Left Turn In Simla

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Jul 17 2003, 05:30am hrs
Six years ago the journal I edit did a piece on the future political leaders of India. Given the unprecedented political churning from 1987 to 1997 when India saw six governments move in and out of office, and the consequent changes in power equations within party structures, it seemed appropriate to forecast just who would be the really important personalities ten years hence. From the Congress, the three leaders we chose and profiled at the time were Margaret Alva, A K Antony and Salman Khursheed. None was a political heavyweight, but they seemed to fit so well into the criterion we chose, which was a combination of factors like importance within the party as a campaigner or representative of a significant vote bank, media image and the ability to take tough decisions. I personally thought then, and still do, that they were perhaps the best people in Congress. Clean, sincere, modern and progressive.

How wrong and how naive we were. When was the last time you heard from or about Alva and Khursheed Antony has since become chief minister of Kerala, but not before he had to needlessly slug it out with Karunakaran, and even now his influence within the Congress is hardly weighty. And Manmohan Singh, just where is he I do not recall hearing about or from him either in a long time, that is outside the watchful gaze of Sonia Gandhi and without the party-scripted lines we are so bored of. Instead of these people, what we have had is the amazing rise of the Ambika Sonis, Mani Aiyers and Kamal Naths. And now, after the Simla conclave, there is that definite prospect of a revival of the old socialist brigade.

That, in short, is the main problem of the Congress: the lack of sincerity, the absence of a soul. The BJP may be a party of grumpy old men, but at least we know what they stand for. Love them or hate them, BJP leaders, much like those in the Left parties, represent a steadfast and faithful vision. Relatively, of course. However, in the Congress, flexibility and adaptability are considered higher virtues. This is the party that still dishes out lines like all options are open or we shall respond to the situation at the appropriate time.

The worrying issue about the BJP is its whole social dimension, especially its view of the Muslim community, but from an economic and administrative perspective, the current regime has certainly performed better than its immediate predecessors. It has navigated Indias foreign policy, external fiscal situation, tax collection and even privatisation with far more success that many of us gave it credit for. And despite its knot with the RSS, the latter has acquired little real influence. Notwithstanding controversies over Ayodhya and the rewriting of Indian history, very few of RSSs economic or social prescriptions have been followed. Come to think of it, slowly and imperceptibly, this is just about the best cabinet in India in a long time. No Mamata Banerjee, no Ram Jethmalani, no Madan Lal Khurana and no Ram Vilas Paswan. The main populists still left are George Fernandes and Sharad Yadav, but they now hardly have strong political support on economic issues.

In this scenario, the Congress proposal to reserve jobs in the private sector for the socially backward is not only amazing but also downright dangerous. A new jingle to titillate, a new Mandal trick produced out of the hat, a new bag of goodies to distribute to the masses. The peril of this policy as well as the sure political instability that will likely follow a non-NDA regime may threaten much of what India has achieved in recent years. In fact, if the BJP were not in power, the barely-below-the-surface grudge that senior leaders of all non-BJP parties hold against each other would not only be evident but also have free play in national politics. Take the BJP out of the equation and what you have is a long and complicated matrix of hostility who said what nasty thing against who, and who did what to who.

The stakes are high enough for those in the media to now start putting the Congress as much under the microscope as they have the BJP.

The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors