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27 December, 2007

The lesson the Congress needs to learn from Gujarat experience

GUJARAT has rejected the Congress again. The nation is discussing the likely impact of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s fourth successive electoral triumph in the State. BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, L. K. Advani, has said the victory in Gujarat heralds the party’s comeback on the national stage. Media reports say the Congress has shelved plans to call Lok Sabha elections before the term of the present house expires.

In a country of India's diversity, the experience of one State has only limited relevance elsewhere. With the Congress continuously declining and no national alternative in sight, regional politics is a reality.

When the political developments of the past six decades are analyzed, it can be seen that a two-party system has already emerged in some States. In places like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the Congress and the BJP are the two parties vying for power. In some other places, like Assam and Andhra Pradesh the Congress has to contend with regional parties for power. In some States like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Tamil Nadu, the Congress is out of the power struggle. There other national and regional parties fight it out.

The situation in Punjab, West Bengal and Kerala is different. In Punjab, where the Sikh party, the Akali Dal, and the Hindu party, BJP, can together beat the Congress, that party is sometimes able to stage a comeback. In West Bengal, a front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has established monopoly of power. In Kerala, a two-front system has emerged. If the CPI (M) and the Congress had summoned the courage to go it alone, the State may have by now evolved a two-party system, as in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

The Congress has to learn a lesson from the Gujarat experience. It lost power in the State in 1990. While it had bagged 149 out of 182 Assembly seats in the previous election, it could get only 33 seats in that year. The Janata Dal (70 seats) came first, followed by the BJP (67 seats). When the State went to the polls again five years later, the Janata Dal disappeared. The BJP won 121 seats and came to power. The Congress got only 45 seats. There has been no significant change in the position of the two parties since then, as the following figures bear out: In 1996, BJP got 117, Congress 53; in 2002, BJP 127, Congress 51; and in 2007 BJP 117, Congress 59.
It was the Hindu consolidation brought about by the Ayodhya issue that enabled the BJP, which had got only 11 seats in 1985, to raise its tally to 67 in 1990 and 121 in 1995. The communal riots of 2002 benefited the BJP in the elections held that year. The growth of communalism spoiled the game for the Congress.

This time Narendra Modi faced a serious problem of dissidence. The Congress gave the party ticket to some BJP rebels. The Rashtreeya Swayamsevak Sangh leadership was at loggerheads with Modi. Yet the Congress could not improve its position significantly. In the circumstances, the question arises whether the party has gone out of reckoning forever. Its only consolation is that there is no party in Gujarat which can push the Congress down to the third or fourth place, as has happened in UP and Bihar.

Sonia Gandhi, whom the continuously declining Congress looks upon as its saviour, has certainly been able to control the struggle for power within the party. But she has not been able to improve the party’s position even in UP, the turf of the Nehru-Gandhis.

The reason for the Congress party’s sad plight is that it has no credible leadership at the lower levels. Indira Gandhi did nothing to strengthen the party at the grassroots level after she broke with the Syndicate leaders who had the organization in their grips. Those whom Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi installed as leaders lacked popular base. They could not build it up either. Sonia Gandhi could not bring about a change in this situation.

There is no need to see the end of one-party rule at the Centre as a great tragedy. At the same time, that two dozen parties have to come together to form a government is not a desirable state of affairs. National parties with a broad vision are needed for the healthy functioning of democracy. Therefore, it is not Congressmen alone who want the party to endure. But it is for the party’s leadership to take steps to strengthen it. No one else can do that.
Based on “Nerkkazhcha” column which appeared in Kerala Kaumudi on December 27, 2007

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