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Thursday, November 29, 2012

After a period of relative inactivity, Rahul Gandhi is beginning to get involved again in party matters. Pramod Kumar examines what it means in the run up to the 2014 elections

For the Nehru-Gandhis, to enter national politics and immediately establish their suzerainty is but a natural sequence of events. Contemporary Indian history, from Jawaharlal to Sonia, will willingly vouchsafe for it. Neither in the case of Indira nor Rajiv was the transition to active politics ever in any doubt.

Then what it is that is keeping Rahul Gandhi away from the family occupation? There is that something that continues to raise question marks over his leadership, indeed even his entry into national politics.

Since the disastrous UP assembly election results, these interrogatives have grown in number. Was Rahul’s entry into politics not well timed? Or did it come at a time when political conditions were adverse for the Congress?

This strange, slightly unexplained vacuum at the top has prompted a series of strategic discourses. There is one school which says the time to introduce sister Priyanka Gandhi has come – an oblique hint that the heir apparent may not have what it takes to handle the hurly-burly of Indian politics.

The other school of thought believes that like father Rajiv, Rahul will gradually mature into politics, learn the ropes and come into his own.

There is also the view that laptop experts in Rahul’s central Delhi office may know a lot about information technology but precious little about India’s political ethos. But nuances notwithstanding, central questions remains unanswered. When will Rahul reveal his magic? Could it be too late before he shows his hand? There are those like UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav who believe that Rahul should agree to a position either in the government or the party and then take it from there. Congress insiders say that Rahul could accept a super general secretary kind of position in the party. Showing due deference to party elders, Rahul had accepted the relatively humble position of general secretary; in reality he could have got anything he wanted.

But it is quite likely that this deference has been seen as a weakness by party stalwarts. The kind of statements issued by senior Congress leaders in the run up to the UP elections without Rahul ever interfering once, has given him the image of a 'soft’ leader. With his elevation as general secretary of the party’s youth wing, Rahul had hoped to develop a dedicated band of Youth Congress workers. A failed talent hunt through the states put paid to his plans.

There are many reasons being attributed to this aborted mission, the most prominent of them being that virtually every senior Congress leader wanted his son or daughter to join Rahul at the cost of dedicated party workers – with preferably a party ticket to boot!

Proof of this typical Congress skullduggery has come in Uttarakhand where Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna’s son has got the Congress ticket to contest from the Pauri Lok Sabha seat, ignoring claims of senior notables. The result of such a machination is that Rahul is having a tough time answering questions to people in his own constituency.

But party insiders say that with the Congress rout in UP and his aborted mission to develop a dedicated youth cadre, Rahul is on the introspection trail. He has adopted a lower profile than ever before and is known to ask party workers to give their complaints in writing.

It is also said about Rahul that his ability to communicate with the common worker is not as effective as it should be. Intervening with words like 'let me tell you’ or ‘let me elaborate’ just did not go down well with the electorate in UP.

But Congress leaders insist that if the Congress scion elaborated on central assistance to the state governments, there was no harm in it, considering that other Congress leaders were not doing the same. In addition, they say, that UP is a caste laboratory where it is not too easy to unravel the winning combination. If it were, the Congress would not have been out of power in the state for so long.

Some indication of this has come in the Anthony Committee report on the UP poll debacle submitted to the party high command. According to it, about 122 A-plus assembly seats personally selected by Rahul Gandhi would have yielded good dividends if senior leaders had decided not to shoot their mouths off.

Rahul’s next litmus test is going to come in Gujarat, expected to go to polls by the end of 2012. Already the Rahul Gandhi vs Narendra Modi chorus is growing into a crescendo, with punters attaching the tag of a semi-final before the 2014 General Elections. Party insiders admit that Modi is nearly certain to return, albeit with a slimmer majority.

That leads to other problems. Party leaders fear in the eventuality of Modi coming back, knives will be out for the Congress leader sooner rather than later. In Gujarat too, the problem is the same as UP. Big party leaders have abdicated their responsibility and handed over the state to powerful opposition leaders on a platter.

