Friday, November 28, 2014

The Resurrection of Congress

NEW DELHI – The overwhelming victory of the Indian National Congress in elections in the important southern state of Karnataka in early May has shaken up the country’s political scene. India’s troubled ruling party had appeared headed downhill in the build-up to the next general elections, which must be held by May 2014. Now, following its huge win in Karnataka, all bets are off.

Karnataka (whose capital, Bangalore, is a symbol of India’s thriving software and business-process-outsourcing industries) had been ruled for the previous five years by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the country’s main opposition party, which governed India from 1998 to 2004. The BJP’s victory in the state in 2008 was hailed as a milestone in its effort to position itself as a natural party of government. Support for the BJP in Karnataka, with its affluent, well-educated voters and its significant Christian and Muslim minority populations, was widely depicted as evidence that the party – usually identified with Hindu chauvinism and an electoral base concentrated in Hindi-speaking northern states – could broaden its appeal beyond its traditional constituencies.

As the Congress-led national government (of which I am a member) reeled under a series of political and financial scandals, the BJP increasingly sought to position itself as the obvious national alternative. India’s hyperactive media began to celebrate the ambitions of the BJP’s most visible leader, Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of the western state of Gujarat, who has assiduously presented himself as an avatar of effective government, in contrast to the controversy-ridden establishment in New Delhi. The BJP, however, proceeded to paralyze Parliament with unruly calls for the government to resign.

And yet, amid this turmoil – indeed, in a week in which two government ministers resigned in the face of allegations of corruption and impropriety – Karnataka’s voters gave Congress 121 of the state assembly’s 224 seats and reduced the BJP’s total to just 40. The BJP’s record in government – flagrant financial malfeasance, a procession of Chief Ministers, charges of nepotism and crony capitalism, real-estate and mining scandals, policy paralysis, and a free rein to Hindu-chauvinist groups (who attacked pubs, assaulted girls for “indecency,” and disrupted Valentine’s Day) – elicited a decisive rebuke from the electorate.

Instead of turning to the state’s two regional parties – one headed by a former prime minister of India, the other by a former chief minister – Karnataka’s voters sought refuge in the tested Congress, enabling it to secure a firm majority in the state assembly. Modi came and campaigned for the BJP, but the party lost seats in every location at which he appeared – a huge setback in a state that it had hoped to use as a platform for its national ambitions.

The BJP will not be viable in national politics unless and until it moves away from the limited platform of Hindu chauvinism and shows itself to be more capable than Congress of governing India’s vast diversity. Its performance in Karnataka for the past five years has given the lie to claims that it has begun this necessary shift. Given widespread revulsion at the BJP’s record of corruption and pandering to extremism, it is highly unlikely that the party will be able to retain its current 19 MPs from Karnataka in next year’s general election. Congress, by contrast, will be eyeing the state’s 28 parliamentary seats confidently.

The Karnataka state election marks a decisive step forward in the Indian electorate’s journey from the politics of identity to the politics of performance. For too long, politics had become a vehicle for the aspirations of various groups that felt marginalized by the cosmopolitan secular consensus developed in India under its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. They have asserted themselves in recent years by using the power of the ballot box to claim power on the basis of caste, religion, ethnicity, and other sectarian appeals.

Voters initially proved susceptible to such appeals: “Isn’t it time people like us came to power?” is a question that resonates with those who see themselves as excluded. But, in state after state, “identity” voters were soon asking what “people like us” were doing with the power they won. They began to demand improvement in roads, sanitation, electricity, public security, and other necessities of rural and urban development – in short, they demanded better governance.

The Karnataka elections even gave rise to a new phenomenon with the creation of the Bangalore Political Action Committee, led by Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, the chairman of the Bangalore-based biotechnology company Biocon. The BPAC led a non-partisan better-governance campaign to mobilize the city’s young voters, who have often not bothered to vote in state and national elections, registering more than 600,000 new voters and supporting over a dozen candidates from four parties, several of whom won. The message: good governance yields votes, and is thus good reason for politicians to focus on infrastructure and development.

Those who in recent years assumed that they could sweep into power by disrupting Parliament and agitating against the government should take heed. Congress has no grounds for complacency, but it knows that if it delivers, the voters will remember. That could make for a far more constructive election campaign in 2014.

