Monday, 27 June, 2022
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Bihar dust, Congress cloud

If Laloo Prasad Yadav loses in Bihar, Congress has to absorb the setback. Even if he doesn't, the party, and most of all the govt at the Centre will be dragged into another round of manipulation.

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Driving around Bihar you couldn’t be faulted for wondering sometimes if finding a Congress flag even in times of election here is about as difficult as spotting a tiger in Sariska. Until you come to Bettiah, in north Bihar, not far from the Maoist belt in Nepal and in the heart of Mahatma Gandhi’s indigo battlefield in Champaran.

It is one of the rare Bihar constituencies where the Congress has a little bit of a chance. They have been clever. By adopting the independent runner-up from the last election as their candidate, they are hoping to ride his popularity. That is why it is one of Sonia Gandhi’s stops. But her tone is almost philosophical. She admits the Congress has lost out a great deal in Bihar and even confesses with honesty unusual for a politician that this could be mostly due to the party’s own mistakes and shortcomings. She talks about the Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Right to Information Act and seeks votes for her alliance. Effectively, it amounts to seeking votes for Laloo and Rabri in power in the state.

In what is still India’s fourth largest state in terms of the MPs it sends to Parliament, this is not the happiest situation the president of the party leading the national coalition should be in. In spite of the exit polls, she has to take an optimistic view. Both her post-election choices are far from ideal. If Laloo loses she has to absorb the setback. Even if he does not lose, she, her party, and most of all her government at the Centre will be dragged into another round of manipulation, horse-trading and, who knows, even a bit of arm-twisting. Not the kind of situation the Congress would like to be in, punch-drunk as it already is from the Natwar-Volcker episode and just when the final Supreme Court judgment on Buta Singh and the earlier Bihar assembly dissolution is expected.

Congressmen would be justified in arguing they have no other option. This is only one of the many lousy choices they have had to make in today’s political situation. In Bihar at least they have an ally, such as it is. But in Uttar Pradesh, they don’t even have that prop. Sonia Gandhi and her key advisors are not willing to buy the argument that Uttar Pradesh has now become a bit like Tamil Nadu, with the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party being every bit equivalent to the DMK and the AIADMK in that state. There is still nostalgia for times when the Congress held sway over UP. Hence, the disinclination to readily become a junior partner with the BSP, or to at least improve its functioning relationship with the SP. At the same time, none of these people, many with more years in politics than the SP, BSP, RJD, JD(U) and LJP put together, have a solution to offer.

In any case, such alliances in the Hindi heartland are self-defeating for the Congress in several ways. All the caste-based parties, present ally RJD as well as the SP or BSP, should they ever accept an alliance with the Congress, would offer them only crumbs. The reason is explained most candidly by Mayawati, who has told this writer several times that she sees no point in aligning with the Congress when her vote is transferable to her allies and that of the Congress isn’t. So while the Congress gets very little in return for these alliances in what were once its own territory, it pays a big price. First, among urban voters, the middle classes and upper castes, it gets tarred with the same brush as Laloo, Mulayam and Mayawati. Second, and more importantly, because it does not have much of a votebank in these states and because its ability to transfer votes is seriously suspect, it has to compensate them by conceding more ground at the Centre.

Also read: Six takeaways from the Bihar election results

In the past year and a half, this has caused many embarrassments to the Congress and its prime minister. These include having to carry in the cabinet tainted ministers, even one ducking non-bailable arrest warrants, and the incredible spectacle of two cabinet ministers (Laloo and Paswan) fighting and abusing each other in public. To have Paswan running the ministries of steel and chemicals as if those were his own fiefs and the authority of the prime minister and the discipline of the Cabinet system do not matter does not enhance the Congress’s reputation. Ministers from the DMK and its partners have similarly often defied the discipline of the Cabinet.

