Congress in UP – ‘A Sleeping Giant'

In many ways Uttar Pradesh was indelibly stamped on Congress Party, just as the party was an intrinsic part of the politics of the U.P. state. It was at forefront of the national moment, the crucible of its top leadership, and the historic centre of the Congress organisation. Uttar Pradesh provided India with the first four Prime Ministers. It would ofcourse be an exaggeration to say that U.P. was the Congress Party and the Congress Party was U.P. But that is indeed how several generations of Congress leaders from U.P. saw themselves. Now of course every thing has changed beyond their imagination and comprehension. U.P. Congress hopes to elect the next Prime Minister but cannot substantiate the numerical muscle that we ought to add to the contribution of the rest of the country.

What exactly happened to U.P. over the past fifteen years since the last Congress Government of N.D. Tiwari laid down office? Indeed, what has happened to the U.P. Congress in these past years?

It is an off repeated trite proposition that in the present condition the U.P. Congress has none of its traditional vote banks “ Brahmins, Muslims, and Dalits. The predominance of Brahmin participation and leadership in Congress politics of U.P., much as it was criticised by other social groups, particularly OBCs, is historically linked to the nature of the leadership in the national movement. Given their historic social pre-eminence, largely due to wide-spred educational accomplishments and consequent dominance of social life, a large number of enlightened Brahmins enthusiastically jumped into the National movement. In a sense, their standing as a community of Upper caste control of institutions that shaped and guided public opinion such as schools, colleges, and other social organisations, the political leadership by Brahmins was inevitable. Since the National Movement coincided with the Muslim separatist movement that lead to Pakistan, it was equally inevitable that Nationalist Muslims, who recoiled from and repudiated Jinnah's two nation theory, would flock to the Congress Party that offered the only alternative. Further more, the association of stalwarts like Maulana Azad, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai and Dr. Zakir Hussain, all of whom in several ways were seen as role models of 20th (twentieth) century shurfa culture of Uttar Pradesh, drew Muslim masses to the Congress party. National leaders of the Congress, professing in varying degree, Hindu faith, such as Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru and Pt. Govind Ballabh Pant, offered to the Muslims of U.P., special comfort and confidence. Indeed in repudiating the two nation theory and the idea of an exclusive spokesperson for their community, Muslims of U.P., sought a leader in Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru. He in turn was followed in that leadership role by Smt. Indira Gandhi and to a somewhat lesser extent the Nehruvian H.N. Bahuguna, who was the first Congress leader to breakaway with substantive Muslim following.

Somewhat similar to the motivations and aspirations of Muslims of Nationalist Muslims of Uttar Pradesh, was the situation of the twenty odd percent of U.P.'s population of Dalits. Mahatma Gandhi's remarkable message of companionship, compassion, and common cause with oppressed Dalits gave the community, a sense of security and belonging. It need hardly be said that the decision to entrust Baba Bhimrao Ambedkar the Chairmanship of the Drafting Committee for the Constitution of India could not have gone unnoticed by the Dalits all over the country, particularly, in Uttar Pradesh. The constitutional instrument of reservation in legislatures and to open up avenues of opportunity in education and state sector jobs, would certainly have had a major impact on the psyche of the hitherto before dispossessed Dalits.

