Tuesday, March 24, 2009

CAN THE CONGRESS STEM ITS SLIDE?

The unending media cacophony over the Varun Gandhi "hate" CDs has made it appear as if the only choice that voters have in the forthcoming elections is between voting to power a "communal" BJP that is trying to divide the country by preaching/supporting hatred against Muslims and a "secular" Congress that is fighting against it. And, the message being rammed home through every possible trick in the book is that they must reject the former because the only party that can be trusted to maintain communal harmony across the country is the Indian National Congress. "Vote for Congress" is the call being given in unison by India's mainstream media whose political agenda has never been a big secret.

The Grand Old Party is today less than one third of what it was for a very long time after India's Independence. Despite solid media support, it continues to shrink and is set to replace the Left as the perennial pan-India rump that cannot rule on its own but has enough nuisance value in a fractured political landscape. Why is the party not able to stem the decline?

Arguably, one reason for this is that the Congress has morphed into a personality based party, just like most smaller regional parties that have mushroomed in the last couple of decades. It is no longer the party of the masses with a galaxy of tall leaders closely connected to and respected by people across the country. It is now effectively a vehicle for the protection and promotion of one branch of the Nehru-Gandhi family represented by Rahul Gandhi and overseen by Sonia Gandhi. The sole objective of a powerful coterie, aided by the media, is to ensure that any challenge to the leadership of this Gandhi is crushed before it becomes even a small threat.

When the only leader of a party is unable to be make any defining personal impact on the people even after being in business for seven long years, the party has to keep sliding downhill, and is. Unfortunately, no one in the Congress is tall enough to look in the mirror and begin the process of getting the party back to it roots, and re-establish its links with the people in every village and town of India. Till that happens, if at all, no amount of favourable media coverage is going to be of any real help.

The other major reason for the party finding itself in a mess is that it has deliberately chosen to ignore "Hindus" completely. May be it has been encouraged to do so because there really is no pan-India "Hindu" identity that prevails over the more immediate identities of caste, language and region. Experience has shown that Hindus can easily be divided along innumerable dimensions that cancel each other out electorally.

That is why from the ruins of the Congress have emerged only small "Hindu" parties identifying with and promoting the cause of tiny and somewhat homogeneous blocks of Hindus like Yadavs, dalits, Telegus, Maharashtrians, Assamese etc. There is only one party that speaks of and for all Hindus, 80% of India's population, across the whole of India rather than along fragmented dimensions. This is the only party that, as of now, poses a threat to the Congress; indeed it is its only competitor.

Why have so many small "Hindu" parties come up at the expense of the Congress? The party has clearly failed to meet the aspirations of the Hindus and protect their interests. So, Hindus are increasingly gravitating towards small parties that promise to look after the interests of specific caste and classes or towards the BJP that talks of protecting them as a whole. The Congress can do business with all these parties to form some sort of a government at the centre but cannot do so with the BJP which is the only party that can challenge it nationally at present.

Therefore, the Congress has embarked upon a disastrous policy to remain in the reckoning. Its strategy has two pillars. The first is to ensure that Muslims, who cannot be electorally fragmented like Hindus, continue to view the Congress as their only real friend and vote for it. The second is to ensure that fragmented Hindu voters do not de-fragment towards the BJP. That is why the Congress has to relentlessly try and prove that being pro-Hindu is the same as being anti-Muslim.

As part of its Muslim strategy, the Congress has to ignore even the most provocative and disturbing of developments related to the Muslim community and con the nation into believing that all is well, even when there is disturbing evidence to show that it is not. That is why POTA is removed and the nation is told for five years that existing laws are sufficient to deal with terrorism and that terrorism has no religion, even when innocent people continue to die in terror attacks. That is why there are no convictions of any terrorists who know that they can easily get away after killing innocent people. That is why the Prime Minister says that minorities have a first right on the resources of this nation. That is why there is immediate capitulation to unreasonable demands made by fundamentalists. That is why the creeping Talibanisation of Muslim society is ignored.

In pursuance of the second leg of its strategy, Hindu frustration with this minority-attracting-cum-majority-marginalising strategy is countered not by doing anything for Hindus but by making them feel that anyone speaking for them as a whole is communal and divisive. And that he is actually using that call not for Hindus but against innocent Muslims and, occasionally, Christians. The media play a huge role in propagating and perpetuating this negative strategy which sometimes pays political dividends but more often than not backfires very badly.

It may be recalled that just before the Gujarat elections, an unprecedented media frenzy was unleashed against Narendra Modi. The Delhi based SWOT analysts of the Congress manifestly had even got a Tehelka sting done to prove that Narendra Modi was personally responsible for the 2002 Gujarat riots. Then itself I had warned that it would backfire because it was clear that the Congress was completely out of touch with the reality on ground. It was that very disconnect that prompted Sonia Gandhi to make the most communal statement in the whole election campaign when she called Modi a "maut ka saudagar" (merchant of death).

