Indian Polls: Congress Party Outlives its Use

Dynastic politics dies in India's refreshed democracy; Narendra Modi frontrunner but regional parties also could form coalition at center

Posted on 03/18/14
By Ameen Izzadeen | Via Daily Mirror
An Indian voter reads a political pamphlet distributed during a rally of the Indian National Congress in the western Indian city of Mumbai. (Photo by Al Jazeera English, Creative Commons License)
An Indian voter reads a political pamphlet distributed during a rally of the Indian National Congress in the western Indian city of Mumbai. (Photo by Al Jazeera English, Creative Commons License)

India’s Congress Party appears to have outlived its use as Mahatma Gandhi once said. It was formed largely to end the British colonialism and for swaraj or self-government. Established in 1885, it was the pivot of the Indian Independence Movement before it became the premier political party that has ruled India for more than five decades since Independence in 1947.


In recent years, Congress, a pan-India party, has been suffering severe drubbing in assembly elections in many states where the victors have been largely regional parties. Has Congress become, more or less, a Hindi-belt party and is it gradually losing its India-wide appeal? Wait till mid-May for the answer.


After independence, Mahatma Gandhi wanted to dissolve the Congress. Gandhi was quoted as saying in ‘The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi — Volume 90.’: “Though split into two, India having attained political independence through means devised by the Indian National Congress, the Congress in its present shape and form, i.e., as a propaganda vehicle and parliamentary machine had outlived its use.”


Last year, India’s anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare also in an interview referred to Mahatma Gandhi. He said Gandhi wanted to dissolve the Congress Party because he had predicted that the party would become completely corrupt. But he was not heard by the leaders who formed the first government on the basis of the Congress Party.


In the early post-Independence decades, the Congress Party’s electoral successes were largely because it was perceived as a nationalistic and anti-colonial force with India’s interests at heart. But now that most of the people who witnessed India’s independence struggle are dead or in the twilight of their lives, sentiments connected to the freedom fight have little appeal among the new generation of Indians who form the majority of the 814 million voters. A majority of these young and middle-aged Indians are caught up in the capitalist-driven global economy. Issues facing them are different. As more and more Indians receive higher education, they want highly paid jobs and improved living standards. Even the Indian film industry does not see poverty as a theme that could attract crowds while those living below the poverty line — some 32 per cent of India’s 1.2 billion population — dream of becoming millionaires.


They want India to be an economic giant. Economy was the key factor that assured the Congress Party’s re-election at the 2009 parliamentary poll. Today the Indian people are well informed and politically more mature than they were when the Congress Party shifted its focus from Independence to fulltime politics. With free market reforms, many people migrate to the cities, where upward social mobility is promised. Oppressive caste-based norms, which are severe in the villages are disappearing in the hustle and bustle of city life. The Indian media, empowered by the Right to Information Act, play a crucial role as a watchdog. The Right to Information Act, passed in 2005, has brought about powerful investigative journalism and exposed corruption in the government.


It is because of India’s revitalized media that the anti-corruption campaign of Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Admi Party or the Common Man’s Party, received its much-needed momentum. Civil society action and rejuvenated media activism have made even a minimally corrupt government like the one headed by ‘Mr. Clean’ Manmohan Singh to look like the most corrupt government of India since independence.


Ironically the very legislation — the Right to Information Act and the Lokpal Act, among others — that the Congress government introduced has come back to haunt the party. The Congress Party and its allies are implicated in a number of large-scale corruption cases which include the 2G telecom license deal, the Commonwealth Games sleaze, the coal scam and questionable land deals by Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra.


The modern Indian voter appears to believe that there is a correlation between economic growth and good governance. The Congress Party’s relatively better economic performance amidst global recession is hardly a plus point while the scale of corruption that has tainted the government’s image is hard to ignore. Even informally promoting Congress Party scion Rahul Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate has not helped the party much. Dynastic politics has little place in India’s refreshed democracy. The world’s largest democracy appears to be coming of age.


This is why that the Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is seen as the winning horse in the parliamentary race. There are no known cases of corruption against Modi. But he is no crusader against corruption like Hazare or Kejriwal. As chief minister of Gujarat, he watered down the Lokayuktha bill — state-level anti-corruption legislation.


Yet Gujarat’s economic success has stood him in good stead. Gujarat is an example which suggests that instead of a centralized economic agenda implemented from New Delhi, what has contributed immensely to India’s economic growth, in recent years, are economic drives at state level. Gujarat’s success has generated countrywide expectation that Modi is the man for India. The wave is surging and a Modi victory is incontrovertible.