The larger question is this: if the Congress fails yet again in Gujarat, could it mean a full stop to Rahul’s fledging political career? There are no clear answers. With the UPA poised to bring in legislations like the popular Food Security bill after the Gujarat elections, it is hoped that the tide will turn in its favour.

The Congress has also taken Mulayam Singh Yadav’s attempts at cobbling up a Third Front seriously. The top party leadership is loathe to lending outside support as they did in the forgettable decade of the 1990s when a slew of rank outsiders came to occupy the country’s top post with Congress’ outside support.

Nonetheless, the year-and-a-half left of Manmohan Singh’s rule is time enough for Rahul to consolidate the party’s base. There are indications that after a period of relative inactivity, Rahul is beginning to leave his imprint on the functioning of the government.

Handing over additional charge of the Railway Ministry to Rural Development Minister CP Joshi, the appointment of Nirmal Khatri as president of the UP Congress against stiff local opposition and the removal of Digvijay Singh as Congress UP observer in favour of Union minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, are all indictors that Rahul is beginning to flex his muscles again. There is also talk of a larger revamp in the party organisation.

Congress leaders claim the situation is not as bad as people believe. There is talk of an organisational shake up and many few faces could be thrown up from the states. "If the party works on the plans charted out by Sonia Gandhi, the results of the 2014 would come as a pleasant surprise to us,’’ says a leader. If that happens, the time for Rahul’s redemption could well have arrived.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

While senior DMK functionaries maintain a studied silence, grassroots workers of the party, according to our survey, might actually be weighing in for Narendra Modi come the 2014 elections, reports Appanasamy

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) is facing a bit of an embarrassment. While it is still firmly behind the Congress in the UPA government, the mood among the lower level party workers seems to be different. According to the survey conducted by TSI, more than 39 per cent of DMK voters in Tamil Nadu will support the BJP if Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is the prime ministerial candidate. Compared to that, the Congress heir apparent Rahul Gandhi has scored a mere 19 per cent.

Not unexpectedly, the result of the poll left the middle-level leaders of the party red in the face, scrambling to explain. “These are things that only the party high command can decide. We should not be talking about it till such time as a decision is given out by them, not even within party circles. Our leader (M Karunanidhi) will take the right decision for the party and we will abide by it. Till then, we cannot further comment on this,” said one, on the condition of anonymity.

The Dravidian parties, like most other regional parties, have always vacillated between the Congress and the BJP. Tamil Nadu had been a Congress stronghold before Jayalalithaa and her AIADMK swept the Parliamentary elections in the state in 1998 in alliance with the BJP. The DMK would go on to adopt the strategy next year and win even more seats in the Lok Sabha election of 1999. Both parties have, since then, supported the Congress time and again. But even the most rabid party worker knows that these alliances have been mostly opportunistic.

This time around, the balances seem to be tipping in favour of the BJP. The image of industrialisation and pro-progress activism that Modi has cultivated and promoted through popular media and news channels has gained quite a bit of traction among DMK workers, particularly the middle class. What has been more beneficial for Modi is his handling of the major earthquakes in the city. The common man seems to be firmly behind Modi's media-propagated image of a shining beacon. One DMK supporter, Dravida Mani from north Chennai, was quite unambiguous when he said, “If we do have an alliance with the BJP, we will work our very best to put Narendra Modi in the prime minister's seat.”

On the other hand, the last few years of UPA rule have not been the best, marked as it was with scams, allegations of corruption and economic strife. The recent “harsh decisions” taken by the government by way of FDI in the retail sector, diesel price hike and rationing of LPG cylinders have done nothing to cement support for the UPA among the middle class. Naseer from Ambattur echoes popular sentiment when he says, “The eight years that the UPA government has been in power has only aggravated dissatisfaction of the common man. Is BJP not a better option?”

To compound the problems for the grand old party, Rahul Gandhi has not exactly been able to solidify his claims to being a national leader. The debacle that the Congress faced in Uttar Pradesh is largely attributed to his strategies and that has not been missed by the public in Tamil Nadu. Adds Naseer, “The experiments made by Rahul in the 2011 provincial elections proved disastrous. His tireless propaganda did not produce anything near to the expected levels. So at present, the only hope is Modi.”

