the poll. Exactly the opposite has happened. He is now a manifestly junior partner of the Congress and would be in a weaker position in both Mumbai and New Delhi – the NCP having lost 9 of the 71 seats it held in the outgoing Assembly and the Congress having increased its tally from 69 to 82.

Against this backdrop, it is more depressing than surprising that the media, both print and electronic, has been carried away by the exuberance of its own verbosity. Its breathless scream of “Congress sweep” makes no sense except in the state of Arunachal Pradesh – a fact of which China would do well to take notice. Headlines such as “Congress Continuous” also make little sense. Some have been applauding “Three Chairs for Congress” which, too, is misleading.

Yes, the Congress that failed to get even a bare majority in Haryana, the state where it was confident of a cakewalk, can form a government, as it is already claiming to have secured the support of all the seven independent MLAs, six whom were Congress rebels in any case. However, this is not triumph but trickery. And it would soon be known what role Big Money has played in the murky goings on. In this game, Om Prakash Chautala, a former chief minister and INLD leader, who has staged an impressive comeback, winning 31 seats as against 40 of the Congress, is more than a match to the redoubtable Congress Chief Minister, Bhupinder Singh Hooda. The Congress may become the first party to return to power in Haryana in the state’s 30-year history. But the election outcome there is a hard blow to it. Had the BJP not behaved in Haryana most foolishly, the Congress might have been defeated in spite of all the talk of “Haryana Shining” under Hooda. It is no secret that next only to the late YSR Reddy of Andhra, Hooda was the Congress chief minister enjoying maximum autonomy. He dominated the Congress party’s election campaign to the exclusion of all possible rivals. According to reports, only towards the end of electioneering did the Congress president discover that Hooda’s self-projected image was larger-than-life. No wonder there is a growing demand that he must not be allowed to lead the next Congress government.

Assembly elections in one group of states or another would take place right through the next four years. The country should therefore pay heed to some of the general lessons in the present tri-state polls. Sadly, these crucial lessons are being ignored amidst the spurious euphoria. The first of these is that the Congress performance in Maharashtra and Haryana this time around is patently worse than its unexpectedly brilliant success in the Lok Sabha elections only five months ago. One reason for this could be that the voters have learnt to distinguish between provincial and parliamentary polls. Hooda is more deflated than Congress leaders in the western state, once best administered, now disgracefully mismanaged. Secondly, politics in each state is now different from than in any other. Therefore, there is no longer any all-India doctrine than can be applied to the entire Indian polity.

Thirdly, no state and certainly not Maharashtra, has a leader of iconic stature, and given the calibre and competence of those who have run Maharashtra’s affairs during the last 10 years there is no hope of any improvement in its dismal governance practically conducted by a mafia consisting of builders, politicians and bureaucrats.

Finally, the accelerated decline of the BJP has been demonstrated from Itanagar to all major cities and towns of Maharashtra via the highly urbanized Haryana bordering Delhi. The dangerous cult of Hindutva that gave a boost to the saffron party in the 1990’s is now outdated and irrelevant. The party is still bereft of any relevant ideology and also leaderless. It has ceased to be a national alternative to the Congress. Whether it can survive in one piece is the moot question.