THE ROUT OF THE CONGRESS PARTY Why It Happened and What It Means For India

THE GENERAL elections of February 1967 marked the end of an era in Indian politics, the era of the unchallenged supremacy of the Indian National Congress, the party of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Founded in 1885, it had led the freedom struggle against the British, had taken over the reigns of the country at independence on August 15, 1947, and had dominated its post-independence politics for 20 years, triumphing, by overwhelming margins, in the general elections of 1952, 1957 and 1962.

It had occasionally lost control of individual states. Kerala in the south had plumped for a Communist government in 1957 and had gone in for a socialist government earlier. In 1957, again, it had to share power in Orissa with the right-wing party Ganatrantra Parishad or Democratic Council. But in none of these could it be kept out of power for long. In Kerala, the central government had ousted the Communists from power and imposed direct rule by the President of India following massive popular unheaval against the Communists in 1959. In the mid-term elections that had followed in 1960, a non-Communist coalition consisting of Congress and other parties had routed the Communists. Later the coalition had disintegrated and Congress had come to be the sole party in power. In Orissa, too, the coalition had broken down and the Congress given absolute majority in the mid-term elections of 1961. In the other states. its position had never been seriously threatened. Its domination of the Parliament at the Center was total. It controlled 364 of the 500 seats in the all-important lower house (Lok Sabha or the House of People) elected in 1962.

The Rout

The picture changed radically after the Indian electorate had voted in the fourth general elections held from February 15 to 22 this year. Of the 16 states, only eight returned Congress to power with absolute majorities in the state legislatures. Of the remaining eight Kerala and Orissa chose a leftist (Communist dominated) and rightist coalition respectively. Madras, a Congress stronghold and the home state of the Congress President, Kumaraswami Kamaraj, voted to power Dravida Munnetra Khazagam (Dravidian Progress Party) popularly referred to as the D.M.K., a party whose main concern is regional and whose opposition to the imposition of Hindi as the sole official language of India, relentless. West Bengal, Bihar, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab deprived Congress of its absolute majority in their respective state legislatures but left it as the largest single party. Already at the time of this writing, a leftist ministry has been sworn in in West Bengal and another in Bihar. Congress has been asked to form a government in Rajasthan. With luck, it may form a government there and also in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. It has retained its majority at the Center, but has had it drastically reduced. Out of a total of 521 seats in the new Lok Sabha, the results of 504 have been announced. Congress has won 278 of these.

Equally savage has been the rout of its top leadership. Seven members of Mrs. Gandhi's cabinet at the Center have been defeated. Among them is S.K. Patil, the tough political boss of Bombay and a member of the "Syndicate" that had effected, in 1964, the unanimous choice of Lal Bahadur Shastri as Nehru's successor and, in 1966, the election of Mrs. Gandhi as Shastri's successor. The two other leading lights of the "Syndicate," Mr. Kamaraj and Atulya Ghosh of West Bengal, have both been defeated. So have been the Presidents of Congress party organizations in 6 states and the Chief Ministers in 4 states.

Popular Disenchantment

TO A LARGE degree, the staggering dimensions of the party's setback is a measure of the extent of popular disenchantment with it. In twenty years of undisputed authority, it had failed to tackle India's chronic food shortage and, in the two years before the elections, that shortage had become extremely acute thanks to unprecedented drought in the provinces of Bihar, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh. Prices had been spiralling upwards, essentials of life obtainable only after prolonged and humble striving. Nor could the Congress project hope that the situation would improve after a while. Its performance in the monsoon session of the last Parliament in 1966, was incredibly poor and the opposition, despite its numerical weakness--134 seats out of 500--had completely dominated the proceedings. The impression was gaining ground that Congress was losing its grip over the situation and the country was hopelessly drifting towards chaos and economic stagnation. Devaluation of the Rupee did little to improve matters and it began to be said openly that the government had succumbed to Western pressure in agreeing to do it.

Regional Grievances

The general slump in the popularity of the Congress had been accentuated in different regions by regional grievances. In Madras, the main issue that swept the Dravida Munnetra Khazagam to power was fear of the imposition of Hindi as the sole official language of India. In Punjab, the fall in Congress stock was largely due to squabbles attending the partition of the state of Punjab into Punjab and Hariana. In Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, the Jan Sangh certainly gathered a large number of votes through its agitation against cow slaughter.

But despite these regional issues, despite mounting popular disenchantment with its rule, Congress would not have fared as badly as it did had its own house been in order. Unfortunately, it was not. Twenty years of uninterrupted enjoyment of power had made it smug and arrogant, engendered in its top leaders a false confidence in their own invulnerability. One reflection of this could be seen in their uncompromising attitude towards the dissidents inside their party, the continued and relentless exclusion of the latter from all position of authority. The bitter infighting that followed this led to large-scale expulsions and resignations and in West Bengal, Orissa and Bihar ex-Congressmen formed parties which contested the official Congress in the elections. In other states, where no such extreme development took place, Congressmen often allied secretly with opposition candidates to defeat candidates belonging to rival factions of their own party.