However, too much should not be read into the survey reports. “The idea of more volunteers wanting Modi to become the prime minister is not entirely true,” says AS Paneerselvam, the readers' editor of The Hindu. Even in AIADMK, no one knows whom to support except Jayalalitha. Actually, they are waiting for her lead, Paneerselvam adds.

While the popular sentiment is important, the final decision, as always, will lie with the chiefs. “In India, parliamentary elections are not held on the basis of prime ministerial candidates and their popularity. The members of Parliament ultimately decide the composition of the government and who becomes the prime minister, not popular sentiment,” says senior journalist Sigamani.

Both Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa have been known to rule over their parties with quite the iron hand. And the party members, too, have been only too willing to swear “complete loyalty” to their respective leaders. And why not? It does help later on to reap the benefits of power. DMK supporters declare vehemently: “Even if we personally favour Narendra Modi, in the elections we will vote according to our leader's choice. We will never betray our charismatic leader.”

Therefore, as far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, it is clearly all a question of who eventually gets the blessings of M Karunanidhi or J Jayalalithaa. Everything else can only be regarded as mere speculation at the present juncture. There could be many a twist between now and the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. 


Monday, November 12, 2012

The first post-Independence Hindutva political outfit, Jan Sangh, was forged in Bengal but the state has resolutely kept that historical legacy at bay.

CS Bhattacharjee probes the reasons why India’s third largest state in terms of Lok Sabha seats has never embraced rightwing nationalism

The Bharatiya Janata Party has never been more than a fringe player in West Bengal despite the fact that several Bengali leaders played a crucial role in the evolution of India’s Hindu rightwing. Jan Sangh, BJP’s forerunner, was founded in 1953 by Shyamaprasad Mookerjee, once a member of Nehru’s Cabinet. NC Chatterjee, father of leftist stalwart and former Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, was a president of the Hindu Mahasabha. But neither his son nor any Shyamaprasad kin ever flirted with a Hindu outfit. The state as a whole has traditionally perceived the BJP and its progenitors with a degree of suspicion.

As a result, the Shyamaprasad legacy hasn’t impacted politics in the state. Experts cite several factors for the inability of Hindutva forces to secure a firm toehold in Bengal. Says Tarun Mondal, SUCI (Communist) MP: “Bengal’s cultural heritage was shaped by freedom fighters and social reformers, towering personalities like Surjya Sen, Pritilata Waddedar and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. They preached true secularism – not the secularism of today’s politics. No single political party can take credit for the state’s progressive secular left-leaning moorings that have kept communalists at bay.”

Barun Dasgupta, former Guwahati bureau chief of The Hindu, cites another reason: “RSS and Hindu Mahasabha never participated in the freedom movement. So their acceptability among the masses has been limited from the outset.” He adds: “After the communal riots triggered by Muslim League's ‘Direct Action Day’ on August 16, 1946, the stream of refugees from East Pakistan came under the influence of the Left. The weak Hindu rightwing parties, neither the dying Hindu Mahasabha nor the rising Jan Sangh, could garner much support among the displaced. Even a popular leader like Shyamaprasad Mookerjee failed to make his party acceptable in Bengal.”

This state, says Professor Tarun Sanyal, president of the pro-change Forum for Intellectuals, Artists and Authors, has always been culturally pluralistic. “Unlike North India, Bengal never supported Brahminism. In the 15th century, during Hussain Shah’s reign, Bengal produced a religious leader like Mahaprabhu Chaitanya Dev. The 18th and 19th centuries produced Indian renaissance leaders like Raja Rammohun Roy, Vidyasagar, Rabindranath Tagore and others. Their vision engendered two distinct streams — one nationalistic, the other left-revolutionary. Both regarded Bengal as a separate cultural entity. BJP, preacher of Hindi-Hindu-Hindusthan, does not quite fit here,” he adds.

