"After winter comes the spring," says Congress Lok Sabha chief whip Priyaranjan Das Munshi, but admits that his optimism is tempered by the challenges the party faces in the new year, when the battlefield shifts to Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi and the Northeast. A poor performance in these polls would be a setback for the Congress in its bid for power at the Centre in 2004.
After making herculean efforts to forge a platform of secular parties in and outside Parliament, the Left Front (LF) ended the year on a note of frustration. The Congress, say LF leaders, is yet to realise that it cannot take on the BJP on its own. "Let's hope we can convince them in the light of the Gujarat elections. Clearly, they failed to understand the depth of the crisis. The challenge (of Hindutva) is much bigger now and if we further fail to mobilise all secular and liberal forces, the Constitution itself is at risk," says CPI(M) MP Hanna Mollah.
In a clear hint to both the Congress and the nda partners like the DMK and JD(U), who appear to be suffering belated pangs of conscience, CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan says the Indian polity can no longer afford the luxuries of "self-deception, opportunist excuses and ideological fuzziness". The only answer to the communal agenda of the BJP, he says, is an alternative economic policy. "The two must go together—the struggle against divisive forces and the battle against the anti-people and ruinous economic policies of this government," adds Bardhan.
As LF leaders rather regretfully admit, the Congress being the main opposition party will have to be in the vanguard of the battle against aggressive Hindutva. But with the Left itself facing direct battles with the Congress in several states, it isn't yet clear how anti-BJPism can replace anti-Congressism locally. So, the big question in the coming year is whether the Opposition can sink its differences and unitedly take on the BJP. A tough call, says Congress leader Salman Khursheed, pointing out that in February the only state which will witness a straight fight between the Congress and BJP is Himachal Pradesh. In Tripura, for instance, it's Congress vs Left.
Caught in these political cross-currents, Congress president Sonia Gandhi will have to take a stand on the following key issues:
- Whether to abandon the go-it-alone policy for a secular front and opt for alliances in Maharashtra, UP and Tamil Nadu.
- Should the party abandon Manmohanomics for (an updated) Nehruvian socialism.
- Who should be projected as prime ministerial candidate in case of a secular front.
- Whether to risk criticism for being dynastic by inducting Rahul and Priyanka.
All these issues are being furiously debated in the Congress. Sonia finds herself caught in a veritable crossfire of political advice, some of it contradictory. There are those like spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy, who sees Gujarat in the context of "counter-revolutionary movements the world over" and insists it cannot be replicated.But others, like Das Munshi, feel it is dangerous to see Gujarat in isolation and regard it as only the beginning of the BJP's grand fascist design. Particularly after deputy PM L.K. Advani equated Hindutva with cultural nationalism at the party's national executive last week.
Much of the debate in the Congress centres on economic policy, with many leaders acknowledging that it has lost touch with its socialist moorings. There's an increasing demand for an aggressive review of economic reforms, which had been unsuccessfully attempted last year. Also, the setting up of a labour committee within the aicc is seen as a small but definite step towards stronger ties with the Congress-affiliated trade unions. Like the LF, some Congress leaders admit that in a time of rampant unemployment exacerbated by a crippling drought, only an appeal like "Har haath ko kaam, har khet mein paani (work for every hand, water for every field)" can counter Hindutva.
The other point of contention is the question of alliances. A section of senior party leaders like CWC member Pranab Mukherjee are still in favour of an ekla-chalo-re (go-it-alone) policy with alliances being worked out post-electorally. But in the wake of Gujarat—where the party lost over two dozen seats thanks to independents, rebels, the SP and the NCP—the splendid isolation formula is naturally under review. A formal, pre-poll alliance of the Congress and NCP in Maharashtra is a distinct possibility next time.
