Dr Manmohan Singh addressing from
the rampart of the Red Fort this Independence Day on August
15, 2010. He is the 3rd PM to address this way 7th times.
As a broad church party, the
Congress was never known for organisational discipline. The habit
of its members speaking out of turn was always a feature of its
functioning. Few will be surprised, therefore, at some of the
latest episodes which have seen important party leaders voicing
Even if these are regarded as a sign
of inner-party democracy, critics will see them as evidence of
latent groupism. What is more, the suspicion will be that such
conflicting views cannot be expressed without hidden encouragement
from powerful behind-the-scene actors.
Some of the issues on which partymen have been ranged against one
another include the use of the term "saffron terror" by Home
Minister P. Chidambaram, the education bill, the Commonwealth
Games and the policy towards the Maoists.
It can also be recalled that the Congress was divided over the
Indo-US nuclear deal last year. While party president Sonia Gandhi
declared that the Communists had a point in opposing it, Prime
Minister Manmohan Singh was very much in its favour.
In addition, the party has been ambivalent about the economic
reforms right from their inception in 1991. In fact, large
sections ascribed the party's defeat in 1996 to the alleged
pro-rich bias of the reforms. Even now, the letters L P G are
disparagingly used by some in the Congress to describe the
phenomenon of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation
associated with the reforms.
The term, saffron terror, however, has set off a mini-storm in the
party and outside. Considering that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)
had raised serious objections about the phrase, describing saffron
as the colour of India's spiritualism, Congress general secretary
Digvijay Singh might have been expected to observe a little more
restraint while virtually endorsing the BJP's stance.
But although Digvijay Singh tried to dilute the impact of his
criticism by saying that terror should not be associated with any
community, caste, religion or colour - like green, for instance,
which is associated with Muslims - it is doubtful whether he would
have been as vociferous if someone other than Chidambaram had used
A few months ago, Digvijay Singh had berated the home minister for
his "intellectual arrogance" in a newspaper article in connection
with the latter's hardline anti-Maoist drive. The accusation had
drawn the suggestion from Chidambaram that if anyone thought he
could do the job of home minister better, he was welcome to take
While much of this is grist to the journalistic mill, the
impression can gain ground from such exchanges that the party is
speaking in many voices because, first, it is unable to frame
coherent policies and, second, because of the rise of factionalism
due to personal animus.
The same will now be presumed about the education bill since the
government was unable to ensure its passage through the upper
house of parliament. More than any resistance from the opposition
benches, the failure was due to protests from Keshava Rao, a
Congress MP, who has also been critical of Chidambaram's
Little wonder that the road block faced by the education bill has
perked up the BJP. With the Congress facing internal dissent, the
BJP has shed some of the demoralisation which affected the party
after its defeat last year. This recovery of spirits may explain
Narendra Modi's unseemly dig at the prime minister over the lack
of preparations for the Commonwealth Games.
While the Gujarat chief minister's comment that the sporting
venues may not be ready even if the prime minister himself mops
the floors is undoubtedly coarse, what is one to make of Congress
MP Mani Shankar Aiyar's remark that he will be extremely unhappy
if the Games are successful? If they fail, it will shame the
country before the world. Is this ignominy something which a
ruling party member should desire?
Apart from the stalling of the education bill, the government has
had to defer several other legislative measures, including the
prevention of torture bill and the proposed amendment of the enemy
property act. These postponements made the BJP leader, Arun
Jaitley, say that the government was "losing direction".
The only success for the government was the passage of the nuclear
liability bill with the BJP's help. This wasn't unexpected,
however, because after having opposed the nuclear deal last year
along with the Left, the BJP realised that persisting with the
same anti-American line would further alienate its middle class
Arguably, the conflicting views in the Congress may be partly due
to the curious silence which the prime minister has been observing
of late. Noting this lack of communication on Manmohan Singh's
part, Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader Sitaram
Yechury said that the prime minister did not intervene in any of
the major discussions in parliament, such as on price rise or the
Bhopal gas tragedy, in order to give "a direction to the
government or the country".
Congress president Sonia Gandhi, too, has not been all that
forthcoming. This strange reticence at the top may have enabled
some of those lower down to speak more often than they would have
if the official and party positions were made clearer by the prime
minister and the party chief.
is a political analyst.
He can be reached at