Psephologist and political scientist Biswanath Chakraborty asserts that Bengal’s left-revolutionary culture is a bulwark against BJP. “Bengal’s elite never supported those that were behind the 'Great Calcutta Killings' during Partition. This intellectual class opted either for the Congress or the undivided CPI, different from today’s communists. Bengal was the land of the renaissance in the 18th century and India’s industrial resurgence began in this part during the British period. That is the reason why the concept of both nationhood and class-based politics emerged here first,” he explains.

But that is not to say that Bengal did not send Sangh parivar representatives to the Lok Sabha after Shyamaprasad Mookerjee and NC Chatterjee. Tapan Sikdar and Satyabrata Mukherjee were Union ministers under Atal Behari Vajpayee. One of BJP's founders, Vishnukant Shastri, was a Rajya Sabha member in 1992. In 1977, he won the Bengal Assembly elections on a Janata Party ticket. Haripada Bharati was also an MLA at that time. Jan Sangh was dissolved into Janata Party in 1977 and the two leaders rode the wave unleashed by Jayaprakash Narayan’s anti-Emergency agitation. In this millennium, BJP has won an Assembly seat only on one occasion. Badal Bhattacharya won the Habra seat in the 2001 election with the help of the Trinamool Congress (TMC).

The sudden 1991 spike in support for the BJP, which polled 11 per cent vote, says eminent journalist Debasish Bhattacharjee, should be attributed to inner contradictions in the CPM and the people’s disenchantment with a ‘corrupt’ Congress. “Since then, the BJP’s vote share has hovered around 3.5 per cent but the party has not been able to consolidate its support in any single constituency quite to the extent to actually win a seat. Badal Bhattacharjee became a BJP MLA in 2001 only because TMC helped him.”

Analysing the role of Sangh Parivar-BJP politics in Bengal, Professor Chakraborty says BJP’s ‘core’ ideology of ‘Hindutva’ has never spread here since its inception in the 1980s. “In 1991, BJP’s vote percentage went into double digits owing to several factors, including mass disenchantment with both the Left and the Congress. Data shows that the BJP vote influenced the final result in up to 65 Assembly segments, and in most of the cases Left was the gainer,” he said.

In the early 1990s, BJP strengthened its presence in the border region — from North 24-Parganas down south to Jalpaiguri and Cochbehar in north Bengal. “But, the Babri Masjid demolition pulled its vote share down. Muslims, in search of social security, returned to either the Left or the Congress,” says Chakraborty.

Interestingly, BJP increased its tally from 1 to 2 in late 1999, when Tapan Sikdar got himself re-elected and Satyabrata Mukherjee also won. By that time, a breakaway Congress faction became TMC and formed an electoral alliance with BJP. Says Chakraborty: “Left’s departure from class-based politics, the United Front’s failure to rule the nation, and Tapan Sikdar’s handling of the ‘East Bengal refugees’ issue helped the party.” A section of the state did accept Vajpayee’e liberal attitude as an ‘alternative’ to the Nehru-Gandhi politics and supported the BJP. But the 2002 Gujarat riots halted the BJP’s progress in Bengal, he points out.

BJP leaders too are aware of the situation. One of them says on condition of anonymity: “A reason for our diminishing influence is over-dependence on the Marwari and other non-Bengali communities.” BJP leaders like Paras Datta and Colonel Sabyasachi Bagchi have joined TMC. With a sole active warrior in Sikdar, the party seems doomed to be an also-ran in West Bengal.

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Saturday, November 03, 2012

The trouble that began for the Congress in 2009 now threatens to breach the party’s poll prospects in 2014. Krishna Sairam has the larger picture

While the Congress is under pressure in several states, nowhere is the situation as piquant for it as in Andhra Pradesh. In 2009, the state was a major contributor to the party’s Lok Sabha kitty, a walloping 33 out of 42 seats. Now, experts predict, the results would be quite the contrast. The rising unpopularity graph of the Congress has been put down to a cocktail of heavy taxes, soaring fuel prices and deadly political instability stemming from the proposed creation of a separate Telengana state.

