Cut The Gordian Knots

Through Bharat Jodo Yatra, the country’s oldest political party – Congress is finding its lost ground to challenge the ruling party – BJP, while other parties are also gearing up for the next Lok Sabha elections

By Arun Bhatnagar
  • Congress thinks of Bharat Jodo Yatra as the biggest mobilisation exercise and that this would be a route to political revival
  • Ghulam Nabi Azad is no ‘paragon of virtue’ and has benefitted, over many years, from association with the Congress
  • There are regional parties in India that can survive without a dynasty but conditions in the GOP are much more complex
  • Opposition Front of non-BJP if comes to power it would accord ‘special category status’ to backward States, declares Nitish Kumar

THE Indian National Congress, often called the Grand Old Party (GOP), faces an ‘existential’ crisis, at a time when it should have been engaging with the Opposition and challenging the BJP that has been in power since 2014. The exit of Ghulam Nabi Azad is a big blow, after the goodbyes tendered by veteran Kapil Sibal and ex-royals Amarinder Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia, among others. While Azad is no ‘paragon of virtue’ and has benefitted, over many years, from association with the Congress, his scathing indictment, at this advanced stage, of the top leadership, especially Rahul Gandhi, couldn’t have come at a worse moment for the hard-core loyalists of the Family.

The departure of leaders is not new to the post-independence Congress, going so far back as 1948 when the Socialists-led by Acharya Narendra Deva and Jayaprakash Narayan–left.
Today, the crucial question has to be: Is Congress at the cusp of disintegrating as an entity?

REASONS TO INTROSPECT

For the last eight years (and counting), Congress has been in the Opposition; it has lost two Lok Sabha elections but no more than cosmetic changes have been attempted to address the reasons contributing to what is clearly a huge political setback.

This period was long enough for their High Command to analyse why the Indian voters no longer show much interest in Congress’ ideas and leaders. They ought to have realised by now that the ‘charisma’ is very much a ‘thing of the past’ and that while the BJP may only be running more efficiently the earlier welfare programmes – devised, in the main, by Sonia Gandhi and the erstwhile NAC –isn’t it time for the GOP to re-learn efficient welfarism and try to reclaim a share of nationalism?

The GOP have a trump card in their arsenal – the card of pluralism and secularism – which regional entities like the TMC have employed effectively. This chink in the GOP armour has often been utilized by the BJP to alter the discourse and keep reverting to ‘parivarvaad’. As a Party that was at the centre of the Freedom Movement, it has surrendered that position, so much so that the BJP is being seen as the embodiment of Indian nationalism.

There are regional parties in India that can survive without a dynasty but conditions in the GOP are much more complex – the Party could break up without the Family. It could also disintegrate with the Family at the helm. It may be said that Azad’s going is not only the exit of another significant individual – albeit not a mass leader – from the Congress. It is symbolic of wider and worrying processes at work in the direction of one-party rule.

The GOP represents the only counter force nationally. Unless drastic steps are taken towards a turnaround, the day might not be far when it is reduced to the level of separate units (perhaps, loosely federated) in States where it remains in contention.

China has been identifying logistical bases in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), after establishing the first overseas presence at Djibouti on the Horn of Africa in 2017. It has access to the Karachi and Gwadar ports in Pakistan and is initiating moves for such facilities in other locations in the IOR, such as Cambodia, the Seychelles and Mauritius

This could signify the demise of a 140 year old legacy that stands bereft of vision, leadership and organisation. The problems flagged by Azad are real, ranging from organisational issues to a moribund High Command that is not upto the task of rejuvenating the demoralised and battered grassroots cadre. To begin with, free and fair elections – encouraging contenders to come forward and contest – would give the new Congress chief a credible start.

FINDING A MISSING LINK

Encouraged by the massive response to Yatra, the Congress is now planning a padyatra in those states which do not fall under Rahul Gandhi’s route. The Bharat Jodo Yatra has got off to a good start commencing from South India. The presence of M K Stalin showed that the DMK and the Congress are more than likely to remain close allies. For the next five months or so, the padyatra – from Kanyakumari to Kashmir – will be on a mission to highlight burning issues and pursue a direct dialogue with different sections of the people. The GOP describes it as the biggest mobilisation exercise in Independent India and is hoping that this would be a route to political revival.

