The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Of Course She Needs the Left to Christianize India

Neerja Chowdhury
Monday, May 23, 2005 at 0940 hours IST

One year in power and Sonia Gandhi continues to hold the UPA together, but the challenges before her, and the Congress, have grown. For all the mess in Bihar and Jharkhand, Laloo Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan still scurry to her with their complaints. But Laloo with the corruption charges against him is becoming a drag on the Congress; the party is losing middle class support.

In spite of their sound and fury, Left leaders admit that Sonia is responsive to their views. Unlike the NDA which marginalised the allies, the Congress thrashes out differences with the Left. There was, for instance, a 14 hour discussion on the Patents Bill.

Sonia Gandhi has also facilitated a role by the NGOs in the process of governance, which had not happened earlier, though many in the Congress are unhappy with the "undue influence" they exercise on her. It is the NAC she heads which is responsible for the Right to Information Bill passed by Parliament. The Bill may have infirmities, but with 150 amendments adopted to give it teeth, it is one of the most important steps of this government.

In May 2004 Sonia came to occupy a moral high ground when she declined the country’s prime ministership. It made people wonder about the woman who had given up the highest position any politician aspires for. (If nothing else, she had acknowledged her limitations and very few politicians have the capacity to do this.) It enhanced her authority among the allies and her credibility among the people. But today, one year later, there are more people who believe that she calls the shots from behind the scenes than there were a year ago, and this has done her image no good.

There are several reasons for this mismanagement by the party in Goa and Jharkhand, the PM’s diffident style, and the new coalition model that the 14th Lok Sabha has thrown up.

Every coalition in the last 15 years has thrown up its own unique model. V.P. Singh ran a government with outside support of the Left and BJP, Chandra Shekhar’s 50-odd MPs were supported by the much larger Congress, H.D. Deve Gowda ran a government where the chief ministers called the shots, I.K. Gujral could not change even one minister in his cabinet when he took over and the concept of the "PM’s prerogative" underwent a change. Atal Bihari Vajpayee who ran a 24-party government could not even appoint a finance minister of his choice when he took charge.

With Manmohan Singh looking after administration and governance and Sonia Gandhi politics and party affairs, the present model provides for the party to exercise a check on the government and crack the whip when it gets derailed from its agenda. However, the efficacy of this model depends on the extent to which Sonia and Manmohan can move in step and on how comfortable they feel in picking up the telephone and talking to each other on any issue, without having to move through others. Power-sharing is inherent in the situation. It is not a model the country is used to, but there is little point in harping on the old definition of the PM’s power.

Paradoxically, the PM’s diffidence -- he constantly looks over his shoulder -- disarms those he meets. But it puts Sonia in the wrong as the person calling the shots from behind the scene, whether or not she is doing so.

But these are problems of the maturing of the coalition, though this is one reason why the government has not had the kind of impact it might have had. What should worry the party, however, are its prospects, though the performance of the government will have a bearing on it. The Congress faces an uphill struggle in West Bengal and Kerala, where K. Karunakaran’s revolt has compounded the situation. It is on the defensive in Assam. The coalition finds it roughgoing in Karnataka; in Maharashtra, the situation isn’t rosy. In Tamil Nadu it will be at the mercy of the DMK. That takes care of the South. The party has shown no signs of revival in UP or in Bihar. The BJP may be in a disarray, but where is the Congress next time round?

It is difficult to capture the essence of the 2004 verdict, but clearly, three things had helped the Congress. The secular credentials of the Gandhi-Nehru family brought Muslims back to the Congress wherever it was in a position to defeat the BJP and the communal climate has improved in the last year. Two, Sonia determinedly forged alliances with regional parties. And she hit the road to reach out to the people. Images of Sonia holding deformed hands, putting her arm around emaciated women -- these were in sharp contrast to the multi-crore India Shining campaign, and that sent a message.

Now, once again, the Congress needs to go back to those fundamentals -- to consolidate the UPA alliance, for all the problems with Laloo, and here the party is caught in a bind. And to strengthen itself organisationally. Given coalition imperatives, it will have to do this in states where it does not come in conflict with its allies. This means states like UP, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand. In fact, only half of India.

If only Sonia Gandhi had struck while the iron was hot. Had she hit the road soon after she had declined prime ministership, spending 5-10 days every month in a state, if nothing else, just enrolling members for the Congress, things might have looked up. Maybe it is still not too late.

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