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Congress' problems begin and end at the top

By Amulya Ganguli | PUBLISHED: 27, Mar 2017, 17:55 pm IST | UPDATED: 27, Mar 2017, 18:02 pm IST

Congress' problems begin and end at the top New Delhi: Few people will believe that India’s former external affairs Minister S.M. Krishna’s exit from the Congress and entrance into Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will be a great loss for the former and a considerable gain for the latter.

Like the similar floor-crossing of another Congress leader, Rita Bahuguna-Joshi, in Uttar Pradesh, who has now become a minister in Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s government, Krishna’s perambulations in Karnataka will be no more than a footnote in recent political history.

The only recent move from the Congress to the BJP that has been of some importance is that of Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam — if only because the 48-year-old member of legislative assembly is seen as an influential political figure in the state, unlike the two others mentioned above, who are no longer at the peak of their careers.

But what these exploratory treks from the formerly Grand Old Party, which is surrendering its earlier prominent position to the BJP, show is that the Congress’ members at various levels no longer deem it worthwhile to remain loyal to it because they see the party to be on a downhill slide.

It may be unfair to compare these deserters as the denizens of a sinking ship because politics, after all, is not a charitable business and those involved in the profession of “serving the people” are justified in seeing it as a means of advancing their own prospects — even as an octogenarian like Krishna.

But the Congress has reasons to be concerned that it is no longer recognised as an attractive home or destination. In recent weeks, only Navjot Singh Sidhu has joined the party, but not before he first tried his luck with the Aam Admi Party after quitting the BJP.

A Congress spokesman, Rajeev Gowda, has said that Krishna could have waited for the Karnataka assembly election results next year before leaving because, according to Gowda, the party may fare as well in Karnataka as it has done in Punjab. He has also said that a process of restructuring and strengthening is on in the Congress.

If so, Krishna, a former chief minister of Karnataka, who is an insider, did not see it. Instead, what he saw was that the party was being led by a part-timer, as he said. It is criticism of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, which has been made by Bahuguna-Joshi as well, who said that the crown prince is “unwilling to listen to people in the party”.

Sarma, too, famously said that Rahul was playing with his dog when he took his complaints about the condition of the Congress in Assam to him.

Although it is now widely believed, at least outside the party, that the Congress’ problems lie at the top, and the BJP openly says that Rahul is its best “asset”, the Congress is unwilling to concede the point. What is more, as a recent article by former external affairs minister Salman Khurshid argued, the Congress’ successes in Punjab, Goa and Manipur — it finished first in the last two states — show that there is nothing basically wrong with the party; its reverses are due to the BJP’s superior electoral strategy. The former minister is also unwilling to accept that India is changing in the sense that a more aspirational generation is demanding faster economic growth. According to him, the so-called attitudinal change is not reflected in Punjab, Goa and Manipur.

The implication of such an outlook is that the Congress intends to continue on its present path with the Nehru-Gandhi family at the top and a preference for welfare programmes since it apparently believes that Prime Minister and BJP stalwart Narendra Modi’s emphasis on development is essentially flawed.

Considering that this is also the view of economists like Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze — focus first on health and education and then on economic growth — and of the Left-leaning members of the currently dissolved National Advisory Council, which was led by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, it can be concluded that the Congress will remain committed to the populism of Nehruvian socialism.

It does not seem to recognise the fact that none of the Manmohan Singh government’s extravaganzas like the rural employment scheme and “right to food” were of much help for the Congress in the last general elections in 2014.

On the other hand, it is evidently interpreting its successes in Punjab, Goa and Manipur not as a result of the anti-incumbency factor undermining the former ruling parties, but as a vindication of the dynasty and of “socialism”.

From this standpoint, favourable outcomes of this nature can become a millstone round the party’s neck, preventing it from recognising that the paternalistic concept of a government has outlived its utility at a time when the common man wants opportunities rather than doles.

Notwithstanding the Congress’s moribund organisational structure and flawed economic policies, it still manages to draw some sustenance from its history of consolidating democracy and adherence to pluralism. But it is a diminishing legacy largely because of the part-timers in leadership roles and a concerted attempt by the resurgent right-wing forces to take India in a majoritarian direction. Unless the Congress realises that politics is serious business, as Krishna has said, and that socialism has had its day, its future looks bleak.

# Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst