Wearing Charm

Written by S.G. Jilanee  •  Region  •  February 2011 PDF Print E-mail

When the Republicans were routed in the midterm elections during George Bush’s presidency, he said the party was “thumped.” When a similar fate met the Democrats recently, President Obama called it “shellacking.” Both epithets would apply to what India’s ruling Congress party suffered in the recent state assembly elections in Bihar and other south Indian states.

The Party has won two consecutive elections, -in 2004 and 2009. And the coalition with several other parties under the name of UPA has so long worked successfully. However, it seems the 2009 victory triggered a feeling of success as if the party would never end.

But politics requires eternal vigilance and coalition politics all the more. Its southern base in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh that had, hitherto, been considered secure, has developed cracks. According to analysts it has “self-destructed” in Andhra Pradesh and “fragmented in Tamil Nadu.” These were the states that had led to Congress majority in the general elections of 2004 and 2009.

More worrisome is the situation in the north. Much to its consternation, the Congress today finds itself suddenly abandoned by the Muslims in Bihar, which was considered its only reliable vote bank in the north. In the recent assembly elections in Bihar, more Muslims voted for the Nitish Kumar-BJP alliance than for the Congress. A repetition of the same in Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections in November 2011 could very well threaten the Congress majority and its right to rule.

The loss of its Muslim votes was due obviously to its complacency. Having always received their support the Congress took their constituency for a fief. That is why it no longer understands the Muslim vote. Had it kept in touch, it would have found that Muslims have “seen through the deception of decades.” They are moving away from fear-based to development-based politics. Instead of safeguards, they are now demanding development.

That was why Rahul Gandhi failed to win Muslim hearts or votes by donning a Muslim cap on Eid day. And that was precisely why they voted for Nitish Kumar, even though he is allied with the BJP.

Meanwhile, the revelation in a secret U.S. diplomatic cable about a conversation between Rahul Gandhi and the U.S. ambassador in New Delhi, released by WikiLeaks has triggered a backlash from the rightists. Asked about LeT’s activities in the region and immediate threat to India, he said, inter alia that “the bigger threat may be the growth of radicalized Hindu groups, which create religious tensions and political confrontations with the Muslim community.”

But it is the revelation of corruption of epic proportions in the “2G Spectrum scam” that has given the most serious jolt to the Congress. Involved in the scam that allegedly caused a loss of rupees (gulp!) 176 lakh crores to the exchequer is former telecom minister Andimuthu Raja, who sold the licenses at a fraction of their true value. He is from DMK, one of the coalition partners.

Suresh Kalmadi, the head of the organizing committee of last year’s Commonwealth Games in Delhi, is under investigation for fraud and Ashok Chavan, chief minister of Maharashtra state was involved in a scam in which flats meant for war widows were “diverted to his family members, top bureaucrats and generals.”

Another scandal, involving food aid in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, is thought to involve up to 7,000 officials. In the southern state of Karnataka, corruption is blamed for uncontrolled mining in vast areas of protected forest.

Now the aftershocks of the leaks are spreading beyond the DMK, - in Delhi, West Bengal and Maharashtra. First there is a virtual split in the party in Andhra Pradesh after the departure of Jagan Mohan from the party. Andhra Pradesh elected 33 Congress MPs in the general election of 2009. The weakening of the Congress in the state reduces its overall strength in south India. On the other hand a continued alliance with DMK that has been tainted in the mega-scandal would be risqué. Karnataka is BJP’s stronghold. In the south therefore prospects seem bleak for the Congress.

Meanwhile, the Trinamul Congress, another UPA ally in West Bengal, is getting jittery about the fallout of the 2G scam. According to analysts, “for once, Mamata Banerjee, seems to have no answers for the awkward questions being raised by the Left. “Will your supporters not want to know why their leader (Banerjee) is not saying anything against these irregularities?” says Biman Bose, West Bengal Secretary of the CPI (M). Banerjee’s lifelong ambition has been to capture power in Kolkata. She would not want 2G to trip her at the final hurdle. That is set to make her relationship with the Congress rather prickly in the months ahead.”

Despite the 2G scam, the Tamil Nadu Congress does not seem ready to part ways with the DMK at the moment. Perhaps it is hoping to use the DMK’s weakness to bargain for more seats. “The DMK was dictating terms to us all this while. But now it has to agree to our demands,” a senior leader in the Tamil Nadu Congress was quoted as saying.

But AIADMK chief, Jayalalithaa, has been more strident in her critique of the Congress. “The more the UPA government resists, the more it confirms that the buck does not stop with Raja. Raja’s resignation is not enough. The beneficiaries of these kickbacks have to be questioned,” she said talking to reporters recently. She already has the two Left parties and Vaiko’s MDMK with her. She is also in talks with Vijayakanth’s DMDK to form a broader anti-UPA alliance in the state.

The DMK has, of course, been the UPA’s most loyal and crucial component from the inception of the alliance formed during the general elections of 2004. “Sonia Gandhi, in a masterful coup, weaned the DMK away from the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA. In the final result of 2004, the Congress and the BJP were separated by only eight Lok Sabha seats.” The DMK-led alliance’s clean sweep of Tamil Nadu’s 39 seats proved a decisive factor in helping the UPA to secure a comfortable majority.”

Yet, the DMK’s brazen corruption cannot be brushed under the carpet. Raja can dispute the figures on how much the exchequer has lost on account of the 2G scam, but the Rs. 1,76,000-crore figure has got embedded in public perception.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has come out with a promise to “cleanse” the government. And officials from the ruling Congress party announced plans for a new law to fight corruption among public servants, including politicians.

But few are buying the promises. Such promises, commentators say, are unlikely to mitigate the disgust felt among ordinary people. The Guardian quotes Arvind Kejriwal, a veteran social activist as saying: “Every single scam undermines the faith of people in the system. There is an explosion of anger in the media. People have tried protesting but it doesn’t seem to work. They are more and more disillusioned.”

There are no large-scale protests yet, perhaps because the BJP which could organize such protest is, itself, tainted. Yet, there are unmistakable signs of lava forming. Congress should therefore put its house in order before it erupts. 

S. G. Jilanee is a senior political analyst and the former editor of Southasia Magazine.
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