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Updated: May 23, 2010 23:45 IST

A year of living indecisively

Siddharth Varadarajan
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Congress president Sonia Gandhi with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at her residence after their win in Lok Sabha elections 2009 in New Delhi on May 16, 2009. Photo: S. Subramanium
The Hindu Congress president Sonia Gandhi with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at her residence after their win in Lok Sabha elections 2009 in New Delhi on May 16, 2009. Photo: S. Subramanium

The inability of the Prime Minister and the Congress president to push official policies in the direction of meaningful social change leaves the public confused.

As Manmohan Singh completes the first year of his second term as Prime Minister, it has become something of a cliché to accuse him of weakness. His inability to take action against Ministers accused of corruption or sheer inefficiency is an obvious indicator of his lack of power within the government. The dissonance on various crucial policy matters is another. However, these symptoms are more a reflection of structural weaknesses in the current ruling system than of individual failing on Dr. Singh's part.

There are, in fact, two sources of weakness in the United Progressive Alliance arrangement. The first is induced by the compulsions of coalition government, the second by the nature of the ruling party itself. Though the Congress won many more seats in 2009 than it did in 2004, it is still dependent on smaller parties whose agendas are mercurial and unpredictable. But this is a derivative problem, something of mere arithmetic importance, because it begs the question of whether the current problems faced by the Prime Minister would evaporate if the Congress had a majority of its own. Would the examples of rent-seeking, influence peddling, patronage, inefficiency and insensitivity we see in the functioning of various Ministries and government departments disappear if they were run by Congress Ministers? Would the government have the ability to deliver on its promise of social and economic inclusiveness if it were staffed only by the Congress? Only the hopelessly naïve would believe that.

Of the two structural flaws that have weakened the Prime Minister and his government, then, it is the second which is the more decisive. The nature of the Congress is a serious, foundational weakness, a constitutive flaw standing in the way of policy changes that could allow it to transcend the current political constraints and deliver to the people of India the kind of governance they deserve.

Much as the Bharatiya Janata Party would like us to believe it, the existence of two power centres in the government is not unique to the UPA. It is true that as Prime Minister of the NDA government, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was also the undisputed leader of the BJP. But the dyarchy in that arrangement involved a split between the authority of the party and the sangh parivar, rather than between party and government, and Mr. Vajpayee was certainly not the head of that family. As Congress president, a Member of Parliament and head of the UPA, Sonia Gandhi has a legal and political mandate of the kind the RSS never had. But the problem is that she is not being decisive in the exercise of her mandate. Many of the problems the NDA regime ran into sprang from the sangh parivar's assertiveness. In contrast, the UPA's problems arise from Ms Gandhi's failure to lead from the front.

Within the Congress party today, there are at least three ideo-political trends competing for dominance and the divisions and differences between them are apparent on a number of issues. There is first the social democratic paternalism of the party machinery as represented by Ahmed Patel but also Pranab Mukherjee, A.K. Antony, Veerappa Moily and others. This school recognises the importance of inclusiveness not as an end in itself but as an instrument to put political space between the Congress and the BJP. It cannot move beyond the paradigm of tokenism, little alliances and reservation. Instead of boldly embracing the Sachar committee's comprehensive recommendations on ending Muslim marginalisation, for example, or pushing for a Communal Violence bill that has real teeth, or encouraging the emergence of dynamic Muslim leaders within the Congress, this group is more comfortable making a deal with a clerical section of the community. It is not a coincidence that this group is also the one making the demand for the inclusion of caste enumeration in the census as a short-sighted means of beating the OBC parties at their own game.

The second ideological trend within the Congress is that of technocratic populism, as represented primarily by Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram and Ministers like Kamal Nath and others. This section has a certain disdain for the ‘consensual,' accommodative politics of the old school but ends up being quite anti-political in its approach. Not surprisingly, their approach finds the widest resonance with the mass media and upper middle classes. The Telangana fiasco was the first disastrous product to emerge from the technocrats but there have been other bad ideas as well. Mr. Chidambaram rightly questioned the logistical difficulties involved in conducting a caste census but sees no problem in the state's ability to collect and keep confidential the iris scans and ten finger prints of 1.2 billion Indians. The Maoist insurgency is seen as something that can be ended through an “expanded mandate” to use military means, and healthy debate and disagreement are looked upon with suspicion. The technocratic populists are also impatient with environmental norms and public hearings if they come in the way of highways and roads and factories and mines.

There is a third trend, too, but this is currently the weakest, despite being led, in a manner of speaking, by Rahul Gandhi as he attempts to renovate the Congress from the bottom up. Though there is a strong modernising element in Mr. Gandhi's approach, his approach is inherently political and calls for greater attention to be paid to the voices and aspirations of those who have become disconnected from the socio-economic mainstream over the past two decades. This trend within the party, whose ranks include Digvijay Singh, Salman Khurshid, Mani Shankar Aiyar and also Jairam Ramesh, believes that the Congress can have a political future only if it reflects the concerns of the marginalised. It knows the limits of the paternalistic and technocratic approaches and is pitching for the emergence of the Congress as a modern political party that is democratic in its outlook and approach and its internal functioning — something which it is not today.

To be sure, the boundaries between these three groups are not neatly drawn. Depending on the specific issue, shifting coalitions get formed and Ms Gandhi often ends up mediating one way or another.

What makes this struggle within the Congress even more interesting is that it is happening against the backdrop of big money making greater and greater inroads into the corridors of power. As is clear from data on the rising net worth of MPs and MLAs, formal political structures may be getting atomised but the dominance of super-rich national and local elites is getting more and more consolidated.

The principal achievements of UPA-I came because Ms Gandhi and the Congress party provided strong political backing to initiatives like the Right to Information and the National Rural Employment Guarantee. But in UPA-II, so far at least, that political backing appears absent. The fact that there is dissonance within the Congress and the government on diverse issues is a good sign, an indication that contestation is under way. But the inability of the Prime Minister and the Congress president to mould and shape this debate and push official policies in the direction of meaningful social change leaves the public confused. Initiatives are being proposed or taken, like the Women's Reservation Bill and the Food Security Bill, but there is a danger of these ending up as incomplete measures even as attempts are made to roll back the gains already made like the Right to Information.

The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act remains unchanged despite promises. The land acquisition and rehabilitation policy of the government is in a mess, affecting the lives of millions of people. There is a danger that militarisation and securitisation will take the place of politics as a means of resolving internal conflicts. On the first anniversary of the UPA's second mandate, it is time Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh took urgent stock of their joint enterprise.

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