The Congress Stands Divided

LESS THAN A YEAR after the second United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government assumed office in New Delhi, it is not just the ruling coalition, but the Congress party which leads it, that appears to be at war with itself. The kind of open dissension that is being witnessed in the incumbent regime has not been seen in many years, if not decades. The public airing of differences has undermined the authority of not just Prime Minister Manmohan Singh but also one of his most important colleagues in the Union Cabinet as well, Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram.

It is paradoxical that deep divisions have surfaced despite the fact that after the 2009 general elections, the UPA government appeared more stable than it had been in the previous five years, when it was dependent on the Left for a majority in the Lok Sabha. While the elections had resulted in both the Left and the Right—the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance—becoming politically weaker, today the UPA-II government is more incoherent than ever before.

On 14 April, Digvijay Singh, one of the senior-most general secretaries of the All-India Congress Committee (AICC) and reportedly a close confidante of Congress President and UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, dropped a bombshell in the form of an editorial page article. The article—somewhat curiously published by a financial daily, The Economic Times—was not just significant for the critical remarks it made about the Home Minister’s strategy to counter left-wing extremism; what took many by surprise was the sheer vituperation of the attack:

I have known P Chidambaram since 1985 when we both were elected to Parliament. He is extremely intelligent, articulate, committed and a sincere politician—but extremely rigid once he makes up his mind. I have been a victim of his intellectual arrogance many times, but we are still good friends. In this case, I have differed with his (counter-Maoist) strategy that does not take into consideration the people living in the affected area who ultimately matter. He is treating it purely as a law and order problem without taking into consideration the issues that affect the tribals…

Digvijay Singh stopped short of stating that Chidambaram had in the past acted as a lawyer for a corporate group, Vedanta Resources, which is in the thick of a controversy over its attempts to mine bauxite in tribal-dominated areas in Orissa. Digvijay Singh’s left-handed diatribe assumes significance because it came barely 48 hours after the Prime Minister himself issued instructions that the government’s strategies to counter left-wing extremism should emanate only from the nodal ministry, that is, the Ministry of Home Affairs, which Chidambaram heads. Equally significant were the rather muted objections to Singh’s remarks by Congress spokespersons—“the party is a democratic one but individuals should not air their differences in public”—that made it amply evident that the AICC general secretary could not have written what he did without the tacit approval of 10 Janpath.

Close on the heels of Singh’s comments, ‘nominated’ Congress Member of Parliament and former minister Mani Shankar Aiyar remarked, “Digvijay is not 100 percent right, he is not even 1,000 percent right, he is one lakh (100,000) percent right.” Prone as he is to exaggeration to make his point, Aiyar stated in a paper he presented that “the consistent failure of the state governments concerned, and the total lack of conscientiousness on the part of the Centre in urging the states … (to) implement the provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act—have contributed more than any other single factor to the aggravation of the situation in the forest areas. This has facilitated the mushrooming of insurgency directed against the state in the heart of India …”

True, Chidambaram offered to put in his papers after 76 foot-soldiers of the Central Reserve Police Force were massacred by Maoists in the jungles of Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh on 6 April. True, the Prime Minister and the Congress President rejected his resignation. But few anticipated the manner in which the antipathy towards the Home Minister would be articulated. Does this, then, indicate that the UPA chief herself is unhappy with Chidambaram? While Manmohan Singh is seen as backing Chidambaram to the hilt, Sonia Gandhi is being perceived as a person who is no longer willing to play a relatively ‘passive’ political role. (Witness, for instance, the alacrity with which she revived the National Advisory Council that she heads.)

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the second-most powerful person in the government, had earlier gently suggested to the Prime Minister during a Cabinet meeting that he should move slowly in seeking a Parliamentary mandate for a bill that seeks to cap the legal liability of foreign (particularly, American) suppliers of nuclear power equipment. Mukherjee understands better than most the compulsions of coalition politics. Above all, he knows that the Congress will have to stick with the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal till the 2011 state assembly elections and placate the mercurial Railway Minister, Mamata Banerjee, who has been going hammer-and-tongs at Chidambaram’s anti-Maoist strategy. Banerjee had earlier threatened to walk out of a Cabinet meeting on a bill to amend the law relating to land acquisition for setting up industries, and had openly wept when her ministry’s projects were not approved at short notice.

These are hardly the only points of tension in the UPA-II government. Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor has embarrassed his seniors in government more than once, the Indian Premier League cricket controversy being the latest. Minister of State for Environment Jairam Ramesh has locked horns with Road Transport and Highways Minister Kamal Nath on environmental clearances, disagreed with two of his seniors—Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar and Science & Technology Minister Prithviraj Chavan—on the issue of introducing genetically modified brinjal in the country, and has sarcastically criticised Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal for his efforts to attract foreign universities into the country.

Fertilisers Minister MK Alagiri, of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, has been opposed to the government’s attempts to move towards a nutrient-based subsidy regime, while government functionaries have been speaking in myriad voices on the bill to reserve seats for women in the Lok Sabha and in state legislative assemblies. The Prime Minister’s statement in July 2009 at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, which referred to Balochistan, raised a huge cry. Sharad Pawar has been bitterly attacked by Congress leaders for his alleged failure to check food prices, especially those of sugar. Congress spokesperson Satyavrat Chaturvedi was sacked after his ‘off-the-record’ abuses against the Agricultural Minister were caught on tape.

The Congress has always been like an umbrella, with different factions owing allegiance to conflicting ideologies coexisting in its shadow. It is hardly a secret that the economic policy initiatives of the Prime Minister and Chidambaram (when he was Finance Minister) did not find favour with many old ‘socialists’ in India’s ‘grand old party.’ But such disagreements rarely assumed the discordant dimensions of today.

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