The Great Transformation:

30 May 2006
Achin Vanaik

The Great Transformation:
The old Congress has changed unrecognizably
Achin Vanaik
The Telegraph (Calcutta), 12 April 2006

However reluctant longtime supporters might be to accept this, let us proclaim the truth loud and clear. The Congress Party that led the National Movement, that did so much to shape the post-independence experience and which till the early eighties despite all ups and downs was the principal reference point of the polity – the embodiment of Indian centrism, programmatically most expressive of the widest cross-section of Indian society -- is no more. It is now a fundamentally rightwing party differing in no serious way from the BJP in either its economic or foreign policy perspectives. As for Congress commitment to secularism, this is more pragmatic than principled. There is usually a time lag between the emergence of a new socio-political phenomenon and the kind of theorization of it that can provide a more full-bodied awareness of what has happened. When, how and why has this transformation of the Congress taken place?

In seeking to understand what makes and shapes a party, one needs to look at four crucial dimensions and their interconnections and how these change over time: the programme, the leadership, the organizational structure, the social-electoral base. In the case of ideologically driven cadre parties it is always the programme that makes the party, never the other way around. To investigate changes in the character of such parties, the tell-tale signs are provided by the dilution of their programmes usually in response to the need to expand their social bases, even as all efforts must be made to prevent the demoralization of their ideologically trained and disciplined cadre-activist force. Hence the Left and the BJP can be expected to exhibit a much greater degree of historical continuity than parties like the Congress.

Before independence, the Congress was a party, a movement, and a government-in-waiting. After 1947, it rapidly shed the character of a movement but its extraordinary organizational and network character, forged in the process of leading the National Movement, made it a government-within-a-government. This fact went by many names -- the ‘Congress system’, ‘one-party dominance’, ‘the world’s greatest network of bargaining and patronage dispensation’. To this Congress must go the greatest credit for the initial institutionalization of a stable liberal democratic polity. From the late sixties onwards, the ‘Congress system’ collapsed organizationally and declined electorally-politically. Its network structure could not survive the twin blows of the passing away of a generation of leaders both dispersed and connected at all levels from the Centre to the state to the district to the block to the village; nor the substantial abandonment by the rising landed elite which became the key force behind the emergence of various non-Congress regional party alternatives.

Electorally, there was the decline in support from the upper and upper-middle castes and the increasing volatility of support from the core minorities of Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims. The former process was steadier, continuous and more serious. The consequences of this erosion of the Congress as the ‘natural party of governance’ were to unfold over the seventies, eighties and nineties. Three centrist alternatives emerged – the Janata Party, the Janata Dal, the United Democratic Front – none of which lasted a full term of office at the Centre. The Congress was reduced to a dysfunctional body dominated by a small centralized leadership itself dependent on the contrived charisma of the members of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty – the one link between the current Congress and its past ‘glory’. Now only governmental power could keep its patronage system going and it was the promise of victory at the polls that would crank to life at election times an otherwise non-functioning party machine. In the space of seven years the Congress would receive its highest vote (1984 - testimony to the new volatility of electoral behaviour) and then come back to power for the first time as a minority government (1991) needing to engineer defections to stabilize its term of office. Since then, with the regionalization of the Indian polity and the dramatic rise of the BJP, its leadership of coalition governments (1998, 1999-2004), its electoral plateauing and its subsequent relative decline, we are firmly in the era of coalition governments.

Programmatically speaking, the 1984 Rajiv Gandhi government first shifted economic policy significantly to the right. But the real turn in 1991 had to await the collapse of the Soviet Union and was then much more strongly ideologically determined. On the foreign policy front, the Narasimha Rao government effectively abandoned non-alignment and turned to the West, especially to the US. But it would be the BJP-led NDA, that exploded the bomb and sought strategic accommodation with the US, which really laid down the contours of Indian foreign policy; a direction faithfully followed, indeed accelerated by the current Manmohan Singh Congress. For at least the next decade or more, the overall profile is clear – the normalization of rightwing politics at the Centre at all levels, social, economic, cultural, the external – as two coalition groupings, led by the Congress and BJP, with some degree of interchangeability of junior regional partners, compete with each other.

Yet there remains one crucial difference between the Congress and the BJP. In the course of the nineties, the all-India electoral haemorrhage of the Congress from the top was so much greater than from below. Its upper caste Hindu vote as a proportion of all upper castes fell from 36% in 1991 to 21% in 2004 while its proportion of Dalit (39% and 37%) and Adivasi votes (45% and 42%) remained relatively stable between the two election periods. The proportion of Muslims voting Congress actually rose from 38% to 50%. In short, more than ever before in its history, the Congress is the party of the poor and lower castes but is also now decisively and determinedly rightwing in its policy orientation and behaviour. Three interconnected factors explain this extraordinary disjunction.

First, the emergence of a ‘middle class’ of mass proportions comprising the top 20% or more of Indian society provided the professional recruiting ground and the social base for explicitly rightwing, self-serving elite-driven policies. Second, the emergence of a totally new kind of leadership highly compatible with the values, preoccupations and interests of this burgeoning layer of elites and middle class and very different in its political culture, reflexes and commitment from that of the Congress past. It is this Congress leadership (starting from Rajiv Gandhi as the ‘face of modern India’), which in a context of internal organizational decay, is most responsible for the systematic–cumulative programmatic shift of the party to the right that eventually passed beyond the point of no return. Finally, there is the enormous pressure exerted by the remarkable rise of the BJP-RSS in large part also explained by its expanding support amidst this middle class.

In a more comparative survey, the most important contribution of the rise of the new right in the three democracies of US, UK and India, from the beginning of the eighties onwards, was its contribution to the decisive transformation of the main alternative party contender. This ensured the longer-term rightwing transformation of governmental policy. But where Reaganism and Thatcherism could only debouch into the eventual emergence of the Clinton ‘New Democrats’ and Blair’s ‘New Labour’ after provoking the rise and resistance of a ‘new left’ in both parties (Jesse Jackson and Tony Benn), that then had to be crushed within the parties through a fierce internal struggle, the Congress witnessed no such process. This Congress long ago shed the rooted organizational structure, which could have been the source and terrain of such a struggle to retain the party’s historical character.