Congress’s pyrrhic victory - Praful Bidwai - Saturday, March 12, 2011

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India’s ruling United Progressive Alliance has just emerged from a crisis precipitated by its Tamil constituent Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham. The crisis involved seat-sharing with the Congress party in the coming elections to the 234-strong Tamil Nadu Assembly. But the episode has singed the Congress, which leads the UPA.

The Congress asked the DMK for 63 seats in place of the agreed 60. Party president M Karunanidhi reacted by threatening to withdraw DMK ministers from the central government, potentially destabilising it.

In the confrontation that followed, the DMK seemingly blinked. The Congress got its 63 seats. The DMK will now contest 12-15 fewer seats than it did five years ago. Congress-DMK differences over seats could have been resolved through discussion. But Karunanidhi precipitated a crisis through brinkmanship. Congress president Sonia Gandhi reportedly told the DMK she wouldn’t give in to unreasonable demands. The DMK knew it had overplayed its hand and retreated.

However, it would be wrong for the Congress to adopt a triumphalist stand. It too made concessions to the DMK and has emerged weakened from this episode.

The real dispute wasn’t about seat-sharing. At its heart was the DMK’s resentment at the Central Bureau of Investigation’s probe into the 2G telecom scam, centred on former DMK telecom minister Andimuthu Raja. Raja was sacked from the cabinet and jailed.

Even worse, the CBI net began closing in on the Karunanidhi family. A Rs214-crore link was uncovered between a Tamil TV channel, in which the family has a majority stake, and a firm owned by shady Mumbai-based realtor Shahid Balwa.

The DMK’s resignation threat was meant to extract an assurance that the CBI wouldn’t summon Karunanidhi’s daughter and DMK MP Kanimozhi and her mother before the state elections. The Congress couldn’t have delivered this openly because the Supreme Court has taken over the investigation. Nevertheless, an informal “understanding” seems to have been reached, that the CBI would only “call for clarifications” from Kanimozhi, not summon her. How this will be done is unclear.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh can’t overtly interfere with the CBI because he wants to refurbish his government’s scandal-tarnished reputation. For the same reason, Singh “accepted responsibility” for appointing tainted bureaucrat PV Thomas as the Central Vigilance Commissioner, a high office that’s meant to investigate and prosecute corruption.

At any rate, the DMK couldn’t have sustained the confrontation. In Tamil Nadu, it desperately needs an alliance with a mid-sized party like the Congress. The Congress too needs the DMK. The DMK’s vote-share is roughly one-fourth of the total – not enough for an assembly majority. The Congress can poll 9-15 percent. This isn’t enough to win it many seats. In 1989, when it fought the elections without allies, it lost badly. But a DMK-Congress combination is a potential winner.

Since 1996, the DMK has allied with national parties, joined the central government and milked prize ministries such as telecom, highways and the environment. It has perfected this system, while being in power nationally for over 14 years, barring a brief 19 months.

The DMK has used high-risk brinkmanship tactics all along. As part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, it twice threatened to withdraw support to it. In 2004, within 48 hours of being sworn in under the UPA, it threatened to pull out over portfolio distribution. In November 2008, it threatened to withdraw support over the UPA’s inaction in preventing the killing of Sri Lankan Tamils. Yet again, during government formation in May 2009, it used the withdrawal threat to get telecom for Raja.

The Congress is familiar with the DMK’s style, and could have handled the crisis tactfully. But it declared with bravado that it could ignore the DMK. Media briefings were informally held, in which Congress leaders claimed that the party was exploring many alternative options to the DMK.

In Tamil Nadu, they said, the party could ally with DMK rival Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK. But Jayalalithaa has already allotted 50 seats in a seat-sharing deal to another local party, led by film-star Vijayakant, which recently won 8.4 to 10 percent of the vote. She cannot possibly spare 60 seats for the Congress.

Nationally too, the Congress’s options are both limited and unpleasant. Were the DMK’s 18 Lok Sabha MPs to withdraw support to the UPA, it would be reduced to a minority. The UPA could then rope in the Samjwadi Party (22 MPs), Bahujan Samaj Party (21) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (4), which all support it from the outside.

But that would mean abandoning the Congress’s (especially general secretary Rahul Gandhi’s) aspirations to revive the party in Uttar Pradesh and other Hindi heartland states by going it alone. These aspirations were set back by the Congress’s rout in the recent Bihar elections. But Gandhi hasn’t given up. He’s banking on the Youth Congress’s recent recruitment drive, which produced 13.5 lakh new members.

Yet, it’s unclear if Gandhi has a political strategy to build a strong social coalition based on subaltern castes, the poor and the landless. In UP’s highly polarised politics, a party with a diffuse social base has only a limited chance of success. Mere personal appeal, and the attraction of an “umbrella party”, are unlikely to do the trick. But top Congress leaders don’t practise coherent strategic thinking. And sycophantic second- and third-rank leaders believe the Nehru-Gandhi family will magically win elections.

Yet, the Congress shouldn’t expect Rahul Gandhi to reproduce his mother’s earlier role – in reviving the party, and leading its march to power. The circumstances have changed. The Congress has failed to achieve a proper transition from the older generation of leaders to a new generation, with fresh ideas, strategies, political idiom and working style.

Arjun Singh, the last representative of the old generation, has just died. He was rightly criticised for having missed an opportunity to confront the late PV Narasimha Rao on allowing the Babri Masjid’s demolition in December 1992 through shameful inaction. Singh, whose secular credentials were impeccable, could have become the prime minister had he taken on Rao then.

However, for all his faults, Singh practised a broadly Nehruvian politics, with a strong pro-people and anti-communal agenda. With his departure, the Congress has lost its last major link between the 20th and 21st centuries. But a new leadership hasn’t yet emerged.

Recent scandals, coupled with a Rightward economic drift, have damaged the Congress’s political standing. Manmohan Singh is extremely reluctant to correct course by accepting the National Advisory Council’s progressive recommendations on food security and Right to Information.

There are other slippages from the Congress’s promises. The party and the government no longer work in concert. The Congress has forgotten its 2009 election manifesto commitments to inclusive, pro-poor growth, and clean, accountable governance.

The Congress is today at its most vulnerable since it returned to power seven years ago. For the moment, it has weathered the storm caused by the DMK. But it has lost some of its élan. So, it shouldn’t be arrogant towards its UPA allies.

The Congress would be especially foolish to practise DMK-style brinkmanship vis-à-vis the Trinamool Congress, its major ally in West Bengal, where the Left is vulnerable. Brinkmanship can sometimes produce unintended consequences, including snowballing crises and breakdowns.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email:

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