  • Contact us to secure rights


  • Hide Comments Hide Comments Read Comments (16)

    Please login or register to post a comment

    1. CommentedPrashant Kumar

      What i dont agree with in this article is his statement that 'all bets are off'. There is still a clear lean towards other parties for central rule. The one thing about Indian politics, unlike that of say a country like United States is that state politics and central politics must be taken as isolated events. The underlying issue with the BJP Karnataka government was corruption, an issue that is plaguing the Congress party at the central level. Voters now are starting to decide elections based on the issue that are affecting their lives and ineffectiveness of the BJP led KN govt, was one of the best reasons for its dismal performance. Congress should take note of that because its track record on issues of corruption, women security, feeble international presence and clear downturn of the economy, are what the voters will look at and what the opposition will showcase. No, Mr. Tharoor, all bets arent off. If you actually study the details of why BJP lost and apply them to the Congress parties bid for power in 2014, you'll see, its still leaning away from your party.

    2. CommentedKaleem Alam

      Mr. Tharoor was not honest with his analysis, the Congress victory was not solely due to congress itself, rather it was aided by the infighting within BJP and Mr. Yeddyurappa's spoiler game for BJP.

      The Problem with BJP is its Castist/Racist, and Communalist. It does not see all Indians from same lenses of the constitution of India.

      Congress itself has all these problem in practice but it hypocritically doesn’t bring them to writing. It plays soft hindutwa when it enters BJP states specially Gujarat, indicating very clearly it has no stands as long as it can get votes.

    3. CommentedM Patel

      You are right but just a tiny correction. Vitthal Radadiya was not denied congress ticket. In fact, Congress gave ticket to both, Vitthal & his son Jayesh, in legislative assembly. Both won and became Congress MLA; However, Vitthal was denied post of leader of opposition & he was denied berth in central ministry. So, He & his son resigned and joined BJP. In the coming by-election, both would likely win on BJP ticket with an impressive margin. So the blame lies with Congress, BJP & VOTERS.

    4. CommentedM Patel

      Shashi's lies vs fact

      Shashi wrote that BJP lost seats in every location at which Modi Appeared.

      Modi made only 3 appearance in Karnataka.
      1) Modi appeared at Basavangudi where BJP won by an impressive 19K votes.
      2) Modi appeared at Manglore where BJP lost.
      3) Modi appeared at Belgaum where BJP lost.

      Shashi is using ProjectSyndicate for propaganda & lies instead of Ideas.

    5. Commentedsankeerth nedunoori

      Congress got some 32 percent of votes...that does not translate into peoples mandate perfectly in a country where the archaic First Past the Post system still prevails....By labeling BJP as Hindu extremist party Shashi Tharoor is preaching blatant hypocrisy here....Have you forgotten your alliance and dalliance with MIM ,a true Muslim party, in Hyderabad...You claim yourself as a secular politician and form an alliance with a party whose leaders spill venom against Hindus in public meetings...Also do not be complacent because Karnataka voters are smart enough to decide who should be kept at bay in National politics and state politics....History vindicates that cross voting prevails in Karnataka.....

    6. CommentedViswanathan Suresh

      Again Mr Tharoor confuses the inherent anti-incumbent nature of the Indian voter as a call for good governance and a rejection of bad governments. The voter, alas knows that he has few real choices, given the greedy, goon driven politics of the country. And neither the BJP nor the Congress can claim that they have consistently fielded decent candidates who have been vetted for the job. Indeed, when a gun toting Congress thug gets ejected from his party for having been caught in the act, he is promptly given a seat in the BJP. The case of Gujerat MP Vithal Radadiya springs to mind. When the erstwhile Congress goon wielded his gun at a hapless toll booth attendant, the videos went viral, forcing the Congress to drop him, No problems for the goon though, the BJP embraces his with open arms ! The crux of the issue is that given the fact that politicians of all hues and stripes are corrupt and venal, the Indian voter prefers the venal fellow who is from ones community, city or caste. Sad state of affairs indeed. And something which makes me wonder what an educated, erudite, well travelled and thoroughly decent man like Mr Tharoor is doing with a bunch of people who he certainly has little in common with.

        CommentedM Patel

        You are right but just a tiny correction. Vitthal Radadiya was not denied congress ticket. In fact, Congress gave ticket to both, Vitthal & his son Jayesh, in legislative assembly. Both won and became Congress MLA; However, Vitthal was denied post of leader of opposition & he was denied berth in central ministry. So, He & his son resigned and joined BJP. In the coming by-election, both would likely win on BJP ticket with an impressive margin. So the blame lies with Congress, BJP & VOTERS.