The NCP says the Congress should learn a lesson from the debacle and mend its bridges with the party. "We were willing to align with the Congress in Gujarat but it was adamant. Now it has punished itself and it should learn a lesson. Every time the Congress refused to allign with us, it has suffered. In Goa too, their refusal to tie up with us cost them the government because the BJP won by a single seat. We are an independent party. If the Congress refuses to ally with us, should we not contest? It is now up to them to approach us," says senior party leader and deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, Chhagan Bhujbal.
Some NCP leaders like Praful Patel say that the Congress must consider a national-level alliance if the parties go in for a pre-poll alliance in Maharashtra. Says Patel: "Elections to the Maharashtra assembly and the parliamentary elections will be held at around the same time. Aligning merely at the state level without any tie-up for the Centre will look absurd because we will be campaigning for both elections at the same time."
As far as Maharashtra is concerned, the stated Congress line is that a pre-poll alliance is out of the question unless the NCP withdraws its remarks against Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin. But in private, Congress leaders admit both parties would only reduce their chances by not tying up before the polls since they share a common vote base.
In UP, the bootstraps formula hasn't worked and the Congress is yet to revive after the last assembly elections. Even so, a tie-up with the SP seems unlikely, largely because of the crystallisation of caste-based votebanks. The Congress is looking, as always, at an upper caste-Muslim combine. Mulayam Singh banks on a Yadav-Muslim combine. The intermediate and upper castes are natural adversaries and are unlikely to vote together. So, a tie-up with the SP can only hinder a Congress revival, says the anti-alliance faction led by Khursheed.
The crucial test for the Congress and the SP will be in March 2003, when the assembly meets. Reduced to a minority, Mayawati is vulnerable to a united Opposition. "The Congress will support a no-confidence motion and new polarisations will take place after the BSP-BJP government has fallen," says clp leader Pramod Tewari, leaving a window wide open for a Congress-SP alliance.But upcc chief Arun Kumar 'Munna' distrusts the SP, which has consistently let down the Congress, the latest being Gujarat where it fielded 120 nominees. Thus far, desperate feelers by the SP—with Amar Singh going so far as to say that Sonia has been pronounced a true-blue Indian by the Supreme Court—have met with indifference.
In Tamil Nadu, the feeling is that if the Congress chief can put personal prejudices aside in Maharashtra and join hands with Sharad Pawar, she can do the same with the DMK as well. For all practical purposes, the DMK-BJP marriage is over. The DMK think-tank had six months ago agreed that an alliance between the two parties was ideologically incompatible. The party continues to be in the nda cabinet because it wants some clout at the Centre. But Jayalalitha's display of saffron inclinations and the BJP's affectionate reciprocity makes it clear that DMK chief M. Karunanidhi will have to quit the nda well before the general polls.
The BJP has, at the state level, publicly condemned the DMK, with its state general secretary and sitting mla H. Raja expressing support for Jayalalitha. The AIADMK chief, clear that the winning combination in Tamil Nadu is a BJP-AIADMK alliance, wears her saffron inclinations on her sleeve. The Hindutva-terrorism card, similar to the one played in Gujarat, could also coopt the Dalit vote. On the other hand, the BJP's not keen to accommodate the AIADMK's demanding boss in the cabinet.
DMK chief Karunanidhi has, of late, been harking back to the Dravidian hard line by making anti-upper caste noises. Two months ago, addressing a rally against the anti-conversion bill, he'd said "Hindu means thief", prompting the state BJP to threaten legal action. Karunanidhi has already opened channels with the Congress. Before his hospitalisation, Murasoli Maran had even called on Sonia to iron out differences.
In its bid for power in 2004, Maharashtra, UP and Tamil Nadu will be crucial for the Congress. In a post-electoral scenario, the LF and smaller parties like the RJD and SP could make or break. As of now, the Congress has received feelers from virtually every opposition party. The ball is now in Sonia's court and it's for the Congress to play a pro-active role. As Bardhan says: "No one is going to stand at the Congress doorstep."
Bhavdeep Kang With Priyanka Kakodkar, S. Anand and Sutapa Mukerjee