The Congress is betting big on the Yatra; in the past, these have proved politically beneficial, such as for former PM Chandrashekhar and the Dr MM Joshi – Narendra Modi Ekta Yatra in 1991. The public response would matter the most in States, such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh where the GOP is in direct contest with the BJP who do not appear perturbed. A sense of unease could creep in sooner or later.

The Yatra is underway at a time when the GOP is at its weakest. The sixty-four dollar question is: will it help Rahul Gandhi discard an image that he does not see campaigns through?
Rahul acknowledged the difficulties confronting the Opposition when he said, in the early days of the Yatra, that “… the fight is not between one political party and another… The media is not with the Opposition… because of pressure or the owners have a particular relationship… And a lot of people do not want to fight. It is easier to make peace ….” The weeks ahead will be a time to wait and watch, as political alignments keep shifting.

Last time around, the Congress won 27 out of 129 Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, while the BJP secured 29 seats. The Congress thinks that if the environment of Opposition unity intensifies, the BJP would not be able to win as many seats there as it did previously.

There are those who opine that the BJP could be vulnerable in 2024, if confronted by an Opposition Alliance that includes the Congress, headed by an elected President, and a distribution of seats in which no constituent party is pitted against another constituent in any State. An election, therefore, of the BJP (and allies) versus the Rest.

BJP VERSUS REST

In one recent ‘Mood of the Nation’ poll, 69 percent of the respondents are reported to have identified issues connected with the economy as the biggest failure of the government; 57 percent believed that things would get worse or, at least, not improve. More significantly, 67 percent said their economic status had deteriorated after 2014; add to this, the 56 percent who think unemployment is very serious.
The political system – with the BJP in virtually complete control – is going about its business with no meaningful Opposition in place, which was apparent from the developments surrounding the elections of the President (and the Vice President) of the Republic.

The departure of leaders is not new to the post-independence Congress, going so far back as 1948 when the Socialists-led by Acharya Narendra Deva and Jayaprakash Narayan–left

While the outcomes of the two general elections were not in doubt, these showed that the Opposition were incapable of ‘minimal coordination’. The point was not to win, it was to create a buzz.
With the BJP getting away with the narrative of inclusion, all that the Opposition could manage was to make some people wise to the fact that they are stuck in the past – devoid of social depth and imagination.

The risky manoeuvre of Nitish Kumar in Bihar has, in one view of the matter, breathed new life in the structure of non-BJP politics. Nitish Kumar has declared that if an Opposition Front of non-BJP parties comes to power at the Centre in 2024, it would accord ‘special category status’ to all backward States. Earlier, while on a visit to Bihar, the Telangana Chief Minister, K Chandrasekhara Rao of the TRS, made an announcement about providing ‘free water and electricity’.

Looking back to the risky manoeuvres of Chaudhary Charan Singh in Uttar Pradesh six decades ago, one recalls how this unleashed a momentum that led to the unravelling of the Congress citadel.
At this point in time – with the next Lok Sabha polls not so distant – is it too far-fetched to envision a ‘comparable polarisation’, a coming together of disparate constituencies, that could result in the kind of anti-system coalition that eventually countered Prime Minister Indira Gandhi?

Experienced leadership exists in the Opposition ranks, such as in Maharashtra, Delhi, West Bengal (Mamata Banerjee would, necessarily, come on board), Tamil Nadu, Telangana and in Bihar, led by Nitish Kumar. While the BJP cannot ignore the resentment attributable to unemployment and inflation, they are not leaving anything to chance and the Union Home Minister is already on the move, across States.
The results for the Gujarat Assembly (and in other States) may provide an idea as to how the electoral winds are blowing in the run-up to 2024.

In an emerging situation in which the BJP aspires to become the only dominant Party (like the Congress of old), a broad-based Opposition Front might conceivably reach quite close to a simple majority-based, minimal-winning coalition.

