Karnataka polls: In their end is a larger beginning

Saeed Naqvi

Unlike, say, M.Veerappa Moily, who is a Congress leader in Karnataka, the outgoing chief minister Siddaramaiah is more of a Karnataka leader in the Congress. The optics are different. In the course of the recent campaign, did you notice the number of times he invoked Kannada language, Kannadiga pride?
The Congress is, of course, a string to his bow — and that too if it remains stout and tense. But what is Siddaramaiah to the Congress? One purpose of Indira Gandhi’s Congress split in 1969 was a general diminution of Congress power centres, real or potential, to render them more manageable, more amenable to her plans. Individual or regional flair was at a discount. Has the present high command’s attitude towards talent changed?
The influence on Indira Gandhi in 1969 was her principal secretary, P.N. Haksar, who opened the door to what came to be known as a “thesis” enunciated by Mohan Kumaramangalam. It called for working closely with the Communist Party of India. CPI leader S.A. Dange’s perception complemented that of the Congress. He called it the “unity and struggle” policy i.e. unite with the Congress but struggle against its “anti people” policies.
Congress leader Indira Gandhi had placed outside the pale — Nijalingappa, Morarji Desai, C.B. Gupta who became the Congress (O) and joined up with all anti-Left forces: Socialists, Swatantra and Jan Sangh (today’s BJP). The most powerful RSS leader Nanaji Deshmukh, in league with the media baron, Ramnath Goenka, resurrected a retired Gandhian Socialist, Jayaprakash Narayan, to launch the famous Bihar movement. A series of incidents by design and accident brought about the notorious Emergency and the subsequent Congress rout in 1977.
The Left-Right internal tussle was not without an external backdrop. Remember the 1971 creation of Bangladesh magnified the Soviet presence in the region. Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China had been in the works at the same time. That event cemented Pakistan’s links with the US, and more durably, with China, since Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto facilitated Henry Kissinger’s clandestine visit to Beijing in 1971.
Earlier, Indira Gandhi’s leaning on US ambassador Ellsworth Bunker to oust the EMS Namboodiripad-led Communist government in Kerala in 1959 says something of her ideological consistency. Peter Hazlehurst, The Times, London, correspondent in India those days, described Mrs. Gandhi as “often Left of self-interest.”
Rajiv Gandhi’s coming to power in 1984 with a record four-fifth majority coincided with the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow that year. Their burgeoning friendship may have been the backdrop for the young Prime Minister’s historic speech on the occasion of Congress centenary in 1985 in Mumbai. He chastised big business as “power brokers” who were “enmeshing the Congress in its net of avarice”.
The young Prime Minister did not go unpunished. The Bofors gun and the corruption surrounding it (never proved) became the deafening national incantation. In 1989, Rajiv was reduced to a minority. In 2004 when Congress president Sonia Gandhi instituted a National Advisory Council, it came directly under the fire of “power brokers”. Both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi operated against a totally altered external backdrop. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990-91, even the sole superpower moment went into decline 2008 onwards.
Therefore, today the Indian political game is being played against an external free-for-all atmosphere although China, Russia, parts of Europe, South East Asia, Iran are measuring their tread, a sharp contrast to the impulsive unpredictability emanating from Washington.
Is the Congress comprehending the Indian electoral picture post Karnataka? The states, in concert, are encircling the BJP’s advocacy of a unitary system. A federalism versus unitarism tussle is on. Consider this. Every Indian currency note has the national language, Hindi, and the link language, English, prominently displayed: does this reality obscure the 15 other regional languages in fine print many with classical literatures predating the Christian era? The unitary bid to subsume this infinite variety is unrealistic. It will fail.
Against this reality, what is the Congress gameplan? The party must remember that the BJP has filled the spaces it has vacated. And yet it nurses the unrealistic desire to reoccupy the turf it has lost. It knows it cannot single-handedly and yet it chases a pan-Indian mirage.
It has set for itself not one but two impossible tasks. A political party, like soufflé, does not rise twice — particularly after its entire social base has deserted it. Also, donning soft saffron to overshadow hard saffron defies chromatic logic.
Unless the Congress clarifies its own mind it would disrupt Opposition unity and strengthen the BJP. It requires the slightest conceptual adjustment for the Congress working committee to see itself as the nodal point linking and nurturing the regional units. Let’s face it, Punjab chief minister Amrinder Singh is, after all, a regional leader of the Congress, just as Siddramaiah ought to be perceived in Karnataka. Make an honest appraisal of Mamata Banerjee’s clout in West Bengal and engage with her with realistic expectations. The CPI(M) must too, unless its purpose is to sustain the Sitaram Yechury line which, in West Bengal’s context will only help the BJP. Link up, Mr. Yechury, not just with the Congress but with Mamata too — if the BJP is your target.
Before his next disappearing act to heaven knows where, Rahul is demonstrating a burst of energy for vigorous campaigning, his morale seemingly intact.
While the going is as good as it will ever be for him, Rahul should redeem his pledge to bring more youth into play in the states. Sachin Pilot is a straightforward chief ministerial candidate to be fielded in Rajasthan — of course under the supervision of seniors like Ashok Gehlot. Does Jyotiraditya Scindia qualify quite as convincingly in Madhya Pradesh? A call has to be taken. Bringing him out of the stable gingerly, as the party’s campaign committee chairman, then announcing Kamal Nath as state party president and, after a pause, Digvijay Singh, as MP election co-ordination committee chief, Suresh Pachauri, election planning committee chief — all of this spells coordination or confusion? Just as well that Motilal Vora at 89 has not put his skates on.
Considerable remote control from the high command is built into the arrangement. Is there no regional heavyweight to control the game? Was not Digvijay Singh chief minister twice? The high command’s job is to decide, then assert with firmness.