Why Congress matters
Going by the press reports, Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s road show in Varanasi on August 2 was a spectacular success. With a six-km rally beginning at a statue of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, a visit to the Kashi Vishwanath temple, two meet-the-press events and then concluding her visit with a stopover at the statue of former Congress politician Kamlapathi Tripathi – the Congress President had a perfect strategy. There was a tremendous response from the people and the Congress activists. Unfortunately, she fell ill (with high fever) and had to be rushed back to Delhi. But that does not diminish the success of the Congress rally. If anything, it indicated that despite Congress’ continuous electoral reversals in recent years, the oldest and largest political party of India may be down, but it is not out.
Of course, there are lots of speculations over the leadership-changes in the Congress party. Will it be still Sonia Gandhi, despite her failing health? Will it be Rahul Gandhi, despite his limitations in getting votes? Or, will it be Priyanka Gandhi, despite her reluctance for active politics? Or, will there be someone else outside the family, despite it being the most unlikely scenario at the moment?
If one goes by the recent pronouncements of the senior Congress leaders, the party cannot exist without the leadership of a Gandhi. So it is fair to assume that for as long as one can see, the Congress supremo in the country will be only one of the Gandhis. But, the more germane question is what is going to be the health of the Congress party under a Gandhi. Over the last two and half years, the Congress has lost power in Assam, Kerala, Rajasthan, Delhi, Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir, not to talk of the loss at the Centre in May 2014. From ruling 13 states in 2004, the Congress is down to seven with only a single big state in its control, Karnataka. As one study says, “the Congress now directly rules about 190 million Indians, down from 270 million in 2004” while the BJP governs 520 million Indians in 12 states.
However, despite the sad situation that the Congress is in at the moment, it will be foolhardy to wish it away. The Congress is still the number one national party in terms of its presence and base in all parts of the country. In fact, India cannot afford to have a weak Congress. Any regional leader sans a national outlook or a Kejriwal who practices politics of anarchy cannot be alternative to Modi and the ruling BJP. India’s future as a stable democracy depends on a healthy BJP and healthy Congress. If one of these two is a ruling party either by itself or in alliance with others, the other must be the principal opposition.
If the Congress party has not been able to revive itself in the last two years, it is precisely because it is not playing the role of an opposition. Instead, it has reduced itself to be a party of obstruction. Just see the way the Congress leaders behave and shout in the two houses of Parliament when it is in session and the way it demands that the country must be run as per its wishes. This obstructionist behaviour loses voters of the party, not otherwise, in this age of live-television. Mercifully, as I write this, the Congress is set to support the much talked about GST Bill in Rajya Sabha in this session. I think this is a good beginning.
As any student of politics knows, the role of a healthy parliamentary opposition is essential for the sound working of democracy. In the absence of a vigilant opposition constantly on the alert and ever watchful of the government’s policies and actions, the ruling party will either be complacent and tardy or become arbitrary and autocratic. In other words, the presence of a strong opposition is an obstacle to despotism. Always ready to expose the wrong committed by the government and to bring to light its acts of omission and commission, a healthy opposition ensures that the ruling party can hardly afford to be negligent in the performance of its duty towards the country. It is in this context that Benjamin Disraeli had said that “no government can long be secure without a formidable opposition”.
In this context, I find it is worth mentioning famous American political scientist Robert Dahl. According to him, there are four main functions of the opposition: forming an alternate government given an opportunity; influencing the public opinion on vital national and international issues so as not to allow the ruling party to become lukewarm about the country’s basic interests; exposing the ruling party of its failures to fulfill the promises to the electorate; and extending full support and cooperation to the government on occasions that threaten the very unity and integrity of the country, such as external aggression, internal armed rebellion and ethnic unrest.
I think, in India, no party is better suited to play these roles than the Congress in today’s India.
Two points are particularly noteworthy in this context. First, an effective opposition, while opposing various acts of omission and commission of the government, acts responsibly and suggests the remedies and alternatives. In other words, it is vital that the opposition does not oppose just for the sake of the opposition. Its criticisms must be viable and responsible, since it is “government- in- waiting”. Secondly, and this is a corollary of the first point, it is not the business of the opposition to obstruct the government; its purpose is to criticise, not hinder. As the longest ruling party of the country, the Congress can realise this better than others.
Viewed against this background, it is clearly understandable why in Britain, one hears of “Her majesty’s Loyal Opposition”. The leader of the Opposition in Britain not only acts as a public watchdog by keeping the actions of the Government under scrutiny; but he or she provides an element of choice for the electorate by posing as an alternative Prime Minister at the head of an alternative government. This is the reason why the British opposition leader maintains a “shadow cabinet”. In India, we may not have the system of a shadow cabinet, but the essence of the principles of a constructive opposition is as true of India as of Britain.
In a sense, the Indian system is unique, different from even the one in Britain. Unlike in Britain where the politics is dominated by two parties – Labour and Conservatives – here in India we have hundreds of parties, as a result of which we have seen so many hung-Parliaments. In any case, in all the general elections held to Parliament so far, it is noteworthy that the ruling party has never received 50 per cent of the voted polled. The nearest to the 50 per cent mark has been touched only once in the 8th general elections held in 1984 when the Congress under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi got 49.6 per cent of the votes polled. Predictably, he rode to power on a sympathy-wave, following the tragic assassination of his mother.
In other words, no ruling party in India can be arrogant enough to overlook the bitter reality that it is in government not because of the majority of votes that all Indian voters have cast in its favour but because of what I have written many a time – the non democratic first-past-the post system.
The second striking feature to note in Indian elections is that until the advent of the hung-Parliament in 1989, there had always been the fact that though the ruling party got minority of votes, the gap between it and the largest opposition was quite massive. As against the Congress’ 40-plus percentage of votes every time, the second largest parties happened to be Socialists (with varied names) with 10.6 per cent and 12.4 per cent votes in 1952 and 1957 elections, the then undivided Communists with 10 per cent in 1962 elections, Jana Sangh with 9.4 per cent in 1967 elections, the Congress (O) with 10.4 per cent in 1971 elections, the Janata Dal with 19 per cent in 1980 elections and the BJP with 7.7 per cent in 1984 elections. In fact, in 1984, the second largest party in the Lok Sabha after the Congress was a newly formed Telugu Desam.
However, in recent years the gap between the ruling party (or principal ruling party) and the principal opposition party is not that huge. In 2014, while the NDA got more than 39 per cent of popular votes, the share of the BJP was about 32 per cent. Of course, the vote share of the Congress went down from 28 per cent in 2009 to 19 per cent in 2014; but still the 13 per cent gap is respectable compared to the massive gaps between the victorious Congress and the second largest party in the past.
In sum, the Congress cannot be said to be just like yet another opposition party like the JD (U) or AAP. It is a special opposition party, which the BJP will ignore only at its peril. The Congress will always have the special capacity to bounce back strongly, provided it behaves as a responsible and constructive opposition party by talking of sensible and concrete alternatives to the policies of the government that it opposes, thus enlivening the Indian democracy. Besides, instead of being merely seen as an instrument for fighting elections every five years, the Congress, as party MP and former union minister Shashi Tharoor rightly says, “there is a great deal that it can and must do between elections, helping citizens in their interactions with the government, the police, and the unfeeling petty bureaucracy they have to confront daily. We have to return to the ethos of politics as social work for those who cannot help themselves.”
By Prakash Nanda