The present predicament and somewhat precarious electoral situation, of the once mighty U.P. Congress can be traced back to the late seventies and the emergence, first, of a strong anti-Congress socialist movement lead by the likes of Ram Manohar Lohia, and subsequently its successor groups like the Janata Dal / Samajwadi party on the one hand and the Ramjanmabhoomi standard bearer Bhartiya Janta Party (formally the Jansangh). Although the socialists ran virulent and at times violent campaigns of dissent and defiance against the Congress establishment, their transit from political opposition to the ruling echelons of Uttar Pradesh was not exactly steady and smooth. After the initial peaking of their electoral efforts and the installing of the SVD coalition Government, and subsequently, the governments lead by Shri Ram Naresh Yadav and Shri Mulayam Singh Yadav, considerable disarray and fragmentation set in. Innumerable socialists migrated to the Congress party and that included Shri Ram Naresh Yadav himself. This was ofcourse ideologically facilitated by the fact that Smt. Indira Gandhi made socialism the main flank of her politics and Garibi Hatao acquired the dimensions of an intense passion. It is often forgotten that the second coming or the rebirth of both, the BJP and the Samajwadi party, took place in the same womb and their nurturing in the same cradle. Whilst Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lalkrishan Advani shared Government positions with Shri V.P. Singh and Mufti Mohammed Sayeed at the Centre, Shri Mulayam Singh Yadav was party to the Government that had another future Chief Minister of a BJP Government, Shri Kalyan Singh. The transformation of the BJP element and the Samajwadi Party element, took place on the psuedo libertarian slogans against the imposition of the Emergency in 1976. Although, the issue then, was ostensibly democracy and freedom, the fact is that many communalists, who were political untouchables till then, acquired a garb of respectability. Having crossed the rubicon or Laxman Rekha of acceptability and respectability, the BJP promptly began to work on a powerful new combination of social groups that took them beyond the traditional structure of a small traders, middle class urban party. Whilst Mulayam Singh Yadav was securing parts of the fragmented Backward territories of late Charan Singh, Kalyan Singh gave a fresh energy to the BJP by combining Non-Yadav OBCs (particularly his own community of Lodh, Rajputs) with BJP's traditional voters. Having secured a larger social compact, the BJP and the rest of the Sangh Parivar then sought an ideological cutting edge in the Ramjanmabhoomi movement. U.P. politics began to polarize between Mandal' and Kamandal'.

Whilst all this was happening on a grand scale, Manyavar Kanshiram and Dalit ki beti Mayawati were busy slogging from village to village with the help of generous resources provided by ambitious, and powerful Dalit civil servants. Just as the graffiti of early days of the Ram Mandir movement was taken very casually by the establishment in U.P., so were the BS- 4 slogans treated with scant respect and attention. Throughout this period, Congress policy planners and its U.P. leadership ironically failed to read the writing on the wall! For much of the period in which Kanshiram and Mayawati built a solid base for an elephantine edifice that would come up in the later years, the Congress party assumed it was enough to have placed a prominent Dalit Congress leader in the post of the UPCC President, Shri Mahavir Prasad. Similarly, at no point did anyone seriously believe that Muslims would desert the Congress party despite the distressing and disturbing events in Jabalpur, Bhiwandi, Ahmedabad etc outside Uttar Pradesh, and Maliana and Meerut etc in the state itself. Riots had come and gone and repeatedly this caused trauma. There was a gradual accumulation of disappointment and distress, continuous complaints about the conduct of the PAC, inexplicable insensitivity shown from time to time by administrative officers, and the usual prolonged wait for the pronouncements of Commissions of Enquiry and the inevitable gathering of dust by the reports they submitted. Nevertheless, because of Congress party's strong traditional interfaith contacts and the unimpeachable secular credentials of its national leadership, much of the growing disquiet was seen as storms in a teacup. Periodically, the national leadership stepped in with specific programmes and administrative measures to repair the damage and restore confidence. Smt. Indira Gandhi's 15 point programmes for minorities was one such glorious example. Shri Rajiv Gandhi made strenuous efforts, including the stepping up of the Rapid Action Force.

The ripping apart of the political and social fabric of that the Independence movement Congress generation had strenuously weaved, came during the 1989 elections. They followed what should have been a phenomenal five year tenure of a brilliant young Prime Minister who took office in an act of personal courage at a moment of tragedy. Shri Rajiv Gandhi's election as Prime Minister, for the second time technically speaking, but in terms of a popular mandate, his first, came as the stunning landslide victory of 1984. The unfortunate and contrived crises that began about the middle of his tenure and plagued him to the very end, deprived India of fantastic historic opportunities. The irritation of an extremely nasty and belligerent opposition on the issue of Bofors, coupled with the growing pressure of the BJP and its effective mobilisation of frustrated youth with dreams of Ramraj, put the Congress Party tremendous under stress. The election of 1989 was nevertheless an election that was to be won, and was indeed nearly won. However, a well meaning step whose consequences were inadequately anticipated, of the shilanyas ceremony with the object of defusing Hindu passions, spun out of control leading to wild speculation amongst both communities. Having dome during the election campaign, the issue was ruthlessly and most cynically exploited by the Janta Party, as indeed by the BJP, leading to the Congress slipping from 3/4th majority in Parliament to being the single largest minority party. The Janta Dal Government that came to power had neither firm convictions nor a clear cut ideology and was inevitably doomed from the beginning. The desperate attempt by the partners to entrench themselves, and intense conflicting ambitions were soon to ring the death knell of one Janta Dal government to be followed by another Janta Dal government. The Congress lost the election but nobody had won. Just as a defeated Indira Gandhi in 1977 remained the tallest leader of India, in 1989 her defeated son Rajiv Gandhi, remained far more significant and attractive as a leader in opposition than two successive Prime Ministers of the Janta Dal despite their experience and great expertise at political management. The Janta Dal was ofcourse a makeshift party, an aggregate of temporary marriages of convenience between groups and individuals. There attention was focused on manipulations in the Capital cities and as a result drew the Congress party to the same limited areas of national politics. Meanwhile the jettisoned BJP returned to the grass roots in Uttar Pradesh and revived its interrupted Ramjanam Bhoomi movement. Whilst the Congress focused on Delhi, UP began to slip away quietly. Intense conflict between Congress leaders of UP on the issue of supporting Mulayam Singh Yadav caused a vertical front line. Ironically, many who opposed Mulayam Singh Yadav bitterly in those years were later to advocate an alliance with him and others who advocated an alliance with him then, later turned to be his severest critics. From the Congress point of view the first betrayal came when Mulayam Singh Yadav dissolved the U.P. Assembly despite assurances to the contrary and directed his political armoury against the Congress Party. Thus began a series of forced errors and self goals by the Congress Party, causing rapid erosion of its support base and a corresponding dent in its confidence.