The general idea, as any child could understand, was to ensure that all Muslims would vote for the Congress and that a sufficiently large number of Hindus would turn to the Congress not because they were for the party but because they would be psyched into hating Modi and voting against him. In the event, Tehelka unwittingly succeeded only in killing the conspiracy theory that the train was set on fire in Godhra by Modi's men as part of pre-planned strategy to incite the subsequent riots, and Sonia Gandhi helped Modi romp home to an unprecedented victory.

Remember the Malegaon blasts? After Sadhvi Pragya Thakur and Lt Col Shrikant Prasad Purohit were arrested for that one blast, the media went bonkers about the danger that India faced from "Hindu terror". Thrown away were earlier chants that terror had no religion; for over a month Indians were told that the real danger that India faced was from "Hindu terror" whose roots lay in the BJP. Forgotten completely was Islamic terrorism - the proxy war that Pakistan has launched against India - that the nation had been facing for years. That one blast was all that was needed for Team Congress to discover dangerous "Hindu terror" and proclaim that Sadhvi Pragya was India's Osama Bin Laden and the BJP and the Sangh Parivar its Al Qaida!

The terror attack on Mumbai on November 26, 2008, jolted everyone rudely back to reality. There was no longer any place for the Congress to hide; "Hindu terror" vanished as dramatically as it had appeared. POTA came back within days in the form of a modified UAPA and the government had no choice but to start making empty threatening noises of war to assuage the anger of a people they had been trying to lead up the wrong terror path treacherously. Five years of shouting that a stringent law was not needed to deal with terror, only to get Muslim votes, was forgotten in a flash after the realisation dawned that the bitter truth could no longer be hidden.

Soon enough, one incident in Mangalore in which some fringe Hindu elements beat up a few girls and boys drinking in a pub was the next flimsy excuse that the Congress and the media picked to re-start its "Hate BJP" campaign and make people forget Mumbai 26/11. This time it was Tehelka again, through it reporter Nisha Susan, that launched the famous Pink Chaddi Campaign against the moral policing of the Sangh Parivar. Once again, the Congress targeted the Hindu vote through a saturated negative media campaign. No one bothered to find out what the real situation was in the city and the state and almost no one reported that there was an underlying anger at boys of one community mixing with girls of other communities while girls of their own community were strictly denied that freedom.

The Varun Gandhi episode is the latest incident in this series that the Congress has used to get the Hindu vote solely by highlighting the wrong that the BJP has done, not the right that the Congress has. There is no doubt that even the words that Varun Gandhi has himself admitted to using are unacceptable and that he needs to apologise to the country. But, as always, the media has again got into that shrill mode and is sparing no effort whatsoever to influence Hindus to vote against the BJP, by psyching them into believing that by voting for the BJP, they will be voting for only communal hatred and divide.

As always, no one wants to even mention that Varun Gandhi has not spoken in a vacuum. No one wants to acknowledge that there probably are serious communal fissures in Pilibhit that need to be addressed. No one want to even whisper that Muslims are at least partly responsible for creating the communal divide that has got the young, educated and aware Gandhi agitated enough to react, though in a manner that needs to be condemned roundly.

The "secular" brigade thinks it has got a timely winner of an issue that it can milk to death electorally. Varun Gandhi, it believes, has given it just the stick it needed beat the BJP with. It has not struck anyone that though some people in the metros and in the blogosphere are buying that line, there just might be many more out there whose fears and apprehensions about aggressive Muslim communalism might actually be re-kindled sufficiently enough to get them to the voting booth to say so.

The experience of Gujarat has been totally forgotten by Team Congress; no one has his ear to the ground. That is why, thanks to a disconnected and hypocritical media, this really young Gandhi who is fighting his first election at the age of 29, has become the star of this election, hate him for spewing poison or love him for speaking the truth. Nobody knows how this is going to impact the electoral outcome.

Notwithstanding what happens in these elections, the question that the Congress really needs to ask itself is whether its two-pronged strategy is going to help the dying party revive itself. Over the years, it has paid a very heavy price for taking India's Hindus for granted. Wherever and whenever they have got a chance, Hindus have deserted the party in favour of even rag-tag outfits that promise to look after their interests. Yet, the Congress has not realised its folly. It may sleep with all small and seemingly non-threatening, non-BJP outfits that are taking away its voters, just to remain in power, but that is not going to make it any stronger. It may unleash a negative campaign against the seemingly threatening BJP to get negative Hindu votes, but that is not going to help it get or retain many over the long run either.

Sometimes it appears that the Congress party has forgotten that there is an India beyond Lutyen's Delhi and outside of TV studios. That is probably why it has not realised that by continuing to follow the strategy that it has till now, not only is it not only not going to stem its slide but it faces a real long-term risk of being eliminated from the political landscape altogether.
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Readers may also read:
1. Tehelka unearths a Prime Minister
2. Hindu terror at last; thank God!
3. India's Osama and Al Qaida found: banish them!
4. Mumba11/26: wake up to Islamic terror, this is just the beginning
5. Valentine's Day: it's chaddi vs langot!
6. The Varun sting: who is not playing the communal card?