Yet, his party, many analysts believe, will fall short of an absolute majority at the elections. This is because the BJP is not a pan-India party as the waning Congress Party is. Opinion polls indicate the BJP and its allies will win around 220 seats and the Congress Party a pathetic 100 or fewer in the 543 seat lower house. This is because regionalism and political federalism are fast becoming India’s political realities. Some regional parties want a bigger say in governance and foreign policy. The manifestos of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (AIADMK) led by actress-turned-political cult figure Jayaram Jayalalithaa and its political rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK) led by veteran politician Mutuvel Karunanidhi have dwelt extensively on foreign policy, especially on matters pertaining to Sri Lanka. Both these parties have called for an internationally monitored referendum in Sri Lanka’s north and east on the question of a separate state. With no major party likely to win a majority on its own, regional parties are sure to up their ante when forming any coalition.


A clearer picture, however, will only emerge after the elections which will be held from April 7 to May 12 in nine stages. Some analysts suggest that there could be a third option at the upcoming elections. Instead of a Congress-led or a BJP-led government, small parties can come together to muster the required 272 seats to form a government. This is why Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, whose party is likely to sweep the southern state, has not signed an electoral pact with the BJP, whom she has partnered at past elections. She may extend her party’s support to the BJP if she and other leaders of regional parties fail in their efforts to form a coalition.


Another major player in the upcoming elections is the new entrant, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Its leader Kejriwal is winning new converts from India’s middle class which in the past had voted for Congress. But its major political enemy ironically is its own policy of political cleanliness. As a result, even acts that could be regarded as routine if done by others are seen as preposterous by the media and activists if the AAP does them. For instance, this week, Kejriwal held a fund-raising dinner, drawing criticism that only the rich could afford to buy the Rs. 2000 (around 32 dollars) tickets and therefore it went against the very description of his party as a common man’s party. In yet another incident, Kejriwal is seen in a leaked video advising a journalist to highlight a certain part of his interview for greater impact. Critics say such media manipulation is the trait of a power-hungry politician, which Kejriwal tries to show he is not.
These slurs apart, the AAP is unlikely to emerge as a third force given its lack of experience in governance or organizational capabilities. It governed New Delhi only for a month or so.


BJP’s communalism
Another major factor in the upcoming elections is how the minority Muslims who form 14 per cent of the population will vote. Some believe they may veer towards the AAP, since the Congress Party whom they traditionally supported has not done much for their social and economic uplift. According to the 2006 report of the Rajinder Sachar Committee, which was appointed by the Singh government, the socio-economic and educational status of Muslims is below that of the Scheduled Castes.


With the AAP’s polls battle directed more towards the BJP than towards Congress, Muslims see Kejriwal as a man who could take on Modi whose image has been sullied by his alleged role in the massacre of Muslims during the 2002 ethnic riots in Gujarat.


But Modi’s BJP is also making efforts to woo Muslim voters, offering a new hand of friendship. The BJP says that Modi has been cleared by a Supreme Court panel of involvement in the Gujarat riots. But the Congress Party claims that the Supreme Court appointed panel’s ruling has been challenged in a higher court and insists that the moral and political accountability with regard to the Guajarat riots lies with him as he was the chief minister. The Congress calls on Modi to apologize for the riots but the astute politician thinks that doing so would antagonize the hardline Hindutwa activists who form the crux of the BJP.


But a majority of India’s Hindus are not extremists. They rejected the BJP’s Hindutwa hardline policies at the last general elections held in 2009.


In their post-election reviews, BJP leaders admitted in 2009 that the hate speech made by Varun Gandhi, son of Sanjay and Maneka Gandhi and grandson of Sonia Gandhi’s mother-in-law, former prime minister Indira Gandhi, cost them the victory. A majority of Indian voters saw Varun Gandhi’s call to his “Hindu brothers” to vote for the BJP to drive all traitors — meaning India’s 14 per cent Muslims — to Pakistan, as repulsive and not befitting the type of politics India should follow in this modern age.


With the economy — in the common man’s understanding the commodity prices — being a key factor that may determine the winner, the outcome of the election has global impact as India represents a huge market and accounts for 17 per cent of the world’s population.


This article first appeared in Daily Mirror, a leading newspaper of Sri Lanka.

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