End of middle path?

Courtesy : Hindustan Times (Dec 22, 2010)

In its journey of 125 years, the last 25 must have been the most turbulent for the Congress. It fell from the zenith to the nadir and then recovered even as new political forces based on caste and religion swept through India.

The party has been trying to make sense of the changes — in the world around it, and to itself. But the Congress’s attitudes and positions have remained largely ambiguous, partly by design, as it tried to please all political constituencies in the new environment; partly by default, as it just could not agree on crucial issues.

The takeaways from the 83rd AICC plenary in New Delhi this week suggest that party has found its feet after a lot of trial and error. The party has tried to redefine itself substantially in the changed context. It has marked clearly what differentiates it when compared with the Sangh Parivar and the Left. However, the Congress’s positioning vis-à-vis caste parties remains problematic.

Combative on communalism
The rise of the BJP on a nationalist plank threw the Congress out of gear just as it turned 100 in 1985. The difference between the versions of nationalism that both propagated were fundamental — the BJP’s based on religion and the Congress’s a secular political project. But the Congress could not assert its ideology and began to prevaricate as the BJP aggressively pushed its agenda.

A section of the party believed that being accommodative of the Hindu political constituency was the way to counter the BJP. From allowing the shilanyas in 1989 at Ayodhya’s disputed site to being a mute spectator to the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, the party tried ways to please the Hindutva constituency. In the assembly elections after the Gujarat riots of 2002, the party projected Shankarsinh Vaghela as the true Hindu leader against Narendra Modi. It barred all its Muslim leaders from campaigning in Gujarat. But none of these helped and its slide continued.

Sometime in 2003, after the Gujarat debacle, Sonia Gandhi told some party leaders: “Let’s only say and do what we intrinsically believe in irrespective of what happens in the elections.” But yet again, elements within the party resisted a strong secular position and pussyfooting continued.

The political resolution at the Hyderabad plenary in 2006 — the first after the Gujarat riots — makes no mention of the riots and talks about “combating communal forces” (see box). With a strong assertion of secularism, the party is leaving no room for confusion this time.

“The Congress is vulnerable after the scandals that hit it. Sonia Gandhi demonstrated leadership in formulating aggressive positions against the BJP on both corruption and communalism and turning the table,” says Zoya Hasan, professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Not shy on United States
The UPA government at the Centre has repositioned India in the global order changed by the collapse of the USSR. The changes, particularly in the relations with the US, became a hotly contested issue within the party and with other parties. The Congress played coy — saying sweet nothings mostly. But this time it congratulated the government on its policy towards the US.

Growth, then inclusiveness
There is change in emphasis on the party’s growth and equity duplet (see box). It does not change the policies any which way, but it is certainly more than mere semantics. “It is an admission of what the Congress has been doing anyway. Growth is priority and other issues will take care of themselves,” says Hasan.

“It’s not that everyone in the party has come around a definitive view on these issues. But the party certainly feels that it is time to close ranks and resist the opposition onslaught, and snuff out the suggestions of a divergence between the government and the party,” says Mridula Mukherji, a historian who has written on the party.

It’s not that the party has resolved all its existentialist issues. Particularly in matters related to caste ambitions the party appears confused. But the Congress certainly understands that equivocation on issues is not an option; and is at peace with the inevitable and beneficial shift it took in matters of economic and foreign policies. While on the question of secularism it has reaffirmed a puritan Nehruvian agenda, on the other two, the party has shown agility. The party possibly now knows what to do; how to, is a different question.

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