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How did India's Grand Old Party lose the plot?

Soutik Biswas | 05:18 UK time, Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Congress flag Why did India's Grand Old Party lose the plot in its most secure bastion? As I enter the very last leg of our journey, I pose this question to a group of crafty politicians from Uttar Pradesh. India's most populous state has as many people as Brazil and grapples with more problems than you can ever think of. It also is where India's political heart beats loudest; with 80 parliamentary seats, its leaders and parties can make and break governments in India.

So what happened to the Congress Party, which ruled over Uttar Pradesh for decades since Independence and then floundered so badly that it hasn't even managed to win a state election here since 1989? In 1984, the party won two-thirds of the seats in the general elections here; by 2004, it was struggling to get into double figures managing to mop up just 11 seats.

We are sitting in a coffee shop called The Patio in a musty hotel in Allahabad, a main city in eastern Uttar Pradesh. The House of The Rising Sun and Bring Back My Baby to Me drone on in the background making for strange muzak. For the first time in our travels, the baking heat has deserted us and the sky is overcast. Blue-grey clouds hang from the horizon. The earth is damp, mud puddles collect on the broken sidewalks, and traffic moves slowly on the rain-slicked roads.

The four politicians come from different parties. With his falling curls and a black safari suit, Ashok Vajpayee belongs to the Bahujan Samaj Party of 'untouchables' led by the feisty leader Mayawati. He is a former Congressman - as party politicians are called - who jumped ship and joined the BSP two years ago when Mayawati began wooing upper caste leaders to forge her own magic coalition. Revati Raman Singh of the Samajwadi Party appears to be the canniest of the lot. He exudes a quiet confidence - people here tell me he is tipped to win the seat here. Dr Narendra Kumar Singh Gaur is a physics-teacher-turned Hindu nationalist politician belonging to the BJP, which is also struggling to stay afloat in the state. The earnest looking Chaudhury Jitendra Nath Singh has been a devoted Congress loyalist all his life and now serves as the mayor of the local municipality.Congress supporter

I realise our journey through India is bookended by the cities of its two greatest leaders, both belonging to the Congress party. We began in Ahmedabad in Gujarat, home to the party's spiritual leader and greatest icon, Mahatma Gandhi. We are winding up in Allahabad, birthplace of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister and its best-known leader who believed strongly in the idea of India. In Ahmedabad, I found Gandhi's legacy all but forgotten; in Allahabad, Nehru appears to be a fading, jaded memory in the maddening maelstrom of local politics, dominated now by a host of squabbling, controversial caste-based parties.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, the Congress party, run by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, represented India's early rainbow coalition of the rich and the poor, the upper castes and the untouchables, the Hindus and Muslims and other minorities. Its bulwark in Uttar Pradesh was breached in the late 1980s and that set the stage for its decline in many other parts of the country. The failure to protect the Babri mosque from marauding Hindu mobs in December 1992 truly broke the party's back here. Now it plays a grumpy leader to ambitious regional and small parties. Next week when the votes are counted, it will be lucky to get anywhere close to even 200 seats in India's 543-seat parliament. It will again have to court regional and small parties if it wants to take a shot at forming the government.

So what went wrong with the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh? The three rivals are in rare agreement.

"It all boils down to leadership," says the Congress mayor, Mr Singh. "Here local leaders came up representing their own castes. Look at Mayawati, look at Mulayam Singh Yadav (leader of the Samajwadi Party, a wrestler-turned-politician). Our party failed to throw up a state level leader to counter them."

Ashok Vajpayee, who defected to the BSP after spending decades with the Congress, is in rare agreement with his rival.

"After 1989, Congress had no leader in Uttar Pradesh. After the killing of Rajiv Gandhi, the dynasty retreated from politics. There was a vacuum in politics. Other parties moved in to fill it. And since then the party has declined," he says.

The failure to throw up a leader does appear to be Congress's monumental folly. Now, the party's efforts to regain lost ground here appears to be restricted to despatching the fourth generation Gandhi-Nehru scions, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, to their pocket boroughs of Amethi and Rae Barelli, leaving the rest of the state untouched. The decline possibly also has to do with Congress's centralisation of politics, where leaders based in Delhi do the decision making. This makes local party offices, in the words of one of the politicians here, "post offices" for decisions emanating from the headquarters.

There must be more to just lack of leadership, I suggest, as the politicians prepare to leave. There must be a breaking down of the traditional grassroots networks, a lack of engagement with issues, and a failure to tap into the complex rural zeitgeist. "May be, may not be," says the Congress mayor, "but eventually we failed to throw up strong, local leaders."

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