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Is Congress under Rahul Gandhi going the Janata Dal way?

Is Congress under Rahul Gandhi going the Janata Dal way?

Is Congress under Rahul Gandhi going the Janata Dal way?
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By V Krishna Ananth  Mar 7, 2019 6:27:51 AM IST (Updated)

Amidst the flutter that Sheila Dikshit, head of the Delhi Pradesh Congress created ruling out an alliance between her party and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for the seven Lok Sabha seats from Delhi in the coming polls, news of her own party sealing a deal with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) (along with the MDMK, the two Left parties, the IUML and the IJK) in Tamil Nadu seem to suggest that Rahul Gandhi is unable to set his party’s strategic end and convey that to his provincial chiefs.

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If reports on the happenings at Gandhi’s well-appointed residence this Tuesday morning, when Dikshit and others met and quarrelled over what the party ought to do about the efforts from the AAP for an alliance are true (a difficult thing to make out in times when ‘sources’ has turned into a euphemism to convey one’s views), Gandhi seems determined to turn his party into whatever used to be the Janata Dal of the 1980s and 1990s.
It used to be held, when the Dal played a critical role in our political discourse including the short while when its leaders headed union governments (VP Singh, Chandrashekar, HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral) or in states, the party was no different from the Congress except that it took ‘inner-party democracy’ to great heights.
As one of those who reported on affairs of the Dal from New Delhi for most parts of this time, I recall the diverse views its leaders would put out, willingly and many times walking the extra mile to –debrief reporters after a press conference.
Some of us realised then the cause for the frequent splits in the Janata Dal was because there was nothing in the party (or its various splinters) called the ‘high command’. In this sense, it was distinct from the Congress, to which several of the Janata Dal leaders belonged to.
The Congress party, meanwhile, left anything and everything to the ‘high command’ even if the leaders retained their own views on matters tactical and strategic; they did indulge in de-briefing but that was all. Anyone and everyone knew the feuds between its leaders and yet the ‘command mode’ ensured that the party did not split up as did the Janata Dal.
Well. The Congress party that Gandhi inherited was, in some sense, similar to whatever the Janata Dal was when founded in October 1988. In the general elections of 1984, the ‘national’ parties in the opposition hitherto did not win as many seats in the Lok Sabha to enable anyone of theirs to be called the Leader of the Opposition.
The Telugu Desam Party (TDP), with 30 MPs, ended up as the single largest opposition group in the Lok Sabha. It was no coincidence that the Janata Dal, right since its formation, set out the idea of a National Front and the TDP leader, NT Rama Rao was crowned its convener.
Gandhi, in May 2018, seemed to attach himself to this reality when he got his party, with far more MLAs in the newly elected Karnataka Assembly than the Janata Dal, to announce in no time that they supported a government, from within or outside, headed by the Janata Dal. He did not seem to wait to consult his partymen in Karnataka before such an announcement. He also put his party’s lawyer-leader, Abhishek M Singhvi to ensure the arrangement was not derailed by the governor’s acts in Bengaluru.
It is also a fact that Rahul left things about alliances in Punjab to Captain Amarinder Singh (even while promoting NS Sidhu there) and similarly Kamalnath’s opinion against bending over the back before Mayawati’s BSP in Madhya Pradesh became the party’s view.
The outcome of the polls seemed to vindicate the decision to go it alone and not heed to pressure from the BSP. These, however, were in different situations. The assembly elections were an occasion for the Congress to find its feet and there was scope for a course correction, in time for the general elections, if things went wrong.
The case of Delhi (even if there are only seven Lok Sabha seats at stake) is indeed different. It is about the perception about the unity of parties that are opposed to the BJP. And, unlike those who steered the Congress party in Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Rajasthan to victory in the end,  Dikshit is neither a mass leader nor is she young enough to take on the rough and tumble of the political road in the state. She, after all, led the Congress to a crushing defeat at the hands of the AAP in Delhi and went into oblivion soon after.
This is where the message from Tamil Nadu and the ease with which the Congress leaders went about doing business with the DMK is interesting. At another level, the DMK too held the Congress on its fold despite a long history of having suffered at the hands of the Congress.
It was launched as a force against Nehru’s Congress; its state government was dismissed, abusing powers under Article 356 in 1976 and 1991. The Congress even pulled down the Gujral government in 1998 seeking removal of DMK ministers from his cabinet.
Dikshit’s word that her party will go it alone, as reports suggest, may not be the last; more so when politics is the art of the impossible as VP Singh made clear some three decades ago. The point is the AAP is an experiment that parties that profess their commitment to democracy and the Idea of India ought to learn from and refine. It is about restoring the street as a metaphor in the political discourse.
V Krishna Ananth teaches History at Sikkim University, Gangtok.
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