Shades of Congress

Understanding Indian politics is extremely difficult without comprehending the politics of the Indian National Congress. The issues crop up again and again related to the views of the left, right and centre within the party, making the picture confusing because each of the groups upholding the views claims that they speak for the party as a whole. The latest statement of Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh is a case in point. It is, of course, not surprising that every group will try to speak in the name of a party as a whole, but for understanding the evolution of the party position one has to go much beyond such pronouncements and analyse the objective realities that give rise to these different views.
Unlike other political parties in India or any other country, the Congress is more like a platform and has been like that throughout the history of the Indian national movement. It never had a unified view because it allowed different social groups and political forces the full scope of debate and controversy within the party itself as a sort of a mirror image of what went on in the country at the national level. The party had representation of the working class, the peasantry, big and small farmers and petty entrepreneurs, besides of course being represented by the big businessmen and landlords.
On regional and local levels, the Congress had representation of different castes, linguistic, ethnic and cultural groups. Although the conflicts of these local groups did get reflected in national politics, in most cases local issues dominated local politics, giving the impression from the all-India perspective of the fractured politics of India.
At the national level, however, the views have been more consolidated under different groups representing different perspectives in national politics to form themselves into the left, right and the centre. In spite of many attempts by the leadership to impose a semblance of unity in the Congress position on different issues, these differences could not be suppressed and the Congress will always have a left, right and centre position on different subjects, contesting each other in national politics. The likes of Mr Singh speaking in the name of the left have always been and would always be contesting the likes of P. Chidambaram presented as the right in national politics together with the centrist position of the party leadership.
In a sense, this position of a pl­atform for all different points of views gives the strength to the Congress as an all-India na­t­ional organisation. Throughout its history the Congress’ leader­s­hip has tolerated all these internal differences without trying to suppress decadence. Even at the height of the Congress movements the left wing represented by Jawaharlal Nehru, with his large support based among the young people of India, and the right wing represented by conservative forces led by Rajendra Prasad and Acharya Kriplani, no attempt was made to suppress political differences. A national Congress position emerged under a national leadership projecting the view of the national Congress based on the relative strength of different social forces.
It is therefore, not surprising that the current leadership of the Congress allows all these diff­e­r­ences to remain open to crop up on different issues. Mr Singh’s position on Naxalism has the support of a large numb­er of Congressmen even if not of the leadership. The positions taken by Jairam Ramesh on en­v­i­ronmental issues which are ul­timately dividing business in­te­rests in India as well as abroad will continue to create conflict which might often embarrass the international position taken by the government in understandings reached with industrial countries. And then we have Mani Shankar Aiyar, speaking in the name of the common people in India, whose potential support base is huge among the poor, vulnerable and the unemployed who constitute more than three-fourths of our country. These differences cannot be and should not be suppressed for not destroying the national image of the Congress.
Indeed, a skilful handling of these different conflicts and the groups represented by them has been a major achievement of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. In this, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has ably supported her. It has been possible for them to maintain the image of a leftist leadership under Mrs Gandhi and that of a centrist leadership under Dr Singh.
There is often a misunders­t­a­nding in the media and political circles about the politics of Dr Singh. He has been a champion of neo-liberal economic policies, pushing the cause of economic growth in the formulation of his most of the economic policies. At the same time he is clear-sighted enough to combine this neo-liberal policies with effective and visible steps to protect the common people through employment, social security and subsidisation policies for helping them. In this, Dr Singh has followed the minimum needs strategy of Robert McNamara, the World Bank’s president in the 1970s. That made huge political sense in a liberalising economy, where high investment rate of the rich, promoting a high rate of growth was supported by a visible programme of looking after the poor that were left behind.
In a very practical sense, Mrs Gandhi and Dr Singh complement each other, one looking after politics of the party and the other administration of the government supported by both the left and the right within the party.
I am posing the issues of national politics in this way so that the debates and con­tr­o­v­e­r­s­ies in the party and in the co­u­n­try are sharpened, so that a pro­per analysis can be made of the occ­asions when the left and the right forces successfully assert themselves. These analyses can be extended to the foreign policy areas, which should be able to explain the changing foreign policy stances of the Congress. They are often pro-American, whenever the rightist forces take over the leadership. But they are also often deviating from the position of US interest, as a vast majority of Indians, especially the Islamic population cannot blindly support the US position on different issues.
Once these issues are raised, the questions in terms of the left, right and the centre within the Congress can be openly discussed so that an effective debate can be started on the nature of the Indian politics and the support of the different social groups.

Dr Arjun Sengupta is a Member of Parliament and former Economic Adviser to Pri­me Minister Indira Gandhi

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