Indian Decade

Congress Party, Reincarnated?

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Indian Decade

Congress Party, Reincarnated?

India’s Congress Party is 125 years-old. But if it wants to refresh the country, it may need to reinvent itself again.

In Hindu tradition, it’s believed that rebirth takes place every 60 years. And with every rebirth, human beings are supposed to become wiser and more aware.

By that reckoning, India’s Congress Party is still young and well placed to lead a nation whose population is itself getting younger and younger. But is the party getting wiser, smarter and saner with each reincarnation? This is the big question when looking at all the problems the party now faces.

At present, it seems like the party is trapped in a quagmire through its repeated mistakes, arrogance and ineptitude. Sadly, with each rebirth the party seems to hit a new low and lacks the fresh ideas you’d expect from an organisation that boasts it represents a youthful nation.

This became glaringly clear at the recent plenary session that marked the 125th anniversary of the grand old Party, which was held at Burari on the outskirts of New Delhi. The meeting was held against the backdrop of an enormous corruption scandal that has engulfed the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. The problem has been compounded by the subsequent political drift that followed an abortive winter session of parliament, which got bogged down by opposition demands for a parliamentary investigation into the $40 billion telecom scandal involving a cabinet minister, industrialists, lobbyists and some journalists.

The Congress leadership claims the opposition is trying to tarnish the image of a clean prime minister, Manmohan Singh, by raking up the issue of corruption. But this isn’t the first time that a Congress-led government has been confronted with a corruption scandal.

In 1987, a major scam involving bribes over the purchase of Bofors guns saw the party ejected from power within five years of securing a two-third majority in the lower house. Even before this scandal broke, the Congress had faced defeat over corruption, inefficiency and laxity.

It’s such concerns that have prevented the largest party in India from being able to win a simple majority, on its own, since 1991. Indeed for eight years beginning in 1996, the party remained out of power altogether because of its inability to reinvent itself.

Once a party with an electoral base in every village, the Congress is now a shadow of its former self. A surprise victory in the 2004 general elections was supposed to provide a new political rebirth and usher in a new era of good governance. But just into the second year of its second term, the party seems to be losing steam.

The main reasons for this decline are simple: the party hasn’t learnt from the past, it’s again taking the people for granted and it has failed to introduce some long necessary changes needed to make itself relevant for a new era in which politics is being defined by the rising aspirations of a new and developing India.

Sadly, the party remained silent for more than two years even though the whole nation knew that A Raja, the former minister of telecommunications, was bending or breaking the rules over 2G spectrum allocation. The excuse that Raja is from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party doesn’t hold water for those who see his transgressions as not only morally lax, but criminal.

The Congress-led government also failed to act when it was widely reported that its flagship programme, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme, which was meant to provide jobs to the rural poor, had also been hit by massive corruption by officials and local politicians. The Congress Party now needs to find the guts to purge the party of the influences that have tarnished its name and eroded its support.

But corruption is just a manifestation of the larger problem plaguing the country—lack of good governance. The system devised and designed to serve the country in 1947 has crumbled, and there’s been a growing gap between policy and delivery. This has resulted in enormous public frustration (indeed, the Maoist problem is largely a result of disenchantment with the present system).

The bureaucratic system needs overhauling, so it can accommodate the rising aspirations of a new India. A few years ago, I was travelling with a senior Congress leader who told me how unhappy he was that inefficiency in the system meant that even a government with the best of intentions was unable to address the real grievances of the people.

So why isn’t the party that led the country in the freedom struggle against British colonialism not coming up with new ideas and even a fresh vision? Why is the party so resistant to bringing in a ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’ approach to help usher in an era of nation building?

In the plenary session, the Congress leadership reiterated its intention to act against corrupt elements. But mere reiteration of intent doesn’t cut much ice with the public, which has heard such rhetoric many times over the past six decades.

The tragedy is that the main oppositionBharatiya Janata Party seems as muddled as the ruling party, making it hard for the people not to feel indifferent toward the entire political system. That said, the BJP isn’t a natural party of governance because of its divisive communal agenda and its largely urban centric base, while the Communist opposition is rapidly diminishing and unable to inspire the people because of its historical and ideological rigidities.

This leaves it up to the largest party in India, with its national presence and inclusive vision, to shake things up. It has been reinvented many times in the past. But if it wants to reinvigorate the country and itself again, it will need some fresh thinking—and soon.