The Congress has relied on strategy rather than on ideology to win power
Zoya Hasan’s present work offers refreshing insights on Congress politics in the backdrop of contemporary politico-economic changes between two crucial signposts: 1984, which saw Indira Gandhi’s tragic assassination, and 2009 when the Congress-led UPA government’s first tenure ended. The book’s distinctive feature is reflections on three inter-related themes of ‘policy, power and political change’ from a political scientist’s hindsight, but enriched with apt historical perspectives.
Hasan presents her thesis neither as a ‘historical account of the Congress’, nor as a ‘detailed interpretation of all aspects of its politics after Indira Gandhi’. She unfolds ‘policy practices’ moulding Congress thinking when “India is at once a rising power with an expanding middle class and a poor, unequal, and misgoverned country”. The author deliberately focuses on ‘national-central level’ since she feels the Congress remains ‘self-consciously central/national’ despite regionalisation of politics since 1989.
The first chapter deciphers the dialectics of the Rajiv Gandhi period. Assuming power through the unprecedented 1984 electoral mandate, Rajiv proclaimed his aim to take India into twenty-first century through ‘principled politics, efficient government, modern technologies’, and broke away from Indira’s confrontationist posture towards the opposition. But within two years, as Hasan demonstrates, Rajiv ‘frittered’ away the ‘advantage’. Debacles in Assembly elections confined the Party by end-1985 to the Hindi heartland, while the opposition gained control of southern and eastern states. The subsequent Bofors controversy and the ascendancy of V.P. Singh led to the establishment of the National Front Government whose policy of reserving 27% of government jobs for the OBCs virtually ended the Congress traditional support base amongst these depressed social groups.
End of Congress epoch
It was, however, as Hasan convincingly shows, ‘placating religious sentiment’ in the Shah Bano and Ayodhya issues, which proved disastrous for the Congress. Exposing Narasimha Rao’s ‘opportunistic’ dealings with the BJP, which contributed to the Babri Masjid demolition, Hasan appropriately calls the 1992 episode a ‘defining moment’ for Hindu ‘majority sentiment’ that facilitated the establishment of a BJP-led government in Delhi.
While India’s secular credentials were being threatened, the Narasimha Rao-led Congress government adopted the World Bank-IMF prescription of economic liberalisation as India’s ‘development strategy’, marking a shift from Nehruvian ‘socialistic pattern’. The average growth rate got doubled, but social and regional disparities were sharpened. This eroded Congress’ electoral base, evident from its setbacks in Assembly elections between 1993 and 1995.
The third chapter shows how 1996 parliamentary election marked the end of the ‘Congress epoch’ and the rise of coalition politics. The BJP’s aggressive Hindu nationalism and the 2002 Gujarat carnage ultimately made the Congress realise that only an alliance with like-minded parties could confront the communal tide. This was the prelude to the formation in 2004 of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance Government with outside Left support. Hasan considers the UPA victory ‘unexpected’, but once in power the UPA Government, as explicated in the book’s fifth, sixth and seventh chapters, “was driven by a maximalist agenda to facilitate a progressive, secular and activist state”.
The author argues that the Congress-Left relationship ‘shaped priorities and orientation’ of the UPA Government’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, National Common Minimum Programme and other schemes to address rural inequalities and distributive justice for religious minorities. The Left opposition to liberalisation of financial and insurance sectors, too, helped India to insulate itself from contemporary international economic crisis. However, the Left-Congress honeymoon ended once, as Hasan notes in the eighth chapter, the ‘Doctrine of Economic and Foreign Policy Convergence With the US’ gained precedence. The Indo-US Nuclear Deal — despite, as Hasan indicates, the initial hesitation of Sonia Gandhi — presaged the Left’s walk-out from the coalition in July 2008. But she also contends that the Left’s ‘disproportionate emphasis on the Deal’s political dimensions’ and failure to take the issue to the people led to its electoral debacle in the 2009 parliamentary and 2011 West Bengal Assembly elections, which diminished the Left’s national influence. On the other hand, the Congress after the elections in 2004 and 2009 became stronger. Hasan correctly recognises Sonia’s leadership behind this Congress revival.
The fourth chapter is particularly revealing. It analyses institutionalisation of division of powers between the UPA’s Prime Minister and the Congress President, making the latter more powerful than the former. It ensured the Congress’s return to the political centre-stage, but reversed the Nehruvian matrix of the Government’s supremacy over the Party. Hasan’s other interesting assertion is on increasing Congress reliance on strategy rather than ideology to win power. She situates this within the global trend of politics becoming ‘market-driven’, although admitting that market sensitivity could not blind the Congress to socio-developmental challenges.
Hasan ends her story in 2009, but agrees on UPA-2’s failure to capitalise on UPA-1’s attainments. We await her explanation of this process, especially whether domestic constellation of forces or external pressure has been crucial. She finds the panacea for nation-building challenges in a ‘coalition anchored to social democratic foundations’ and reconciliation of ‘economic development with equity’. Hopefully, this will not remain an illusion. As India faces a new parliamentary election and stands at the crossroads of an economic transformation, this definitive book is a must for any politically conscious reader.
(Suranjan Das is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Calcutta)