The disastrous consequences this has had on Congress fortunes becomes clear when ones remembers that the Chief Minister who heads the newly-formed coalition government in West Bengal, is an ex-Congressmen of unimpeachable honesty who had been hounded out of the party by machine politicians. The new party he formed after his expulsion, the Bangla Congress of Bengal Congress, secured 34 seats in the recent elections and accounted for much of the Congress losses. Taken together, his party and Congress, which has secured 128 seats in the new state assembly, account for 162 of its 280 seats--a total that would have formed a comfortable absolute majority for the party had it stayed united. Similarly in Bihar, the man who has been sworn in as the new Chief Minister, is Mr. Mahamaya Prasad Sinha, the leader of Jana Kranti Dal, a breakaway wing of the state Congress. Again, the coalition which has captured power in Orissa consists of the Jana Congress or People's Congress, a breakaway splinter of the state Congress and the Swatantra or Freedom Party.

However, its discomfiture notwithstanding, it would be wrong to assume that this year's general elections have marked the beginning of the end of Congress as a party. Though badly mauled, it continues to be the biggest, most well-organized and the most powerful political organization in India. It is true that the people have become disenchanted with it, but one wonders whether their disenchantment will be permanent and also whether their disenchantment is really with the party itself or with the elements currently in control of it. For, while Congressmen identified as machine politicians and dispensers of patronage have been mostly trounced, their colleagues who are reputed to be honest and efficient have had no difficulty in getting elected. Mr. Chavan, erstwhile Defence Minister and of late Home Minister in Mrs. Gandhi's cabinet, has polled the highest number of votes polled by anyone in any one of the Parliamentary constituencies in this year's election. Mrs. Gandhi herself has been elected with a margin of 91,000 votes. Morarji Desai, Mrs. Gandhi's rival for the Prime Ministership and an eyesore of the "Syndicate" that so long controlled the Congress, has also won with a huge plurality.

It is therefore a safe assumption that if the Congress purges its ranks and overhauls its organization, it may still regain much of the public affection it has lost. Indeed, there are two powerful factors that favor such a return to grace. First, the Congress had built up a huge reservoir of goodwill during the freedom struggle and a large bulk of Indians still feel a deep sentimental attachment towards it. They voted against Congress this time because their patience had been stretched to the limit, but they will eagerly vote for the Congress once again if they are convinced that it has regained even a part of its idealism of yester-years. Secondly, it is extremely doubtful whether the parties or coalition of parties which have taken over power in some of the states will be able to do any better than Congress. In West Bengal and Bihar the parties constituting the coalitions make strange bed-fellows and it will be a miracle if they are able to effect harmonious execution of their agreed upon programs. Even if they do, the situation in India is not likely to improve radically within their tenure. It has arisen out of deep conflict between totalitarian economic planning and a democratic political order and will only improve with time and with drastic changes in the pattern of economic planning. Quite possibly, at the time of the 1972 elections, the people may find themselves as disenchanted with the parties they have voted to power as they are with Congress now.

But political crystal-gazing is a hazardous occupation and it is possible that none of the two factors mentioned above may ever come into operation. Also, it is quite conceivable that the Congress may fail to reform itself to the extent required. Only time will show what happens. For the present, much more pressing is the necessity to examine some of the other aspects of the recent elections. For example, the rise of regional parties on the plank of regional demands--the D.M.K. is the most prominent example--has already prompted several foreign observers to conclude that India is poised on the brink of national disintegration. While the threat posed by regionalism is genuine, this is, to say the least, an exaggerated conclusion. Much of what will happen in the future hinges on the issue of Hindi. In the north, the major gains have been made by Jan Sangh and to some extent, the Samyukta Socialist Party or the United Socialist Party, both of which are firmly committed to the introduction of Hindi as the sole official language of India. In the south, the D.M.K., which has captured power in Madras, is implacably opposed to the imposition of Hindi as the sole official language for the whole of India. It would certainly be an explosive situation if the Jan Sangh and the Samyaukta Socialist Party persist with their insistence on Hindi.

Otherwise, it is difficult to envisage any serious threat to India's integrity. Broadly speaking, the centripetal forces in India are much stronger than the centrifugal forces and it must be noticed that the D.M.K. succeeded in winning in Madras only after it had given up its demand of cession from India.

Another aspect of the Indian elections which has been much discussed is the accession to strength of the extreme right and the extreme left. This, again, is only partially true. There has certainly been considerable increase in the strength of the extreme right. The Jan Sangh, the reactionary mouthpiece of Hindu communalism, has secured a majority of seats in New Delhi's municipal body and claimed 6 out of the 7 parliamentary seats from New Delhi area. Though it could not topple the Congress Government in Madhya Pradesh, it made sizeable inroads into its majority. It also increased its representation in the Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

It would, however, be wrong to speak of any considerable accession to strength of the extreme left. The Communists have of course captured Kerala, but that was expected. On the other hand, though they have three ministers in the West Bengal Cabinet--two pro-Chinese and one pro-Russian--they have not been able to improve their position with the voters to any marked extent. The combined strength of the two Communist parties in the present assembly comes to 59 out of a total of 280 seats. Their total strength in the previous assembly was 50 out of 252.

Indeed, much more remarkable than the gains made by the extreme left and the extreme right, have been the gains made by such moderate, democratic parties like Bangla Congress, Jana Congress, Jana Kranti Dal and Swatantra Party. The first three parties are breakaway units of the Congress and share much of its moderate approach to social and economic issues. Unlike these and the Congress, the Swantantra does not believe in economic planning. But then it is not communal, is firmly wedded to the democratic principle and does not have any extra-territorial loyalty like the Communists. Their emergence as important political parties has been a very hopeful sign for Indian democracy.Hiranmay Karlekar