The move by the West Bengal Congress to get its 44 newly elected legislators sign a bond of loyalty to the party and the Gandhi family, is laughable if not bizarre. First things first, the so-called affidavit made on a Rs 100 stamp paper will never stand in court. There is no way a party member, let alone a lawmaker, be legally bound by a written undertaking of this sort, despite the attempt to give it a legalistic tone and gravitas. In it, the legislators have sworn ‘unqualified allegiance’ to Indian tiol Congress led by its president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi, not get involved in any anti-party activity, and not make negative comment or take negative action even if he does not agree with any party policy or decision. And then comes the clincher: ‘…I shall resign from my post of MLA before making such comment and/or taking such action’. Defending this as ‘a step in the right direction’, senior Congress leaders in West Bengal have pointed out earlier instances of MLAs, after being elected to the assembly with the help of their party symbol, ‘defecting to other parties under enticement or coercion’. However, this argument should not hold for the new West Bengal assembly where Mamata Banerjee’s Trimool remains on saddle with an even bigger mandate of 211 seats and 44.9 percent vote share. Why should the ruling Trimool poach on opposition Congress MLAs so inferior numerically? The answer must lie elsewhere. The Congress spokesperson’s defence in New Delhi betrayed the deep sense of insecurity that has beset the grand old party when he said that ‘the commitment’ makes sense, given the BJP’s ‘current trend of trying to stch Congress legislators in states like Aruchal Pradesh and Uttarakhand to destabilise the Congress governments there’.
However, the problem in Aruchal was largely the Congress high command’s own making after it refused to give a hearing to dissident legislators for months; had they been allowed to vent steam, the revolt against the bam Tuki dispensation would not have assumed the serious dimensions it did. Later events in Manipur proved that the Congress high command did in fact take the Aruchal lesson to heart, changing the state party chief and nudging chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh to go for a ministry reshuffle to accommodate some dissidents. As for the Harish Rawat-led Congress government in Uttarakhand, the party took much heart from High Court and Supreme Court verdicts disqualifying 9 rebel Congress MLAs who had openly aligned with the BJP. In view of the higher courts strictly interpreting the Anti-Defection Law, there is little need for the West Bengal Congress to get its MLAs sign an undertaking. If a rebel MLA has to give up his seat, it will be because of the law and not some silly bond he had appended his sigture to. To be fair to the Congress tiol leadership, the idea of the ‘loyalty bond’ does not appear to have come down from the top. But the party’s feeble attempts to defend it point to a sense of crisis, doubtless heightened by loss of power in Assam and Kerala too. The fact that the BJP used Himanta Biswa Sarma’s election magement skills to unseat the Congress in Assam and open a bridgehead in the Northeast must surely rankle with the Congress high command. But whether it has the courage to respond to demands for ‘surgery’ from leaders like Digvijay Singh remains to be seen. Old habits, after all, die hard. It may be more comfortable to wait for the rendra Modi regime to make mistakes and pray for voter disenchantment in 2019. But that defensive wait could get complicated by more insecure Congressmen deserting ship while others put on sycophantic displays, like in West Bengal now. Unless the Congress gets its act together fast, it risks laying itself open to more ridicule and becoming totally irrelevant. That will be a crying shame, for the country’s polity continues to need left-of-centre, moderately socialist forces like the Congress in the interests of overall balance.