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The Congress Party's Enemy

The very nature of the Congress Party precludes a cohesive United Progressive Alliance before the elections.




The Congress Party’s Enemy

The very nature of the Congress Party precludes a cohesive United Progressive Alliance before the elections.

he elections to the 15th Lok Sabha promise to throw up another fragmented mandate, ensuring that the era of coalitions is intact. A significant aspect of the elections will be that the two main coalitions, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) are not set in stone. Unlike in 1999 and 2004, when there was no change in the poll alliances after the elections, there is no certainty that this will be so in 2009. The coalitions in any case are still being formed and some of the regional parties that have aligned with one national party or the other have done so only for instrumental reasons. Allegiances and coalitions are likely to change depending on which formation emerges on top in the elections. This fluidity may appear surprising as the Congress-led UPA has more or less stayed intact since the withdrawal of support to the central government by the left parties in July 2008. The main reason for the fluidity in the alliances is not any programmatic differences, but the continued unwillingness of the Congress Party to fully accept that the age of one-party rule has long since ended.

In the UPA government of 2004-09, in addition to the post of the prime minister, the Congress had cleverly held on to the more important cabinet portfolios – finance, home, external affairs, defence, petroleum and commerce – all crucial policymaking p ositions. It was not surprising that most of the hostile criticism of the UPA government by the Left, arising from differences on policymaking, was directed at the Congress-controlled ministries. For its part, the Congress was content to hand over those ministries that promised considerable scope for patronage to the regional parties – the best examples being railways, surface transport and telecommunications.

Though the UPA rule for five years seems to have demonstrated to the Congress the need to work with a coalition, the ingrained tendency of the party to indicate a one-upmanship has surfaced yet again. The recent statements of some of the Congress “leaders” have suggested that the party is still loath to cede ground to its coalition partners in seat-sharing. It also seems unwilling to assert that the partners will be enduring allies in a post-poll scenario and it is insistent that it will have a Congress-only manifesto for the elections. Some allies, on their part, realising the importance of being in central positions of power, recognise the necessity of having a broader national presence and therefore want to go beyond their regional boundaries. That explains the intense bargaining for seats and influence beyond their present confines by the Samajwadi Party (SP), which is primarily based in Uttar Pradesh, and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) led by Sharad Pawar, whose influence is largely in Maharashtra. As a pressure tactic, the two parties have kept their lines of communication with the two coalitions – the NDA in the case of the SP and the loosely knit “Third Front” anchored by the Left in the case of the NCP. In the same vein, sensing that no option should remain unexplored, other regional parties have also kept their lines of communication open or are refusing to take an unambiguous position. This explains the sudden “overture” to the Congress by the J Jayalalithaa-led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (formally part of the Third Front) and the Bahujan Samaj Party’s non-committal stance towards any alliance before the elections.

Some senior leaders of the Congress do understand that coalitions are inevitable but they also want to retain their influence on policymaking without any of the restraint that they faced in the UPA government from the left parties who supported the UPA from outside until mid-2008. This has made them realise that the most preferable post-poll situation would be one where they form a majority with other UPA partners without having to rely upon support from the Left. This has seen the Congress up the ante in West Bengal and Kerala, allying with the difficult Trinamool Congress in the former, to undercut the left parties as much as possible. But, again, the party’s “political culture” which thrives upon dynastic succession, sycophancy and also a degree of arrogance in functioning – all legacies drawn from the days of Indira Gandhi – makes it difficult for the Congress to build a smooth pre-poll coalition with all its allies. Many Congressmen still yearn for a return of the one party era, with yet another of the Nehru-Gandhi family – Rahul Gandhi – as prime minister. Thus, even if the Congress has demonstrated that it can, if forced to, work in a coalition (something that the Bharatiya Janata Party showed that it was adept at), the party’s very nature acts as an impediment to a smooth sustenance of a coalition.

The Congress Party needs to shed its dreams of forming a one-party government, for then it would be easier to retain a cohesive UPA which presents itself to the electorate on a common platform of policies, promises and ideas. But the fantasies of the party make this an unlikely outcome ahead of the elections. What the Congress does not realise is that a greater or lesser willingness to work with allies may well decide its fortunes in the April-May elections.

march 7, 2009 vol xliv no 10

Economic & Political Weekly

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