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A Secular Front for 2014

Harish Khare
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The Congress leaders who congregate in Surajkund today for an internal conversation ( samvad ) have a fairly clear-cut task on their hands — how to start thinking and behaving like a political party. As it were, the Surajkund dialogue is taking place after the party performed a much-needed rite of democratic mobilisation last Sunday at the Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi. On that day, the Congress did manage to demonstrate an organisational temperament that behoves the oldest political formation in the country. It was arguably the first non-election mass rally the Congress leaders had felt excited enough to organise since the UPA’s birth in 2004, and, that too in defence of their own government’s policies. Above all, the Ramlila Maidan show sent out an unambiguous message that the party has rolled back its collective self-doubts on its own moral disintegration that was being sought to be imposed on it by a crafty cabal of civil society activists and sangh parivar conspirators.

Discourage sycophants

At Surajkund, the Congress leaders will do themselves a favour if they were, first, to recognise and acknowledge that after more than eight years in office at the Centre, there is no — nor can there be any — distinction between the party and the government. The self-styled loyalists and professional sycophants should be discouraged from attributing all political difficulties to the government and claiming all the redeeming impulses for the party leadership. That fiction was perhaps workable in 2009; it will not wash in 2014.

The Congress congregation will do well to remember that a decade in office at the Centre has spawned new rivals and enemies, who may have sufficient reason and enough resources to join hands with the party’s old adversaries. This, however, is a normal democratic process and a smart political party does itself a favour by keeping track of emerging aspirations and discontents in society. And, like any other government, UPA-I and UPA-II have had their share of aberrations and absurdities which did not find approval with the arbiters of political correctness.

Nor can the leaders wish away the simple fact: exercise of power, especially of the governmental kind, inevitably produces political consequences and ethical dilemmas. The UPA’s uninterrupted tenure at the Centre has necessarily bestowed undue advantages and benefits to some sections of society, and, similarly visited undeserved unhappiness and disadvantages on others. There are winners and losers, and there is a political economy of pleasure and pain.

Whether it likes it or not, the Congress will need to answer for the so-called sins of the Manmohan Singh government; the mature and sensible approach should be to assess calmly what the government has accomplished and to claim credit for its achievements. Especially, as a political party, the Congress is obliged to tell the voters how many of its promises it has kept. A government in a democratic context is anchored in public trust and acceptability; the citizens and voters expect to be told honestly and sincerely to what extent a party in power was able to fulfil the terms of its mandate.

The Congress, on its part, can take very legitimate credit for having refurbished the country’s secular ethos and edifice. The primary reason the sangh parivar has launched such a vicious attack on the party leadership is the UPA government’s success on the secular front. It is not only the minorities but also the vast majority in the law-abiding majority community who have reason to be thankful for the Manmohan Singh government’s becalming stewardship. Today, India is much more at peace with itself than it ever was in recent memory.

And, if the Congress leaders are inclined to think out of the box, they can toy with the strategic choice of declaring an intent to dissolve the UPA before the 2014 battle and putting in its place a Secular Front. It makes no sense for the Congress to remain overly burdened with too many unattractive allies. A Congress-led Secular Front will provide incentive for some sections of the left and other progressive voices to come together to beat back the challenge of right-wing authoritarian forces, masquerading as untainted “performers.”

Recover the voice

Meanwhile, Sujrajkund should help the party recover its voice. For too long, the party has allowed the noisy vendors of public morality in the media and civil society to set the discourse. In such a scenario, the advantage inevitably lies with the bogus preacher, hawking apocalyptic moralism. Imagine the Congress silence when a recently retired general, after having presided over the most coercive arm of the Indian state, joins the Anna Mob at Jantar Mantar and recites Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, the great poet of defiance! No one from the Congress had the courage to point out this democratic absurdity.

Admittedly, a marked personal pre-disposition for decency at the very top of the UPA establishment has discouraged the Congress from joining the political and policy arguments. The unhappy result is that many institutions, especially sections of the judiciary and the CAG, have periodically asserted a maximalist interpretation for their mandates. At Surajkund, the Congress leaders should recognise that their reticence and reluctance have combined to produce an unhealthy and undemocratic imbalance in our constitutional equilibrium.

Moreover, the Congress has so far been reluctant to debate governance issues internally. For too long, bureaucratic solutions have been sought for essentially political problems. Take, for example, the proposed National Investment Board. Apart from the administrative absurdity of having the Prime Minister preside over clearances for projects, the sticking point is one of political and ideological coherence. Is it not possible for Jayanthi Natarajan, Jairam Ramesh, Kishore Deo, P. Chidambaram, Kamal Nath, and Anand Sharma — ALL belonging to the Congress — to politically agree on terms of harmony and balance? Both the Prime Minister and the Congress have been unwilling to impose some kind of a balanced solution.

Prioritise party

But, if after eight years of exercising power at the Centre, the Congress Ministers do not have clarity on how to produce a harmonious and honourable trade-off between growth, equity and environment, they have no business seeking another five-year term. Similarly, why is it not possible to find the words and the courage to tell the nation that Jaipal Reddy, an honourable man, an honest man, had to be moved because he refused to accept the Prime Minister’s policy priorities? Or, why is a wilfully indecisive Defence Minister being allowed to slow down national defence preparedness? Maybe at the beginning of the UPA innings these differences, some contrived, some genuine, could have been a source of governmental wholesomeness; now, when the Congress is moving into slog overs, these serve no political or administrative purpose. What is more, none of these honourable ministers has felt strong enough to summon the courage of a believer to resign and walk. The Surajkund exercise will have justified itself if all participants can resolve to prioritise the party above their personal image and the interests of their bureaucratic and corporate cronies.

And, indeed, the most significant strategic dilemma before the Congress remains: how to project the potential of a Rahul Gandhi leadership without debunking the Manmohan Singh achievements and record? This is a delicate and inherently difficult task but the Congress leaders will do well to remember that capturing power for the party and its leadership cannot be an end in itself. Building on the UPA record of achievements and accomplishments these eight years, the Congress owes to itself to clarify its own sense of political purpose and, in the process, renew a shared sense of national destiny.

(Harish Khare is a veteran commentator and political analyst.)

The Congress which is congregating at Surajkund today should think of

dissolving the UPA, and forging a

new unity with progressive forces


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