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Congress must take steps to close its fault lines

December 2, 2010 - New Delhi

Nobody would have thought in May 2009, when the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) won another mandate from the Indian people, that the coalition would run out of steam in just about a year and a half.

Though it would not be prudent to write off the alliance at present, the fault lines in the combine cannot be hidden any longer. The Congress, the leading light of the coalition, it is apparent, would be the worst hit if steps are not taken soon to check the decline in its fortunes.

When the Congress won 200 plus seats in the Lok Sabha in 2009, it was seen as a major landmark on the way to the revival of the party. rom being the natural party of governance in the country, from Independence in 1947 to the end of the Rajiv Gandhi era in 1989, the party had fallen on bad days and forced to sit in the opposition during the post 1996 period till 2004.

Even during the period 1991-96, it was able to form a government under P.V. Narasimha Rao, only because of the sympathy wave following Rajiv Gandhi's assassination.

Though very little separated the Congress from the BJP in 2004 in terms of the number of seats won in the Lok Sabha elections, the party was able to form a coalition with other non-BJP parties with the support of the Left parties, given the desire of major elements in the polity not to allow saffron forces to continue with their grip on the levers of power.

The Congress built on the gains made during the first five year tenure of the United Progressive Alliance to come up with a sterling performance in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

The party was no doubt helped a great deal by the clean image of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the role played by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty political heir Rahul Gandhi in galvanizing the party in the key state of Uttar Pradesh.

But developments in the last few months have greatly eroded the credibility of the party. Scams after scams have been coming to light in the recent past, which have dented the Teflon-coated image of Dr. Manmohan Singh as a person untainted with corruption.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi very rightly asserted the other day that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is 100 percent honest. This is no doubt a positive quality for a private person or a personal friend, but obviously the person heading an organization or a country as head of government has to be more than just personally honest.

As the head of the Indian government, it is Dr. Manmohan Singh's duty to ensure that people around him - his ministerial colleagues and others - do not transgress the norms of probity.

The impression is gaining ground that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has not been able to curb corruption around him. There has been a succession of charges of corruption against key functionaries of the government involved in the 2-G spectrum allocation, organisation of the Commonwealth Games and the Adarsh Housing Society; to name just a few.

One factor which is common in all these cases is the failure of those in authority, and whose responsibility it was, to take any credible action to check corrupt practices till they were forced to do so by the pressure of public opinion.

The 2-G spectrum scam is inherited from the first stint in power of the United Progressive Alliance. The Comptroller and Audition General report may have pin-pointed the huge loss caused to the national exchequer now, but rumblings about the irregularities and lack of honest practices in allocating the scarce spectrum have been there for a long time and there was no effective action to put a stop to the rot.

There is no doubt that the opposition insistence on a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the 2-G spectrum scam, apart from the Commonwealth Games irregularities and corruption and the Adarsh Housing Society scandal is politically motivated. But this is only natural as both the government and the opposition are playing the political game of one-upmanship.

It is true that the hands of the principal opposition party, the BJP, may not be as clean as they are claiming. For this, one just has to look at how the BJP high command has allowed Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa to continue in office despite there being credible accounts of how he flouted rules and regulations to allot government land to his kith and kin for a pittance.

The objective of the opposition no doubt is to create a situation like the one that prevailed in the late 1980s following the anti-Bofors gun deal campaign and boycott of Parliament launched by V.P. Singh and others, which resulted in the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi cruising to a defeat in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections. The defeat was especially galling for the Congress as it had won nearly four-fifths of the Lok Sabha seats in the 1984 general elections which followed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination.

The effort of the Opposition is to strive that in future electoral battles, the Congress would not be able to depend upon Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's clean image to get the support of the middle class voters, who had deserted the BJP to plump for the Congress in the May 2009 Lok Sabha elections. The voters expected the Prime Minister to deliver clean governance, which the UPA appears to have failed to provide.

There are doubts also about the efficacy of the second element which brought the Congress victory in 2009 - Rahul Gandhi's drive to bring about a generational change in the Congress and to make the party reach out to the grass roots. The objective of the strategy to go it alone in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar during last year's Lok Sabha elections was basically the rebuilding and revival of the party at the ground level.

By his relentless drive to connect with the people and by the party decision to go it alone, Rahul Gandhi appears to have succeeded in achieving the objective to a large extent in Uttar Pradesh, where the party was able to emerge a close second to Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party in terms of Lok Sabha seats won. Rahul Gandhi's strategy did not meet with the same success in Bihar.

Commenting upon the results of last month's Bihar Assembly elections, Congress president Sonia Gandhi said that the party did not expect much from the elections. She admitted that the party has to start from the scratch to rebuild itself in the second most populous state in the politically crucial Hindi heartland. Rahul Gandhi no doubt tried to rejuvenate the Congress organization in Bihar but apparently failed, as shown by the party strength in the Assembly being cut by more than 50 percent from nine to four.

With the erosion of the two main key planks used by the Congress to revive itself, and to achieve its objective of coming to power at the Centre on its own, the party has to look for ways to win back the favour of the people.

To clean away the corruption taint, the Congress-led UPA government has initiated some steps against those involved in the massive loss caused to the national exchequer in the 2-G spectrum allocation and the Commonwealth Games mess.

The measures look good on the surface, like new Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal's decision to issue notices to companies, which are alleged to have been given telecom licenses and allotted spectrum without being eligible, to show cause why their licenses should not be cancelled.

The government has also acted against key functionaries of the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee for the irregularities and alleged corruption in giving contracts for various activities connected with the games.

So far so good, but the people would be keeping a watch on how the action against corrupt elements goes ahead. The bitter experience in the past has been that despite any number of probes and enquiry commissions, the corrupt get away with their loot. If this happens again, the people and the voters would be drawing their own conclusions and this may not be good for the Congress.

Rahul Gandhi's strategy to rebuild the party at the grassroots is not going to make much headway unless the Congress gives up its culture of leaving all decisions to the party high command, rather than allow democratic decision-making in the party from the lowest to the highest level.

India is emerging as one of the world's largest economies and with a little push may also emerge as a big power in the foreseeable future. or this, India requires at the helm of affairs leaders with vision but with their feet on the ground.

The Congress party will have to nurture leaders of this timbre. By B. I. Saini


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