MATTERS NEED TO RESOLVE

If Congress is facing internal setbacks, the ruling party BJP has its own headaches related to economic and foreign affairs. India’s GDP grew at 13.5 percent in the Quarter ending June, 2022, much lower than the 16.2 percent forecast of the RBI’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC). The GDP numbers are raising questions about the economy’s growth prospects this fiscal. A sector-wise analysis suggests that ‘informal’ enterprises in the services sector remain the weakest link in post-pandemic recovery.
Retail inflation rose to 7 percent in August, 2022 marking the eighth consecutive month above the upper threshold of the RBI’s target. The inflation rate picked up on the back of a rise in food prices, especially of vegetables and milk, with a higher pace recorded for rural areas than urban areas.
The Index of Industrial Production (IIP) moderated to a four-month low of 2.4 percent in July, 2022, as against 11.5 percent a year ago, with slow growth in manufacturing, electricity and mining.

TROUBLED INDO-SINO TIES

In the field of external relations, Sino-Indian tensions re-ignited in August, 2022 over the arrival of Chinese ‘spy ship’, Yuan Wang-5 in the port of Hambantota, Sri Lanka. Those in the know believe that – given the cordial bilateral contacts and Colombo’s economic dependence on Beijing – there could be no plausible reason for Sri Lanka to deny entry to Yuan Wang-5 into Hambantota on which China has a 99-year lease. The big worry for the Indian security establishment is that the ship’s docking in Sri Lanka can act as a precursor for Chinese warships to regularly use the island nation as an operational facility.
China has been identifying logistical bases in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), after establishing the first overseas presence at Djibouti on the Horn of Africa in 2017. It has access to the Karachi and Gwadar ports in Pakistan and is initiating moves for such facilities in other locations in the IOR, such as Cambodia, the Seychelles and Mauritius.

India’s concerns in respect of the over 20,000-tonne Yuan Wang-5 (which is packed with antennae, sensors and advanced electronic equipment and has a crew of around 400) had earlier induced Sri Lanka to defer its arrival at Hambantota. But then, in a U-turn, Colombo allowed the same from August 16 to August 22, 2022.

The Congress is betting big on Bharat Jodo Yatra. In the past, these Yatra have proved politically beneficial, such as for former PM Chandrashekhar and the Dr MM Joshi – Narendra Modi Ekta Yatra in 1991

The issue may have subsided in due course, except for a signed Article of Qi Zhenhong, Chinese ambassador in Colombo, saying that external obstruction, based on ‘so-called security concerns but without any evidence from certain forces, is de facto a thorough interference in Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and independence’. While India was not named, the remarks were refuted by their High Commission in Sri Lanka.

In retaliation, it is believed, of Sri Lanka’s action in respect of the Chinese ‘spy ship’, the Indian Government called out the island nation at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for lack of ‘measurable progress’ on commitments for a political solution to the ethnic Tamil minority issue. This was a rare case of public disapproval by India.

However, much India’s foreign service mandarins may envisage a free and open Indo-Pacific, the actual dynamics that are unfolding are quite different. The External Affairs Minister (EAM) seldom misses a forum to reiterate that the Sino-Indian relationship has been going through an extremely difficult phase. He believes the Prime Minister has left an indelible stamp on Indian diplomacy.

SCO SUMMIT

When PM Modi and President Xi Jinping were face-to-face at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Samarkand (Uzbekistan), there were no signs of a thaw in the troubled India-China relations. At a photo-opportunity before the start of the first session of the Summit, the two leaders were not standing anywhere close. At a later photo-opportunity, they were seen next to each other. Greetings do not appear to have been exchanged.

Xi and PM Shehbaz Sharif of Pakistan met on the sidelines of the SCO Summit and documents on cooperation in railways and e-commerce were signed.

Xi Jinping has been engaging with Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan that have effusively praised his statesmanship and draped him in medals. In the narrative projected by Beijing, the pomp and fanfare lavished on Xi reaffirms his position as a reliable global leader and a source of strength in a world made turbulent by American hegemony; even Vladimir Putin is said to have been almost deferential in his meetings with Xi, acknowledging that China had ‘questions and concerns’ over the conflict in Ukraine.