This is the Congress’s biggest challenge and the Bihar election underlines it. Its coalition is essentially different from the BJP’s in that practically all its partners are its rivals in their respective pocketboroughs. So the coalition at the Centre becomes an arrangement of convenience rather than a political alliance. At the same time, because the Congress matters so little in many of the states where its central allies are strong, either by way of transferring its votes to them or a share of the political space, the only commodity it can trade is the authority of the Centre.

Regional partners have lost no time in figuring this, so they all succeed in punching way above their weight. The way has been shown by the Left. Under Prakash Karat, the Left is now being audacious enough to demand something no political group has ever done in the history of India’s coalitions, namely a decisive say in the Central element of foreign policy making. The new Left approach underlined by Karat is that in a coalition foreign policy making cannot be left to the prime minister and the external affairs ministry.

Certainly, Vajpayee did not have to clear with all his coalition partners before Pokhran II, while conducting the war in Kargil and deciding on policy after the Parliament attack, during Operation Parakram and the subsequent phase of peacemaking. As Sharad Pawar states clearly while speaking to this writer on NDTV’s ‘Walk the Talk’, defence and foreign policy have always been and should be considered consensual and partners in a coalition have to provide space to the prime minister for their conduct. But it is evident that this principle is not accepted in the UPA arrangement.

After all, see it from the Left’s perspective. They are keeping the UPA, particularly the Congress, in power only to keep the BJP out of it. They have no love lost for the Congress which contests their political space in all the three states where they matter. So they have no compunction in hobbling its government any which way and least of all when they see it as an issue of high ideological principle. In fact, the more the Congress looks humiliated and helpless, the more ground it concedes under duress, the more supine it seems in its desperation to hang on to power, the better it is for the Left. Sure enough, the other allies have also learnt from this.

Also read: Despite the sweet victory, Modi-Shah BJP has a Nitish Kumar-sized problem in Bihar

In effect then, the UPA arrangement becomes a kind of leveraged buy-out of the Central government by its regional partners: howsoever small our numbers, only these can keep you in power, so you compensate us with whatever price we name.

This arrangement has serious long-term consequences for the prestige and authority of the Congress. The basic question it has to ask itself is, how does it define the UPA experiment? Is it to invest in its future or is it to milk the past for the last few drops of comfort? Most Congress leaders acknowledge these problems but tend to dismiss these as the inevitable compulsions of coalition politics. But it is because their coalition is much more unnatural than the NDA, and because it is so riven by contradictions and antagonisms, that the authority not just of the Central government but even the party leadership is eroding in an unprecedented manner.

The Natwar Singh episode is a good example. In the past a Congress minister ‘ particularly one under a cloud ‘ would never have dared to defy the Central authority even for a moment. In this case, Natwar Singh is not only believed to have openly challenged the prime minister and key party general secretaries, but was bold enough to challenge the basic concept of collective responsibility in the cabinet system. His boast to the media that in case the next resolution on Iran is too tough he would (as external affairs minister) advise the government to reverse its stance is unprecedented ‘ not merely for its defiance but also indiscipline of the kind never seen or tolerated from a senior cabinet minister. In the cabinet system can a key minister actually distance himself from the final decision like this? Can he say, I believe it should be done this way and as a minister I have said so; but if the cabinet in its collective wisdom does something else, don’t blame me for it.

The questions of propriety and cabinet discipline that this raises are grave enough. But equally formidable is the political question it raises. Has the authority of the Congress president and the prime minister weakened so much that their foreign minister feels bold enough to publicly distance himself from the central elements of foreign policy and to also publicly canvass for help from one set of allies? So far only the allies were challenging the Central authority. Or perhaps because they were given too much of leeway, even Congressmen are getting tempted to play the same game.

Whatever the outcome in Bihar, once the dust settles on this campaign, Sonia Gandhi and her key advisors have to take stock of this predicament.

Also read: How Tejashwi went from failed cricketer & a Lok Sabha disaster to almost chief minister


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