If the recent byelection results and various surveys on the functioning of Congress government are anything to go by, there are disturbing signs ahead. Of 18 Assembly seats that went to the bypolls, Congress just about managed to retain two in addition to losing the important Nellore LS seat. In a pointer to what may happen in the foreseeable future, all these seats, barring Tirupati, were represented by Congress MLAs since 2009.

The party’s hard luck story in Andhra, post-YSR Reddy, continues. Dyed-in-the-wool Congress representatives in the constituencies going to the bypolls, one fine day and without any preliminaries, switched their loyalties to YSR Congress, launched by the late chief minister’s son Jaganmohan Reddy. The candidates may have lost the preliminary membership of the Congress but more than made up for it with thumping wins on the YSR Congress tickets. Today, without a shadow of doubt, the YSR Congress has emerged as a strong third force capable of delivering body blows to both the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP).

And that is precisely what it has done. It secured 46 per cent votes in the bypolls and that in multi-cornered contests. The fledgling legacy of YSR is fast spreading its base among the three prominent political regions in Andhra Pradesh – coastal Andhra, Telangana and Rayalaseema.

What has hit the Congress really hard is the Telengana issue: does the party and state government support the creation of a separate state carved out of Andhra, a long-standing political demand? The issue has virtually split the Congress vote bank with divided regional loyalties. By and large, party leaders in coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema favour a united Andhra. In contrast, the people of Telangana are in ferment, their agitation for a separate state growing in magnitude by the day.

The Telengana issue has now become a mill around the party's neck. The party had 'promised’ to sympathetically look into the demands in the run-up to the 2004 and 2009 general elections. In reality, it has done very little. In contrast to the BJP, the Congress remains ideologically opposed to the idea of small states and has since 2004 pursued a meaningless policy of wait and watch. The BJP-led NDA government had presided over the bifurcation of UP and Bihar into Uttarakhand and Jharkhand respectively. If that was not bad enough, under acute local pressure, the Congress committed a grave error in December 2009 by recklessly announcing that the process for the formation of Telangana would be initiated. The announcement started a huge flap in coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema.

Political analysts say that the central government succumbed to the pressure exerted by ‘muscled’ coastal leaders, whose interests are intrinsically linked with affluent Hyderabad and the central leadership of the party had no option but to go back on its somewhat tentative announcement. The results are there to see. From 2009 till date, the Congress has lost all elections in Andhra with huge margins. For the same period, the state has been virtually on the boil.

Says S Sudheer Kumar, an IT executive in Hyderabad, "The government has been unable to control agitations, leaving the people to fend for themselves against mobs. Obviously, people are seeking alternatives. Why should I vote for Congress again?’’ Kumar’s view is representative of the public ire.

Economically, too, the state is in a mess. In the last decade, Andhra Pradesh rarely witnessed power cuts in the monsoon season. Now for the first time, an 8-hour power cut in rural areas and 6 in urban, have added to people's frustration. Power holidays for industries are being enforced. There is no new industrial policy. Employment opportunities have fallen drastically and sales tax on fuel products are the highest in the country leading to all-round discontent.

The Telengana-driven political instability has kept investors away; not too long ago, this largest state in south India was a preferred destination for entrepreneurs. Slowly, many corporate offices are moving to Chennai, Bangalore and New Delhi, what with agitations and strike calls vitiating the working atmosphere to a significant degree.

The year 2009 can be considered a landmark for the Congress. "Since the 2009 elections, there have been three chief ministers but until the Telangana issue is settled, there will be no progress in the state. Either way, the government should take a call on the bifurcation and forcefully stand by its decision,’’ says Sethuraman, a Tamil merchant.

Inflation is a bugbear. "In the last three years, prices of essential commodities, including milk, oil and vegetables, have doubled. Why should I vote this government?" questions an indignant T Janaki Rani, a homemaker. Some preliminary poll surveys have given the Congress nine Lok Sabha seats out of 42. The worry is that if this trend continues till 2014, it will make its return in the state and perhaps even the centre, difficult.

The party’s high command is seized of the issue and the people's strong anti-Congress sentiments. Once Andhra paved the way for the formation of UPA government in 2004. But, in 2014, it shows all the signs of becoming a victim of deadly anti-incumbency.