In recent years, China has essentially replaced the United States as the strategic partner of choice for Pakistan

The Government of India have objected to the US plan for Foreign Ministry Sales (FMS) to Pakistan at an estimated US$ 450 million for hardware, software and spares for the F-16 fighter jet programme; their officials have asserted that the technology and assistance being made available for the F-16s would inevitably be deployed for operations against India.

America’s assumption that military sales to Pakistan do not affect the power balance in the Region is not well-founded. In recent years, China has essentially replaced the United States as the strategic partner of choice for Pakistan; this aspect should be of particular worry to Washington DC when it offers its largesse to Pakistan, hoping to wean the Islamic nation away from China. Anxious that friction with the US could further deepen Indo-US ties, the Pakistan Army has thrown a new line at America.

The US Department of Defence readout on Lloyd Austin’s call with Rajnath Singh made no mention of the latter’s concerns on the F-16 package, leaving India to swallow its disappointment, and demonstrating that if New Delhi can keep friends in various camps, so also can Washington DC oblige a non-NATO member, like Pakistan.

India is upset with the Biden administration for helping Pakistan secure an IMF bailout. The support that is being extended by the US emboldens China to continue to block the blacklisting of terrorists; Beijing has lately put a hold on the proposal moved at the United Nations to designate Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LET)’s Sajid Mir – the main handler of the 2008 Mumbai attacks – as a global terrorist. Opinion is not lacking about the US pampering Pakistan, despite the fact that Islamabad is backing terrorists, their organizations and terror infrastructure. Ironically, both China and Pakistan are members of the SCO which witnessed (in Samarkand) important discussions on terrorism and steps to deal with it.

SCIENTIFIC TEMPER

Even as the 75th Year of Indian Independence is a major milestone, a time to take stock of the progress in different spheres, the media are as blameworthy as other opinion-makers in failing to evaluate the status of science education in the country. While politicians, academicians, writers, artists, even bureaucrats, have received their due, science and scientists seem to have largely been ignored. This is a poor commentary.

A solid foundation for modern science was built by Indian scientists in the 1950s and 1960s – men like S S Bhatnagar, PC Mahalanobis, H J Bhabha and K S Krishnan – supported by the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, of whom his niece, the acclaimed author, Nayantara Sahgal, wrote: ‘No Nehru, no modern India. The ground we stand on was laid in Nehru’s time’.

These efforts notwithstanding, the ‘scientific temper’ remained a lofty ideal and has yet to percolate into the masses. This, in turn, has left much of the national psyche a prisoner of obscurantism and paved the way for religion-based thinking, at the expense of constitutionally-guaranteed secular values. A part of the problem lies with the scientific community itself and the science academies. Perhaps, it is fair to say that scientists have only half-heartedly stood up for key scientific causes and that many – including those occupying senior government positions – have not been fully committed to the scientific temper which calls for rationality and reason.

Indian society can no longer rest content with self-congratulatory notes and speeches of achievements and ancient greatness; it must avail the opportunity to critically examine and assess the successes and failures and prepare for a better future.

Science, scientific literacy and scientific research have a central role to play in bringing home that future.
Millions celebrated the ‘Amrit Mahotsav’ with enthusiasm and fervour. While there was much to celebrate, anniversaries are also occasions to set the course for the years ahead. Against many odds, the Republic went forward in 1950 as a unified democratic country – a remarkable achievement at the time that owed much to the early national leadership. The democratic practices developed into traditions.
It is gratifying that growing numbers are experiencing the fruits of freedom, but this is still a minority. Freedom for the few is seldom sustainable – unless the teeming masses also see and cherish the freedoms, these may remain a fragile dream.

Arun Bhatnagar

Arun Bhatnagar was formerly in the IAS and retired as Secretary, GOI. He attended St. Stephen’s College, Delhi in the early sixties. After retiring as Secretary (Personnel & Training) in the Union Government in 2004, he worked with the National Advisory Council (NAC) and, later, as Chairman, Prasar Bharati, New Delhi. He has had postings in the President of India’s Secretariat and in the Indian High Commission,
London. Bhatnagar’s earlier Book, ‘India: Shedding the Past, Embracing the Future, 1906-2017’, was well received as a historical narrative.

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