Intellectual poverty in Congress

Around the time of independence, the Congress conceptualised and founded key institutions, and gave shape to policies on major subjects. It had no experience of running the affairs of a free country; but, thanks to the vision and shrewdness of its leaders, accomplished the job ably. As against that, it has a serious problem now in coherently updating policies that have evolved over the last five decades, and in the making of which, it - as the ruling party for most of this period - was primarily responsible. The reason: intellectual poverty of the leadership - singly and collectively. The party now is gripped by acute confusion on major policy subjects, be it the nuclear issue, economic reforms and liberalisation, the line on matters such as coalition.

This, at a time when the party is awkwardly placed because of the combination of several adverse factors. It is for the first time since independence that the Congress has been out of power for nearly four years: never in the past had it lost three general elections in a row. And it is for the first time that the party, while in Opposition, is headed by a person who had not been in office in the past. The Congress' bid to recover the lost ground is bound to be thwarted by the lack of clarity on major policy issues, apart from the poor condition of the party organisation. In her role as party president, Ms. Sonia Gandhi, may not be hurt by the controversy over her foreign origin or the dynasty issue. Her success will depend on her capacity to provide clarity in the party's policies and programmes.

The fumblings of the Congress on important issues such as security - especially those arising out of India's nuclear tests - dramatise its predicaments and deficiencies. For nearly two years after Pokhran-II, the party has been unable to take a stand on the new reality. Does it or does it not approve of the tests? Does it support the policy of a credible minimum deterrence, as expounded by the Government? Is it for India's adherence to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)? The pointers from the Congress camp are far from clear. It is mainly influenced by partisan considerations and, in the process, has landed itself in dilemmas. It did not want to support the tests because of the ``risk'' of giving credit to the Government: It could not oppose this because of the fear of sharp popular reaction for taking a seemingly cavalier attitude on security matters. It endorsed - semi-publicly - minimum credible deterrence, but retracted in the face of pressure by a tiny lobby from within which saw it as running counter to the Rajiv Gandhi action plan on disarmament.

The sentimental outpourings came in the way of recognition of the present-day reality. A special cell has now prepared a formulation which, it is hoped, would free the party from the embarrassment it found itself in. It avoids the words ``minimum credible deterrence'', but emphasises the Congress' commitment to adequate defence-preparedness, taking into account the current threat perceptions. It does not oppose adherence to the CTBT but would like the Government to hasten slowly and build national consensus. Then, there is the inevitable reference to the Rajiv Gandhi action plan. This belated clarity may not help the party to undo the damage already suffered by it.

This is in marked contrast to the record of the Congress in the past, when it was in power. Successive Congress Prime Ministers, from the early Fifties onward, took steps for atomic or nuclear development programmes: It was Jawaharlal Nehru who set up the Atomic Energy Commission; Indira Gandhi gave the go-ahead for the peaceful nuclear explosion in 1974; again, under her orders, preparations for a full-fledged nuclear test were made (as corroborated by Mr. R. Venkataraman, the Defence Minister of the day); it was during the tenure of Mr. P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1995 that preparations for a nuclear test reached an advanced stage. Even though the nuclear option was not exercised on the two occasions, there was no confusion about the policy of the Governments of the day.

In the sphere of external relations too, the present Congress leadership has shied away from bold, clear-cut identifiable policy lines. Its attitude is generally reactive - not the product of national consensus that had been the hallmark of foreign policy in the past. Here again, its reactions have been guided by partisan factors. It extended a grudging welcome, to cite one instance, to the Lahore bus diplomacy but backtracked when it was seen as giving a boost to the Prime Minister, Mr. A.B. Vajpayee. Later, Kargil provided it an opportunity to lambast the Government for what was described its recklessness, its failure to gauge the real intentions of the Pakistani ruling establishment. At the present juncture, has the Congress taken a clear stand on the issue of resuming the dialogue with Pakistan? To say this is not to absolve the BJP-led Government of the charge of using foreign and security matters for the party's advantage.

It is hard to believe that the present ambivalence emanates from the party which, in the past, came out with innovative doctrines such as non-alignment, and identification with the freedom struggles elsewhere in the world. Non-alignment may have lost its relevance now but during the days of the Cold War and bloc rivalries it did serve the country's interests. Some time ago, the Congress showed signs of activity on the foreign policy front but swung from one extreme to another. What else was the meaning of its bid for parallel diplomacy - of its plans to send delegations to South Africa and China, with the objective of removing the strains introduced in the ties with these countries by the Vajpayee Government?

In the past, the Congress chose the path of planned development and mixed economy. Later, it opted for liberalisation, de- regulation and other reform measures. If the first policy line was considered suitable for the initial, formative years of the independent India, the second course was favoured to remove the ills and abuses that had crept into the system and for bringing the country in line with the globalised pattern. The opinions on the policies in the two cases may differ, but the party showed the boldness in laying down the line that - according to it - would meet the requirements of the prevailing situation.

Today, the Congress is not clear whether to continue its pro- reform stand or to call for a reversal of the processes set in motion in the past, or to demand streamlining or a reorientation. That is because there are at least three distinct viewpoints - supporters of the reforms, opponents and those favouring the middle course. The majority is for liberalisation but with a proviso - that conscious steps be taken to ensure that the benefits of the new policies reach the poor and that are not cornered, as is the case now, by the rich.

The Congress response to the official decisions and policies does not reflect the sentiments of the majority which favours the third course. The party finds it difficult to resist the partisan pressures. Had that not been the case, the Congress would not have opposed, with fanfare, the cut in subsidies - a policy initiated by its Governments in the past. In the political sphere, it is pathetic to see a party, which was the architect of parliamentary democracy, failing to recognise the changing realities - that there is no escape from coalitions. Worse, its State units have proceeded with power-sharing arrangements even though the central leadership clings to the concept of single- party governments and remains mired in the past glory.