Vidya Subrahmaniam

The Congress and the Government have settled into a dither and delay routine. This is unfortunate given the unmatched potential of the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh team.

THE CONGRESS entourage went to the Hyderabad plenary dogged by scandals, assailed by self-doubt, and bracing itself for a pantomime as usual high on politically correct rhetoric but without purpose or direction. The solitary hope of the divided, dispirited cadre was the fifth generation Nehru-Gandhi heir. They begged and besieged Rahul Gandhi to take his proper place in the Congress pantheon, with no success. Yet with the anti-climax came expectation - that the party would find the courage to do things differently. Hidden deep in the verbiage of plenary literature were glimpses of a new beginning: "The time has come for India to change. The change should come in the way we look, the way we think, the way we feel, the way we behave... Our foundation legacy is strong but we need a radical break with the past." This was revolution coming from the Congress.

Back in New Delhi, the promise came to nothing. As always, the Congress and the United Progressive Alliance Government took refuge in inaction. The Government itself had just about escaped censure by the Supreme Court, which passed strictures against Governor Buta Singh for his May 2005 recommendation to dissolve the Bihar Assembly.

The verdict was a call for swift action: sack the Governor if he was disinclined to go. However, for the Congress and the Government, time stood still. As it did when Natwar Singh took eons to move out of South Block, when Amar Singh held more press conferences than there are hours in a day, when Ottavio Quattrocchi's millions did the disappearing act. Union Ministers who met at midnight Indian time and awakened the President at 3 a.m. Moscow time in order to be able to dissolve the Bihar Assembly, needed two days and more to coax Mr. Buta Singh to do the needful. Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil saw no irony in seeking time to read the judgment. From the Congress, Abhishek Singhvi argued that such decisions could not be taken in a hurry. Hurry?

The operative part of the judgment, holding the dissolution unconstitutional, was delivered on October 7 last year. Mr. Buta Singh ought to have been recalled then. At a minimum, the Government-party ought to have had a plan of action ready for the expected full judgment. In the event, a Governor charged with subverting the Constitution exited after taking the salute on Republic Day.

L'affaire Buta fitted well into what is becoming a pattern: hastily do the unwise and delay doing the wise.

The pity is all the greater for the unmatched potential of the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh team. The Congress chief and the Prime Minister make for a unique combination - one was offered office and turned it down; the other got office without aspiring for it, indeed precisely because of that. The moral weight of such a combine is not to be underestimated. Nothing else can explain the stunning results of a recent survey by CNN-IBN and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies: If elections were to be held today, the United Progressive Alliance would beat the National Democratic Alliance by 10 percentage points, winning 274 seats to 150.

True, a slew of welfare measures, including the historic Employment Guarantee Act, has been unveiled. But with most projects still to take off, the gains can hardly have been felt on the ground. On the other hand, the UPA's blunders are plainly visible. Is there a quality to the UPA leadership that sets it apart? The voter endorsement would suggest so. Because the Prime Minister and the Congress chief are seen to be personally honest and unblemished, the Government and the party would appear to have been forgiven their many follies.

Ms. Gandhi has soared to dizzying heights in the last 20 months. The woman who was hounded because of her foreign origins, and vilified as greedy and grabbing, has attained iconic status in renunciation, topping every poll conducted in recent times - Indian of the Year, best prime ministerial candidate, most powerful politician, and so forth. Not one scandal has touched her though each was sought to be linked to her - not the Volcker Report, not the telephone tapping accusations, not the Quattrocchi episode. The shouting brigades of the Samajwadi Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party will do well to reflect on the reasons for their ineffectiveness.

There were moments in the plenary that genuinely held promise. There was a hint of changes to come; the barest outline of a strategy, if not vision. On the surface, the jamboree was a write off. The resolutions pitched too sharply into the Congress' partners; the "behave or else" tone made worse by the party's own stated determination to war with the allies in the States. And with the cadre remaining fixated on Rahul Gandhi, the exercise looked destined to drift towards the inevitable: Gandhi junior's ceremonial ascent to the Congress' highest decision-making body, the Congress Working Committee.

But the coronation did not happen. Instead, the heir-apparent read out a blunt speech on the illogic of instant leadership: "Leadership cannot be created. It has to be built slowly, brick by brick." The stunned faithful were told to forget posts and power and work on the ground, among people whose cause "we have stopped fighting." He himself was "still a learner" who saw his place among Congress workers.

Were these words for real? Or was the Congress' youth idol being patronising towards a rank and file that knew he was the master? Did he say no because he could afford to say no? Because he was anyway the chosen one? For now, Rahul has promised to earn his place in the party-government in the manner of any young Congressman - by proving his worth. Should this happen, it will mark a refreshing beginning in a party seen as dysfunctional without the dynasty. Should Rahul earn recognition for breathing life into the Congress' comatose Uttar Pradesh unit, which of course means making more than the occasional trip to Amethi, who can grudge him his rewards?

Not every member of the dynasty has had power for the asking. Though Indira Gandhi came into the party under Nehru, she was not his anointed heir. She became Prime Minister, indeed a legend, if a controversial one, on her own strength. Sonia Gandhi is an inspiring example in a different way. She turned around a bankrupt party, won power against near impossible odds, and then stepped back. On the other hand, power came easy to Sanjay Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi neither of whom won elections for the Congress. Rajiv's 1984 victory was his departed mother's; by 1989 he had squandered away the biggest mandate in India's history. Rahul should be able to see the path to choose.

Reason for hope

The other reason for hope at the plenary was Ms. Gandhi's speech. The Congress chief spoke plainly and clearly. She placed the political resolution's overbearing tone in its correct context. As she noted, the UPA as well as its external allies were in a paradoxical relationship where they collaborated at the Centre but fought in the States. It was a known construct but it needed explaining in the context of doubts about the viability of the UPA. The NDA is a natural alliance, structurally coherent. The UPA is not. Yet the new reality is still to be fully grasped. There was shock when in February 2005 Ram Vilas Paswan went his own way during the Assembly election in Bihar. By October, not only was Mr. Paswan fighting Lalu Prasad and the Congress, the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) were in different alliances in Bihar. It was vitally important that the precise nature of the coalition - the need simultaneously to coexist and fight - was spelt out.

Ms. Gandhi also cleared the air on the perceived Government-party disconnect: "The Prime Minister has taken a close personal interest in each of them [welfare goals]. And I know it has not been easy for him to balance different considerations." The inference: There may be differences in our approaches but party and Government are not in conflict.

The message to Congress functionaries was equally necessary. Partypersons, she lamented, had become far too attached to fine living, they used their power and position in ways that parodied what the party professed: "I feel our concern for the poor is a joke." If the cynicism against politics and politicians was not reversed, democracy itself would be in danger.

It is for Ms. Gandhi to ensure her words do not go to waste, that posterity does not record them as empty rhetoric. Today, there is a humdrum, muddle along quality to life at 24 Akbar Road. Forget the buzz that must surround an office in the limelight after a decade, a decadent air hangs over the premises. Congress functionaries chew paan, sip tea, recite shayari (poetry), and elegantly dodge questions. This is not artful deception but deception by necessity. Nobody in the Congress has a clue as to what is happening. The uncertainty was bound to affect the Government and it has. The Prime Minister and the Congress chief are uniquely placed to revive the Congress and impart direction to governance. They must know that it will not be long before the voters react to the dither and delay routine.