Why can't the Congress force its allies to behave?
At the World Tamil Conference in June this year that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi inaugurated, M Karunanidhi asked the PM sotto voce: "So is Raja going?" He was referring, of course, to A Raja, the telecommunications minister who is being investigated for his role in allotting spectrum following allegations of corruption.
Clearly the Tamil Nadu chief minister expected the guillotine to fall and didn't want to be caught unawares. But Raja hasn't gone. Nor has the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led Tamil Nadu government which the Congress supports and which could fall tomorrow, if only the Congress were to say no longer will corruption, cronyism and inefficiency be subsidised at its expense (in a 235-member house, the DMK has 99 and the Congress has 34 MLAs, adding up to 133, well past the simple majority mark of 118).
Cronyism was out there in full public view at the conference: Karunanidhi's son and Deputy Chief Minister M K Stalin and daughter Kanimozhi were principal organisers, Karunanidhi's granddaughters Kayalvizhi Venkatesh and Ezhilarasi sang and played the veena at the conference. And at least 20 scholars presented research papers on Karunanidhi and his works. The Congress allowed itself to be airbrushed out of Tamil literary history. Later, when a Congress leader said it was time to bring back Kamaraj rule to the state, the DMK erupted in fury, leading to a full-scale public row between the allies.
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Text: Aditi Phadnis
Image: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with DMK chief M Karunanidhi
Congress accuses NCP leader of instigating riots
In Kashmir, with the National Conference getting 28 seats and the Congress 17 in the 87-member assembly to which elections took place in December 2008, it was clear that no party alone could form the government. The Congress decided to participate in the government.
But there is not a peep out of the party on the extent of administrative mismanagement in the state. Did any Congress minister in the government ever threaten not to stand by and watch the state going to rack and ruin and offer a resignation? Instead of consulting his political ally, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah sought advice from Jammu businessmen.
In Maharashtra, where the Congress is in alliance with the nationalist Congress Party, the situation is no better. A bitter war between the two partners has broken out over standards of governance, Home Minister R R Patil and Finance Minister Sunil Tatkare, both NCP, being the principal targets of the Congress. Politically too, things are not tranquil. Congress spokesman Hussain Dalwai has charged the NCP with instigating riots in Sangli-Miraj in western Maharashtra last year to win votes. How on earth can the Congress justify co-existing in government with an ally that it says is communal?
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Image: A protestor hurls a stone at a policeman in Srinagar
Why can't the Congress pull its weight?
In all these alliances that the party has in the states, is anyone in the Congress doing the thinking on what the government should do and what the Congress should avoid doing? Why couldn't Congress president Sonia Gandhi have called National Conference chief Farooq Abdullah and told him Omar must shape up or ship out?
Instead, the party has prostrated itself before the National Conference, promising to provide undying support for the years to come even as Kashmir burns in fires of outrage and perceived humiliation by India. Tamil Nadu Congressmen fume and fret in private about the conduct of the DMK, but the minute anyone mentions the 'w' (withdrawal) word in relation to support, the DMK goes ballistic and the central party backs off.
Why can't the Congress pull its weight, using its strength in the Centre to force its allies in the states to come to its side of the road and perform? Why can't friendly criticism be used as part of the Congress discourse to ensure better governance? All Congressmen are entitled to ask why the Congress should stand by and allow itself to be associated with bad governance, corruption and cronyism.
Look at Nitish Kumar. He knows the Janata Dal - United government in Bihar will collapse if the Bharatiya Janata Party pulls out. And yet, he can tell the BJP whom he wants in the state and who is not allowed to come to campaign. He insults the BJP, emasculates it publicly (in the process drawing more Muslims into the JD-U fold) and yet the alliance continues.
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Image: Congress president Sonia Gandhi
What will the Congress do in Bengal?
More trouble is in store when Mamata Banerjee becomes West Bengal chief minister, as she undoubtedly will, in alliance with the Congress. In a 294-member house, the Trinamool Congress will need the support of the Congress in at least 20 seats (the civic poll results recently show that Banerjee cannot hope to form a government on her own). What is the Congress going to do then? Join the government and influence policy-making? Or provide constructive criticism from the outside, where it has no responsibility but the capacity to exert pressure?
Reporters are saying the Trinamool is preparing itself to take power in rural Bengal. Banerjee has told businessmen not to pay any money to anyone who extorts it using her name. This is only a foretaste of things to come in Bengal. Is anyone in the Congress thinking about this?
The onus lies on Sonia Gandhi, as does the responsibility of steering the Congress through alliance politics, of making sure the party doesn't get the thin end of the good governance wedge. So far, on this score, there is little to report.
Image: Mamata Banerjee