Connecting Regions of Asia.

Indian National Congress : Ignoring the East ?

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Despite the present convulsions among its leaders, there is as yet  no  visible  end to the travails of the Indian National Congress(INC), post 2014.  There are  major reasons for the INC’s  inner turmoil.  In the short term there is the problem of the Gandhis clinging on to party leadership, which now threatens to split the century-old organisation.  In the longer term,   the   continuing decline of the INC is  the price  it is paying  for following  opportunistic policies  since the days of Mrs Indira Gandhi.   The INC is  yet to discard its fondness for   working out unprincipled  accommodations with regional parties.  This is especially true for   the Eastern states of Bengal and Assam . For the moment, the imminent threat to the Gandhis’ throne  has been staved off  by the promise of inner party elections and more functional autonomy at lower levels. But  the dissenters are not in a relenting mood.
At her  last meeting  with some   opposition leaders,  Mrs Sonia Gandhi   made it a point to let Bengal  Chief Minister   Mamata Banerjee  take charge for a while. Ms Banerjee, somewhat isolated in the national political arena these days,   is a  confirmed  sucker for such vacuous symbolism . Reacting as  expected ,  she   took the bit between her teeth and  called for an immediate anti BJP agitation in the context of coming round of  elections.   Clearly,such an agitation now  should  help the Gandhis retain their  power within the INC for the time being ,as the focus will shift to the larger country-wide  fight against the BJP.   She won  some support from the Shiv Sena , whose leaders may or may not be aware of the subtle games that go on between the INC and the Trinamool Congress(TMC).
 According to   TMC sources ,  there was a background to these developments. Apparently the INC top brass was keen to conclude  an understanding with the TMC in Bengal prior to the 2021  Bengal  Assembly elections . The parties, it has been suggested from Delhi, should   fight the polls on the basis of  a seat adjustment. The  state  Congress will leave the lion’s share of the 294 seats for the TMC to contest.  In return,  for the  LS polls in 2024, the TMC would return the favour and leave a generous number of seats for the INC to fight, to help its nation-wide fight against the BJP.  ‘This is  old wine in a new bottle,’ admits a TMC leader ,describing the move as a  re-run  of the late  Indira Gandhi’s similar arrangements  with major Tamil parties in Tamil Nadu in the past. In Assam, the INC now finds nothing wrong in forging an alliance with its earlier bête noire, the All India United  Democratic Front (AIUDF) led by Mr Badruddin Ajmal, MP.   
Such reports  do  not  enthuse  the Bengal  wing  of the INC. Since 2011, the state Congress had been  brutally bludgeoned into submission by  the ruling TMC as it crushed all opposition parties ruthlessly, using   either its money power  or force (read the police).  Senior Congress leaders   including  ex Ministers and MLAs   joined the TMC , lamenting the aimlessness within their old party.    Those who refused to defect  were as usually  brutally beaten up, or arrested by the police when they tried to  protest.
The central INC leadership was aware of this.  Both Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Mr. Rahul Gandhi  were  angry with the TMC’s  tactics, but could do little. Their own  prospects had not really improved by winning 44 seats in 2014 and 52 in 2019. The entire opposition was thoroughly demoralised by the BJP’S 2019 Lok Sabha polls  sweep.  
  Surprisingly, even  though  the BJP has  fared miserably at the centre in terms of its governance  whether in the economic or foreign affairs   — long before the Covid 19 pandemic began, the  economy had been  facing strong headwinds —the opposition could not capitalize on this.  The  general  performance of governments  in the states where the opposition ruled was hardly any better.  Now that things have hit rock bottom, with the country’s GDP about to be  shaved off  by nearly 24% on  the short term, no wonder the opposition sniffs blood  ,itching for a fight.  
Unfortunately,  the largest opposition party, the INC is  yet to evolve any sort of response to the  challenge that confronts it, if  what happened at the CWC meeting are any indication. The party is still wedded  to its old hoary line of aligning itself with strong regional parties at the state level, playing second fiddle if necessary, in East India.   In return,  a Congress-ruled centre would allow  corruption or highhandedness among  regional party leaders ruling the states, so long as they supported the INC .  True,  parties like the SP and  the BSP in Uttar Pradesh and   the RJD in Bihar   did not play by the rules. They offered miserable seat sharing deals to the Congress and sought to strike root   in other states.  But thanks to the non- interference from the centre, local leaders acquired larger than life identities, assets  and lifestyles.
Eventually their  corruption  proved costly for the SP, the BSP and the RJD which suited the INC, not to mention the BJP admirably.  But the sad message that went out was that   so  desperate the Congress was for power  and comfort in Delhi,  that they were willing to write off the states and the crores of people who happened to live there !  And what is India without its states ?
 Whatever his other failings might have been the late  Jawaharlal Nehru was not the architect such a policy. The discredit goes to Indira  Gandhi.  Angered by the  persistence of  voters in Bengal not to vote for the Congress but  to support the Left instead,   she  once shocked the late state Congress leader Abu Barkat Ghani Khan Choudhury, saying.’I can win without West Bengal.’ She proved correct, up to a point . But by  the late sixties, the signs were ominous . Her  party was out of power in not just  Bengal but in many  other states in  1967 ! True, the  first non- Congress state  governments did not last long, but they succeeded in breaching the hitherto impregnable ramparts of the ruling party. Things would never be the same again. People now realized they could change their rulers by voting against them.                                         
Strangely enough ,there was no mention of how the next elections round the corner in Bengal, Bihar and Assam would or should  be fought , according to media reports.  Apparently, even the dissidents  see nothing wrong in their party , which had earlier ruled in all three states for years, now talking about contesting the polls in partnership/alliance. . For the INC in Bengal, the choice would be between  aligning with  the Left and the TMC, against a  resurgent BJP.   
Says one observer,’Why don’t they learn from the BJP’s experience in Assam or  Bengal ?  For years they won only a handful of votes. But they never sought help from others , nor gave up their activities. And now look at the results in 2019-20 !  Whether it is the   INC leaders or dissidents who criticise them, they must appreciate that there is no alternative to hard work. Why not make a beginning from the three Eastern states which together send 96 MPs to Parliament ?’
( Senior Calcutta journalist Ashis Biswas is now news editor at Easternlink)

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