The Resurrection of India’s Congress Party — A Worrying Road Ahead

On May 16th, some 60 percent of India’s 714 million-strong electorate delivered a definitive victory to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), giving it a commanding 262 seats in India’s 543-member parliament.  The UPA’s principal opponent, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), took a severe beating, dropping down to 160 seats from the 181 it had claimed in 2004.

The UPA quickly made up for the shortfall of 10 seats it needed to reach an absolute majority.  A range of smaller parties and independents offered the new government unconditional support, raising the UPA’s working tally to 322 seats, a comfortable margin that has firmly reversed the prediction that India was headed for a weak coalition government, strung together by a cluster of demanding regional parties or the Left.

Prior to last Saturday’s verdict, all eyes were on the Bahujan Samaj Party (the BSP), the regional party associated with India’s Dalit community, the lowest Hindu castes once known as “untouchables,” and its leader, the rough-speaking Kumari Mayawati, who is currently the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most populous state (states are akin to Canadian provinces, and chief ministers akin to premiers).

The BSP was expected to win more than half of UP’s 80 parliamentary seats, guaranteeing it kingmaker status, and Mayawati a crack at the top job of Prime Minister.  Such hopes were swiftly dashed, however, when the BSP bagged only 21 seats.  The Left parties — also viewed as possible kingmakers — suffered an equal hammering, losing in even their bastion states of West Bengal and Kerala.  In West Bengal, this was the worst showing in 32 years for the Left’s frontrunner party, the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPM), which has governed the state without pause since 1977.

This is certainly a moment of triumph for the Indian National Congress (the Congress party), the 124-year old organization that was born out of India’s struggle for freedom from British colonial rule.  On its own, the Congress has won 206 seats, its best performance since 1991 (it failed to win more than 150 seats in the last four elections, leading to speculation of its permanent demise as a national party).  Manmohan Singh, a former economics professor, is the first Prime Minister since 1961 to be voted back after completing a full five-year term.

In India, the judgment is being widely read as a vote for stability and “development,” and the refreshing ability of a “maturing” electorate to look beyond the divisive politics of region, religion, and caste.

It’s also being interpreted as a personal victory for the “incorruptible” Manmohan Singh, and more importantly, for Rahul Gandhi, the 38 year-old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty (India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was his great grandfather, Indira Gandhi, his grandmother, and Rajiv Gandhi, his father).  Gandhi is arguably the most influential among the party’s top brass.  An elected member of parliament from UP, he is said to be hugely popular among India’s 100 million or so young (under-30) voters.  Gandhi’s glamorous looks, frank talk, and “natural” political savvy are seen as central to the Congress’s surprising resurrection, especially in UP, leading to rumours that Gandhi may replace the elderly Singh as Prime Minister in a couple of years.

But the Congress’s resurgence owes to more than a few sparkling personalities.  It rests, more broadly, on the revival of an important skill from its glory days, particularly under Nehru, when the party would consciously absorb, into its platform, core elements of the policies and priorities of its critics and opposition parties.  The Congress rode to success on this strategy through the decolonization process, and for thirty years following independence in 1947, when it governed the country uninterrupted, drawing many separatists and would-be revolutionaries into its fold.  Yet this tactic is not necessarily a progressive one, as the Congress isn’t particularly selective about what it takes from its opponents.  As we see below, it tends to mirror both the best and worst in the system.

Building by borrowing. . .

Sensing its decline in the last decade — defined by the rise of minority and coalition governments at the centre — the Congress has shifted closer to its three most important opponents, the BJP, the BSP, and the Left.

Let’s turn, first, to the BJP, the party associated with “Hindu nationalism” (Hinduism, India’s dominant religion, is practised by about 80 percent of the population).  The BJP has earned worldwide notoriety for its anti-minority stance.  However, according to several reputed India-scholars, including elections specialist Yogendra Yadav, the party has tempered this position (though arguably not the intention), possibly out of recognition that pinning one’s electoral hopes on bashing Muslims, building more temples, and banning cow slaughter simply won’t work in a country of India’s staggering diversity (Hindus are acutely divided by region, language, and caste, and many low castes have better relations with Muslims than they do with upper-caste Hindus).

The more sellable aspect of the BJP’s agenda is its standpoint on “national security” and foreign policy.  Here, however, the Congress has shuffled extraordinarily close to its long-time adversary.  It stole the BJP’s thunder by being uncompromisingly tough on Pakistan, especially following last November’s attacks on Mumbai, when Indian investigators alleged that most of the assailants were Pakistani citizens.  In line with its new stress on internal security and zero tolerance for terrorism (“enough is enough”), the Congress supported the creation of a central investigative agency, and the reintroduction of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), both of which the BJP has wanted for years.  Moreover, while the BJP has always called for a stronger strategic alliance with the United States, especially in the face of America’s “war on terror,” it was the Congress-led government, under Manmohan Singh, that outdid its rival in this department, forging a controversial agreement on civil nuclear cooperation with the US.  Notably, it was Singh, rather than a BJP stalwart, who referred to former US President George Bush as India’s “great friend.”

Turning to the BSP, the party’s pro-Dalit agenda is hardly as revolutionary as it once seemed.  When lower caste parties such as the BSP first surged to power in the 1990s, their impact was admittedly nothing short of radical.  India’s electoral landscape was changed forever, along with the elite bent of its politics and institutions.  Over the next decade, however, the chief demand of the caste parties — of setting aside (“reserving”) between 25 to 50 percent of government jobs and legislative seats for lower castes — was met in many states, including several governed by the Congress.  The Congress also soaked up large numbers of lower castes into its ranks, and rushed to renovate its image as champions of their cause, supporting affirmative action for lower castes even in the private sector.