        CommentedM Patel

        You are right but just a tiny correction. Vitthal Radadiya was not denied congress ticket. In fact, Congress gave ticket to both, Vitthal & his son Jayesh, in legislative assembly. Both won and became Congress MLA; However, Vitthal was denied post of leader of opposition & he was denied berth in central ministry. So, He & his son resigned and joined BJP. In the coming by-election, both would likely win on BJP ticket with an impressive margin. So the blame lies with Congress, BJP & VOTERS.


      It is quite laughable for Mr. Sashi Tharoor to write this sort of article. Karnataka voters are fed up with BJP corruption, so they had no other option but to vote for Congress. There is no guarantee that Congress will give good governance. Narendra Modi charisma will not work in Karnataka because it is fought on local issues.

    8. CommentedAditya Pandey

      The resurrection of Congress is being expressed in terms of its ability or inability to win next general elections. What a shame! This brings forth the mentality of our thick-skinned politicians. They don't actually care about whether party is heading downhill or uphill in terms of moral, ethics and their duty towards an Indian citizen. But when their party wins, see the glow on their face, that glow can even brighten the dungeons of Mordor. They don't even hesitate in disseminating the slightest win over their rivals. And with reference to the title, I think author shouldn't over-estimate the potential and simultaneously under-estimate the malpractices of Congress, that has become a toaster machine that pops out graft charged ministers once every 2 or 3 months.

    9. CommentedAkash Jain

      It was shocking to read such an article on this site. Mr. Shashi Tharoor you can get several other forums where you can propogate the congress victory in Karnataka as an mandate for a so called great political party of India whose every Minister in Central Govt is alleged for corruption. Let this platform be for what it is.

    10. CommentedAlok Shukla

      It's really unfortunate that people like Shashi will write such type of article. Recently two of the federal government ministers are under CBI investigation. Not sure whether scandals and malfeasance is sole area of expertise of BJP.

    11. Commentedhari naidu

      Let's be fair and allow this Keralite academic to sustain his party's propaganda opportunity in next general elections, and Rahul Gandhi is most likely to replace Dr Singh (who has really aged in office!). Congress Party has mismanaged at Centre...with ministerial corruptions and whatnots. Voters will not be generous to this traditional governing party, ever since 1947. What India needs today is modernization of its centre-state governance with strict accountability on how finance is managed/shared. Dr Singh failed, and failed miserably, in spite of his non-corrupt persona. Gerontology is the name of Indian politics. The old men administer power and influence and have over time become corrupt. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. What would happen if 40's or 50's old politicians came to power in the subcontinent? Would they also behave same as this gerontology lot?

    12. CommentedDeepak Tiwari

      Author's partisan views are easily palpable. If the BJP can be termed as the party of Hindu chauvinists, Congress can be guilty of minority appeasement. It would be more appropriate to say that in recent Karnataka election, it was the BJP's debacle than Congress' thumping victory. The Indian electorate has little choice. It's not about who is bad. It's about who is less bad. Mr. Tharoor has probably forgotten how his party was decimated in Goa's 2012 election. You can fool people once, remember. People will give the fittest response if our rulers fail to govern responsibly. There is lesson for both these parties to take by heart. The previous BJP government in Karnataka was just an epitome of the government at the center which is perhaps more anarchic and chaotic. Thus, it'd be safe to deduce that both national political parties are suffering from the same diseases. The coming 2014 general election shall prove this.

    13. CommentedPrashant Takker

      Despite myself (because I love reading Shashi Tharoor) I somehow regret that this article has been published on Project Syndicate. It is a platform for ideas rather than opinion about political parties or their prospects (BJP in this paragraph). And then being from a rival party, it must be hard for one to be unbiased, which is very well reflected in the article.

    14. CommentedViswanathan Suresh

      Whilst I do agree with Mr Tharoor's report card on the failings of the BJP government in Karnataka, it is still a case of pot calling kettle black. Mr Tharoor's own party has the very same corrupt politicians - perhaps in even greater numbers. There is no shortage of examples of crony capitalism, or real estate and mining scandals which taint Congress politicians. Perhaps Mr Tharoor would do well to explain whether Mr Robert Vadra and his ilk in the Congress are any better or any different from the robber barons of the BJP in Karnataka. And therein lies the tragedy of India - despite a democratic facade - people have no real choices when it comes to choosing their government. Rejection of the corrupt BJP boils down to anti-incumbency and not necessarily selection of the Congress as Mr Tharoor would like you to believe. For, both the BJP and the Congress are just two faces of the same bloody coin.