Why is the Congress stumbling?

Just as the Indian cricket team often faces a back-to-the-wall "must win" situation in order to retrieve its honour, the Congress too has to emerge victorious in a majority of the state assembly elections this year if it is to have any hope of winning the next general election in 2009.

It is the series of recent electoral setbacks that has made the Congress' need for success so essential. Having lost in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh in the last few weeks, and in Punjab and Uttarakhand earlier, not to mention the Mumbai and Delhi municipal polls, the party has seemingly lost the confidence it had acquired in the aftermath of its 2004 victory. Now, it is the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) turn to feel that it is again in a position to regain power at the centre.

Such ups and downs are typical, of course, of democratic politics and may well reflect an unavoidable trend because of ever-changing public opinion. Even then, it is possible to identify at least two reasons why the Congress is faltering.

One is that it has been unable to play the part of primus inter pares in the coalition which it heads in New Delhi, thereby undermining its standing. The other is that the party's leadership at both the national and state levels is not quite as dynamic and charismatic as the voters have come to expect, apparently because the appeal of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is slowly fading.

To take its running of the coalition first, the Congress has unfortunately been giving the impression that it isn't in control of its allies, especially the most obstreperous of them all, the Left.

Nothing demonstrated the Congress' seeming helplessness better than its handling of the nuclear deal, which is being opposed by the communists because of their ideological aversion to American "imperialism". Despite the path-breaking nature of the deal, which promises to end India's isolation from the international community on nuclear matters, the Congress-led government hasn't been energetic and insistent enough to push it through by convincing the allies.

Its handling of the Left, for instance, has clearly lacked gumption. Yet, as the change of mind of the communists in allowing the government to go to the International Atomic Energy Agency, presumably because of their own problems over Nandigram and other issues, showed, the government might have been able to call their bluff had it been more determined.

The result of its diffidence has shown it to be something of a pushover, an accusation that is repeatedly levelled by the BJP when it calls Manmohan Singh the weakest prime minister that India has ever had.

It isn't only over the nuclear deal that the government hasn't been able to have its way. The Left has also blocked most of its efforts in the direction of economic reforms. As a result, several proposals on disinvestment, pension funds, insurance and labour reforms, foreign direct investment in the retail sector and the entry of foreign universities have remained on paper.

Since the inevitable fallout of such policy paralysis is the perception among the common people that the once-mighty Congress is being bullied by its allies, the party is losing popular support because nobody likes a wimp.

The contrast between the Congress' diffidence and the attitude of the latest hero on the political scene, Gujarat's Chief Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP, is obvious. While the former is seemingly running scared of its friends and foes, Modi had the guts to defy not only his political opponents but also the dissidents in his own party and the malcontents in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which are the BJP's fraternal allies.

True, Modi had a majority in the outgoing legislature and has secured another in the new one while the Congress runs a minority government. But what the latter has apparently forgotten is that its allies are as much dependent on it for staying in power as the Congress is on them.

A party has to play the game of bluff in such a situation. But only the bold can win such a contest. This is where the Congress has failed.

The party's wimpishness has been compounded by its leadership problems. Although Sonia Gandhi has achieved the near-impossible task of holding the traditionally faction-ridden organisation together, she hasn't had much success in improving the organisational network at the grassroots level, as the party's persistent failures in the Hindi heartland states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh show.

Nor has she been able to energise it with a new vision as Indira Gandhi did with her (admittedly fake) "socialistic" promises of garibi hatao (remove poverty) or Rajiv Gandhi did with the pledge to take India into the 21st century.

Considering that the major challenge which the Congress faces today is from the "communal" BJP, she would have done well to emphasise the party's longstanding commitment to secularism. But she has oscillated between her strident "maut ke saudagar" (merchant of death) reference to Narendra Modi and her earlier reluctance to meet the widow of former Congress M.P. Ehsan Jafri, who was killed in the communal riots in Ahmedabad in 2002.

Even on the question of the nuclear deal, she has been pacifying the Left on one hand by promising not to bring forward the next general election while, on the other hand, saying that the Congress cannot be expected to sacrifice its own political space.

Similarly, while she has been consistent in her support for Manmohan Singh, the appointment of Rahul Gandhi as a party general secretary could not but raise questions about the prime minister's future tenure.

Unless the Congress stands up for its economic and foreign policy objectives vis-à-vis the allies and articulates a clear vision for the future, its prospects in the next general election will not brighten up.

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