Mayawati is certainly an intriguing figure, which might explain the overstatement of her possible role in national politics, particularly by the international media.  A low caste woman of humble origins with no ties to any political dynasty, Mayawati’s fans have likened her against-all-odds achievement with that of Barack Obama’s.  But Mayawati is also among India’s most transparently corrupt politicians, and spends more money erecting statues of herself than on the people who’ve brought her to power.  It’s patronizing to assume that Dalits will overlook such transgressions and blindly vote along caste lines and, indeed, quite understandable that they’ll back the Congress, which also claims to represent their interests while sustaining a generally cleaner impression.

Finally, let’s turn to the Left.  There’s no denying that the sustained buoyancy of the Indian economy has assisted the Congress.  India grew at roughly 8% per annum for four of the five years the UPA was in power, and even now, amid a severe global slump, it is the world’s second fastest growing economy.

Yet for the poor, who are the bulk of India’s voters, such claims to affluence are meaningless if there’s no direct impact on their lives.  In fact, exit polls indicated that the aspect of “development” that mattered most to those who voted for the UPA had to do with the government’s redistributive interventions in the economy.  Two costly schemes were specifically mentioned — the National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) program, which guarantees 100 days of paid work to the poor, and a loan-waiver plan for indebted farmers.

But it is to the Left that the Congress owes the pro-poor tenor of its economic strategy, a fact that Congress heavyweights, such as Jyotiraditya Scindia, have acknowledged in the past week, albeit somewhat mutedly.  It was under pressure from the Left — which provided external support to the UPA from 2004-2008 — that the Congress implemented programs such as the NREG, and even pushed through some social security legislation for India’s impoverished un-unionized workers.  It was the Left, furthermore, that prevented pro-market hardliners in the Congress from pursuing liberalizing reforms too aggressively, particularly in the financial sector, thus shielding Indian banks from the toxic assets that are at the root of the current global crisis.

It is highly unfortunate that the Left, especially the CPM, failed to claim sufficient credit for these important shifts in emphasis, and instead, became embroiled in a bitter controversy over land acquisition and fair compensation at Singur, a site offered by the CPM-run West Bengal government to Tata Motors to manufacture its $2,500 car, the Tata Nano.  This controversial decision was opposed by several thousand farmers who’d potentially be displaced by the project, and set off a wave of protest that was supported not only by opposition leader Mamata Banerjee — whose party, the Trinamul (“Grassroots”) Congress, is part of the UPA alliance — but also by high-profile environmentalists, such as Medha Patkar, and Left-oriented public intellectuals, such as Arundhati Roy.

But has it backed itself into a corner?

While parties that borrow from their opponents’ agendas are good at winning elections and even hobbling through a full term in government, they aren’t particularly good at delivering consistent policies, and are often rattled to paralysis by what typically trails their success — the thick deluge of ferocious criticism from opposition parties, which clamour to reclaim lost space and usurped ideals.  The problem is all the more acute in a federal system like India’s, where the party governing the centre can ill afford to lose sight of the need to win state-level elections.

Despite Saturday’s electrifying outcome, the Congress is in a tight spot.  On the economic front, this may be good news — but on other issues, such as India’s relationship with Pakistan and civil liberties, the outlook is grim.

Encouraged by their apparently strong mandate, pro-market enthusiasts in the party are already talking about picking up the pace of economic liberalization and venturing into politically combustible areas such as privatization and labour flexibilization.  But too strident a move in this arena will surely re-empower the Left, enabling it to trounce the Congress and its allies in the West Bengal state assembly elections, which are slated for 2011.  Privatization may also alienate Dalits and other lower castes, since job-reservations for these groups currently apply only to government-run companies.  Mayawati may very well stage a come-back, especially if she dusts off her disrepute as India’s ill-gotten “slumdog millionaire.”

In the longer term, the Congress will probably want to soften the harsh pitch of its anti-terrorism legislation and anti-Pakistan rhetoric, along with its burgeoning reputation as the United States’ loyal ally in the war on the Taliban, “Islamic radicalism,” or (even more nebulously) on “terror.”  Many Congress insiders see these as fundamentally against the grain of the party associated with India’s freedom struggle, the principle of non-alignment, and the personality of Mahatma Gandhi — the country’s legendary conciliator — and, on a more practical level, as too easily given to inflaming persistently volatile Hindu-Muslim tensions.

But any backpedalling on this front will surely strengthen the BJP, allowing it to re-group in its stronghold states in northern and western India.  One might note that the BJP has retained its grasp on the key state of Gujarat, and that too, under the direction of its hardnosed chief minister, Narendra Modi, who egged on anti-Muslim mobs in the bloody riots that rocked the state in 2002 (the BJP has won in 16 of Gujarat’s 26 parliamentary ridings).

There’s little doubt that despite its losses, the BJP remains the Congress’s principal opponent.  Indeed, in order to keep the BJP at bay — and the eyes of its supporters locked instead on the Congress — the new government may very well strengthen the more militaristic and uncritically pro-American planks of its foreign and “internal security” policies.  Rather than opposing the BJP with gusto and determination, the Congress-led UPA may, in predictable form, echo some of its worst aspects.  This is perhaps the most worrying dimension of the UPA’s return to power.

Mitu Sengupta is Assistant Professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration, Ryerson University.  See, also, Mitu Sengupta, “Sri Lanka’s Hollow Victory: Why Hammering the Tamil Tigers Will Not Bring Peace” (, 4 May 2009).