Perhaps the awareness about the irredeemable nature of the Congress’s political fortune persuaded Prithviraj Chavan to let the cat out of the bag. By confessing that he was powerless as the Maharashtra chief minister to probe the allegations of corruption against influential party members such as Vilasrao Deshmukh, Sushil Kumar Shinde and Ashok Chavan, as well as a ministerial colleague, Ajit Pawar, the outgoing chief minister has drawn attention to the primary cause which is behind his party’s decline.
The Congress' reputation for aiding and abetting corruption first enabled Anna Hazare to whip up public sentiments against the party. Since then, its soiled image has been exploited in full measure by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has buttressed its case by underlining Manmohan Singh’s poor record in governance.
But it wasn’t only the former prime minister’s seeming inefficiency resulting in a policy paralysis which hurt his government and party but also the palpable dalliance with fraud. As much was evident when, like Chavan, Manmohan Singh confessed his helplessness to act against dishonest colleagues because, as he said, one couldn’t have elections every six months.
The person whom the then prime minister probably made the comment on was the telecom minister of the time, Andimuthu Raja. Nor is there any doubt at whose prodding Manmohan Singh allowed Raja to continue in office till the Supreme Court intervened and sent him to jail.
It could not have been anyone other than the Congress’s president, Sonia Gandhi, who prevailed upon Manmohan Singh to let Raja remain in office because any step against him would have made the DMK withdraw support, leading to the government’s fall.
Sonia Gandhi must have been also behind Prithviraj Chavan’s inability to act against Vilasrao Deshmukh and others lest the party be “decimated”, as he said.
In both the cases, a prime minister and a chief minister known for their personal integrity had to bow to unethical dictats from the powers-that-be and pretend to be oblivious of all the wrong-doing that was perpetrated under them.
It is another matter that neither Manmohan Singh nor Chavan had the guts to tell those higher up in the party echelons that they could not wink at fraud and behave as if all was well. Had they done so, the fate of the Congress might have been different.
After all, it was someone like VP Singh, whose refusal to close his eyes to scams led to him being hailed as Mr Clean and crowned as prime minister. Since then, there has been hardly anyone in the Congress who has had the honesty to admit that the party’s sullied image is letting it down although former finance minister P Chidambaram did identify ethical and governance “deficits” as the reasons for the downhill slide.
Chavan is the first one to say that he could not “shed” his tainted party colleagues because “if I had sent them to jail, it would have hit the party organisation.” However, the irony is that the party has been “hit” any way because the belief that it is unwilling to act against the guilty is electorally damaging. The Congress paid the price, first, in the Tamil Nadu assembly elections in 2011 when its defeat along with that of its partner, the DMK, showed that the voters were not ready to forgive and forget.
Since then, the party has lost a series of state assembly elections, notably in Goa, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, and now it is on the verge of defeat in Maharashtra and Haryana.
Strangely, it still apparently believes that its socialistic pretensions, as is evident from Rahul Gandhi’s criticism of Narendra Modi’s pro-business policies, will help it cross the electoral Rubicon.
The deafening silence from the leaders which has greeted Chavan’s spilling of the beans is a tell-tale sign of what has gone wrong with the Congress. A party which was so quick to act against Shashi Tharoor for his praise of Modi is acting deaf and dumb when a serious charge against its functioning has been made by a senior functionary.
Yet, the party has seemingly convinced itself that it cannot survive without the Nehru-Gandhi family. Arguably, it has an idealised image of the family dating back to the times of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi when their names and appearances made the voters flock to the Congress’s banner. This is no longer the case.
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org