In the past ten years Congress has been in alliance with or has supported, both the BSP and the Samajwadi Party. Curiously, the average Congress worker reacted very negatively to any suggestion of supporting Mulayam Singh, an attitude that has seen very little change over the years. This was not so in case of the BSP. But a hasty pre-poll alliance giving the BSP a lion's share (or shall be say an elephant's share) of the seats with the Congress retaining only 126 of the 425 seats lowered party worker morale considerably. Mayawati's subsequent betrayal of the Congress to join hands with the BJP was ofcourse a shattering blow. Yet Congress Party's empathy for the Dalits, and its fundamental philosophical position that advocacy of the Dalit's cause was essentially deserving of support, kept the level of hostility towards the BSP very low. On the other hand, Mulayam Singh has been a virtual red rag to the Congress Party workers and curiously much of the opposition to him in recent years has come from those elements amongst Muslims who despite the adversity suffered by the Congress have remained determined to stand by the party patronised by the forefathers and ancestors . Whilst Mayawati's political harangues and speeches were directed generally at Manuwadi' structures, and therefore, was easily met by Congress Party's response that this was not directed at them, Mulayam Singh's attacks were more often than not directed at the Congress Party. The truth become clear very soon, that the death of Congress in UP would mean life to Mulayam and the survival of the BJP as an ogre and threat would be a convenient ploy to exploit Muslim sense of insecurity. Mulayam Singh Yadav claims total allegiance of 8% vote of his Yadav community and needs to dominate 18% vote of the Muslim minority. But the spoils of his politics are seldom distributed in that proportion and indeed do not reflect of distributive justice. Over the past few elections the popular votes of the four main parties in UP have varied over a narrow band; the BJP peacked at 35 and dropped to 20 in the last Assembly election of 2002; BSP has maintained a steady figure between 21 and 23 percent; Samajwadi Party has fluctuated between 29% and 24%; and the Congress has had the most dramatic pendulum swings going from 6% to 16% in the last Parliamentary elections and then dropping back to 9% in the recent Assembly poll. Clearly the elasticity of the Congress vote is considerable. For the last Parliamentary elections as Congress moved from 6 to 16%, major erosion of Mulayam Singh's Muslim vote became apparent and as a result he had to rush to Kalyan Singh for help, giving the latter's right-hand man, Shakshi Maharaj, a seat in the Rajya Sabha. It is ironic that the political leader who maligned and abused the Congress for using expressions like Ram Raj' and for having stood by when Babri Musjid was demolished, felt no compunction at shaking hands with two central figures in the unpleasant and unholy conspiracy to demolish the ancient mosque. But it is in the nature of UP politics that specific events and issues matter only to a point. What matters more is the arithmetic of community combinations that promise or hold out a promise of access to power. Perceptions manipulated through effective propaganda using enormous amounts available to three non-Congress parties in UP, backed by captive caste based votes and criminal elements sustained by the same caste system, have taken over the entire political spectrum of the state. As the state falls steadily in terms of economic performance and the human development index, there is no real effort by the any of the three non-Congress parties that have ruled in the last 15 years to address the real issues of governance and quality of life. The situation is ripe for the return to the Congress party, but unfortunately there is a vacuum. The untimely and tragic death of Rajesh Pilot, who although elected from the Rajasthan, was equally at home in Uttar Pradesh where he was born was a great loss. Again, the sudden demise of the mercurial Shri Jitendra Prasada deprived a significant political group of their friend, philosopher and guide, causing some of them to seek refuge in other political parties. There after the departure of Shri Narayan Dutt Tiwari to the state of Uttaranchal has left U.P. bereft of established Upper Caste leadership, which in present conditions, perhaps holds the key to the revival of the fortunes of the Congress party.

