Three lessons for the Congress

Three lessons for the Congress

The Congress may gloat over the DMK's humiliating retreat on the sharing of seats between them for the forthcoming assembly elections in Tamil Nadu. But it knows that the party will not have the same advantage of being in a strong position vis-à-vis an ally during similar negotiations with the West Bengal-based Trinamool Congress.

The lesson for the Congress, which claims to be a national party, is that it cannot always call the shots in its coalitions with regional parties. Even in the DMK's case, the gains of the Congress were due more to the former's missteps than to any innate strength of its own position.

In a way, the DMK with 99 seats in the 234-member assembly was on a weak wicket right from the start since it did not have a majority of its own in the house where the Congress with 34 seats was the second largest party. The DMK's clout, therefore, came from the fact that the Congress itself ran a minority government at the centre with support from the DMK and the Trinamool, among others.

Unlike the Trinamool, whose ministers, like those of other parties such as the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the National Conference, haven't faced any allegations of sleaze, the DMK made the mistake of not telling its ministers to follow the straight and narrow path. The Congress, too, winked at their suspected transgressions, especially those of former telecom minister Andimuthu Raja for fear that stern steps might provoke the DMK to withdraw its support.

The resultant mess is there for all to see. When strictures from the Supreme Court and the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), as well as mounting criticism by the opposition, left the Congress with no option but to sack Raja, the DMK tried to brazen it out by praising Raja's contributions to the telecom sector and refusing to give the Congress the number of seats it wanted.

But the huffing and puffing could not continue for long because the DMK realised it had lost the moral high ground after the allegations of venality against Raja. There is also little doubt that the Congress had raised its demand for assembly seats because it knew that the DMK's bargaining position was weak.

Another reason why the DMK backed down was because the Samajwadi Party with its 22 MPs announced its intention to save the Congress in case the DMK withdrew its 18 MPs. The DMK's main adversary in Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK, had earlier decided to support the Congress if it dismissed Raja.

It is worth recalling that the Samajwadi Party had bailed the Congress out of trouble in 2008 by bolstering its numbers when the Left withdrew its support from the government on the nuclear deal.

The Congress can learn another lesson, therefore, from these goodwill gestures. It is that even if the party has to depend on others to remain in power at the centre, it is still the hub round which the regional parties revolve. This propensity is true as much for those in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) as those that are outside it like the Samajwadi Party. Without the Congress, none of the smaller parties would be able to share power at the national level or come close to it.

Although the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the other hub, it has lost the appeal it had in the late 1990s because of the Gujarat riots of 2002, which were directly blamed by its foremost leader of the time, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, for the party's 2004 defeat. Its anti-minority image is evidently the reason why the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) under it comprises only four members at present compared to the 24 it had when Vajpayee was prime minister.

In contrast, the Congress' secular credentials continue to attract the others, who are afraid that any proximity to the BJP will cost them the votes of Muslim, Christian and liberal Hindus. This explains why the Congress receives the support of parties like the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Lok Janashakti Party and others though they are not a part of the UPA and are the Congress' opponents in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which are their strongholds.

The third lesson for the Congress is that it is fatal to compromise with corruption where its partners are concerned. Till it found itself in deep trouble, the Congress had tried to fend off charges of being soft on the DMK's shenanigans by saying it was part of the compulsions of running an alliance or "coalition dharma", as the requirement was called.

Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh argued at a press conference that violating the "dharma" would lead to elections every six months. But now the party has learnt that turning a blind eye to wrongdoing will make it scared of facing any elections at all.
The Congress' secularism is still its saving grace. But this reputation will not rescue it if the party loses its moral compass.

( Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at