Dearth of new generation leadership in the U.P. Congress may partly be explained by the fact that the departure of several senior leaders could not possibly have been anticipated and therefore, no attempt to develop a new line of leadership was made. On the other hand, the very fact that the Congress has been out of power for fifteen crucial years, in which both India and the world have undergone dramatic transformation, have left the potential new generation leaders of U.P. sadly unexposed and uninspired by these cataclysmic changes . When the first wave of Hindutva hit U.P. Congress seems to have retreated in confusion. When the first reaction came from the minority community, boosted by and indeed instigated by the Smajwadi Party, the Congress was left utterly directionless. The dramatic and dialectical political campaign style of Mayawati and the amazing consistency of allegiance of the Dalit voters towards her, forced U.P. Congress to simply give up trying. When it surged to 16% in the last parliamentary elections and its seats went up from 0 to 10, it was assumed too easily that the come back trial had been found. Some people even readied themselves for the spoils of battle. But the fact is that the Congress was simply beginning to move a rusted machine once again. There was indeed much more to be done. The next two years are therefore crucial and critical. The BJP is in decline, the Smajwadi party has reached its limit and the BSP is determined to press the self-destruct button. There is space and need for a decent party that can address the issues of governance.

UP is now ripe for a sensible political party that can cut across major caste barriers as well as reach out to minor backward castes, to present a viable and seemingly feasible political solution to the utter hopelessness that pervades the state. The Congress party, although at present electrolly the weakest, is the only party that fits the bill. Clearly, a major effort will be required to restructure, refurnish, remotivate the traditional, Congress support base that survives albeit truncated despite 15 years of wilderness. It is a welcome sign that young faces continue to aspire to enroll in the Congress party, both in urban and in rural areas. It is another matter that there is very slow turn over at the top, causing stagnation and lack of social and political mobility. Several efforts made in the past five years to rejuvenate the party organization and cadres have shown promising response and results in the initial stages. However initial successes have not lead to successful culmination, except to a limited extent in the last Parliamentary elections. It is clear that U.P. calls for a war footing and innovative political strategies. Sever at times attempts to replicate the BJP agenda has backfired. Similarly there is little chance of cloning BSP and SP politics for a resurgent Congress. The Congress will have to provide a unique social formula and attractive and refashioned political formulation. Whilst the inability of the Congress to match the extremist slogan mongering and political machinations of the other 3 parties appears to be a disadvantage in a divided polity, this indeed could be turned to and advantage. U.P. today is a state that has a plummeting record on development, a miserable pretense of a health service, little noticeable fresh in investment, except perhaps on the outskirts of Delhi, a frightening record of criminal violence and very little accountability (there are 10,000 unnatural deaths caused by the criminal acts every year), large scale closure of industrial units, particularly those that provide value addition for agriculture crop, almost the highest level of adult illiteracy, etc. A party that can claim a record of good governance in more than a dozen states of the country, can spark off a dramatic and rapid change of mood and political preference in the State. The important thing for the Congress is to accept and understand the new social realities and than respond appropriately with an economic programme that creates new political majorities. Time-tested traditional Congress systems obviously will have to be retained but the party will have to learn to reach out to other than those already converted. Outreach and securing attention of constituencies that have either traditionally neglected the Congress or have left the Congress in the last 20 years, would have to be a high priority. Many Congress workers believe that there are very special trump cards in our hands whose introduction into the political arena of U.P. will bring about a dramatic and instant transformation. However it still remains that even for the introduction of those major catalysts of change, considerable groundwork and preparation is necessary. Not only will this possibly speed up those much awaited events, but also place the Congress in a position to take maximum advantage when they happen. The greatest asset for the Congress in this endeavour is the general feeling that U.P. must move if India is to move and that U.P. will not really move without the Congress party