India's Grand Old Party could yet win the Lok Sabha polls provided it purges the dysfunctional through internal elections and brings in a new crop of activists and cadres.
Madhu Limaye died in 1995. He was an old-fashioned socialist, a nationalist to the core, a superb parliamentarian and a keen student of Indian history. He had a mind of his own and never gave the impression that he could be intimidated by reputations or by vendors of political correctness. For most of his adult life he found good enough reasons to oppose the Congress, its leadership, its policies and its practices. He was passionate and principled in his opposition to the Congress. However, a few days before his death, this rare thinking man found himself compelled to write:
“The capacity of the non-Congress and non-BJP parties to win a Lok Sabha majority, in the first place, and pull together for any length of time afterwards, is at best doubtful. The reform and renewal of the Congress-I is, therefore, in the nation's interest. Faction spirit is not the answer. While I ardently hope that the challenge of the non-Congress secular parties would become stronger and more coherent and purposeful, as a well-wisher of the country, I would also like to see a reformed and united Congress Party.”
Limaye's faith in the party
An original proponent of anti-Congressism, Madhu Limaye came to see enough during a four-decade political career as well as see through many a non-Congress leader; and, by the time of his death he was addressing himself to the exacting task of devising a sustainable political order that would operationalise the Indian state. He had reason to be thoroughly disillusioned with the two non-Congress experiments in New Delhi, the Janata Party (1977-1979) and the Janata Dal/National Front government (1989-90), had disabused himself of any notion of a so-called third front and, perforce, had come to put his faith in the Congress capacity and record — however flawed — to hold the Centre. That faith is even more justified today than it was in 1995.
Now, a decline in Congress fortunes in itself would not have been a matter of much concern had its major national alternative, the Bharatiya Janata Party, inspired reasonable confidence that it was capable of sustaining the Centre. The BJP has turned its back on all notions of responsibility and seriousness of a grand purpose that are a sine qua non in any group wanting to steer the destiny of this complex and complicated nation. The BJP's incurable infirmities cast a heavy historic burden on the Congress.
The nature of this burden is becoming clearer by the day. After we have had our fill of romanticising defiance and celebrating chaos, the country will still need a governing arrangement, commensurate with its strategic compulsions, economic profile and democratic commitments; someone has to ensure stability, coherence and public order so as to harmonise a zillion demands of a billion impatient citizens. If that were not enough, India, its polity and its decision-makers, have to claw concessions and secure understandings out of an unsentimental global environment. The external world has no appetite for our shrill nationalist pieties and bogusly energetic platitudes, so demonstratively on display every evening in television studios. Anti-democratic forces and personalities are souring the democratic space and spirit. It is in this disquieting context that the Congress has to find — and do so, perhaps, despite itself — the verve and the energy to live up to its historic role of sustaining the Centre.
The Congress has sufficient institutional memory and resilience to take the setbacks in the recent Assembly elections in its collective stride. Nor is there any need for it to be apologetic about the Rahul Gandhi leadership issue. No one should have any doubt that Mr. Gandhi will inherit the Congress leadership mantle. Whatever the critics of the “dynasty” may have to say, this predictability about the leadership succession is an organisational asset and should, in the coming years, spare the Congress the kind of convulsions that will continue to buffet the BJP.
All that the Congress needs is clarity on political and policy fronts — but without presumptuousness or petulance. In the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress will primarily be confronting the BJP — in Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat and Karnataka later this year, and then in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi next year. Therefore, it is unreasonable to expect the BJP to help the Congress push through a legislative agenda — especially if such policy initiatives are going to earn the ruling party any brownie points, a la MGNREGS, with the voters. Nor are its alliance partners under any kind of obligation to help the Congress consolidate its leadership or expand its appeal or reach. Only the Congress can help itself by pausing to undertake a course-correction, and a bit of house-cleaning.
The Congress leadership can begin by recognising that the organisation has become a closed shop. Sonia Gandhi has been president and undisputed leader of the party since 1998; yet, she has been reluctant to give her party a good shake-out. Instead, she has allowed herself to be persuaded that organisational elections would be an inherently destabilising experiment. It has been argued that “elections” would only instigate instability and that moneyed individuals would “capture” the organisation. There may be some merit in the argument, but it cannot be anybody's case that this precaution has produced genuine and sincere cadres at any level. On the contrary, the “leaders” at the State and Central level seem to have devised a mutually self-serving protocol to keep their stranglehold on the organisational hierarchy at the expense of the party's democratic vitality. Worse, this stranglehold merely reinforces status quoist impulses.
A vibrant political party like the Congress must necessarily mirror society's changing ambitions and aspirations. It is not too late to revive and redesign Ms Gandhi's original institutional innovation — an internal “election authority.” Between now and the next Lok Sabha polls, the Congress leadership has ample time to initiate a vigorous (and genuine) internal election process in order to weed out the dysfunctional and co-opt a new crop of activists and cadres.
The Congress president can set the ball rolling by dissolving the Congress Working Committee and the Central Election Committee. These two bodies have become platforms for “leaders” to promote themselves, their families and their cronies. On the government front, the “core group” mechanism should be scrapped forthwith; it produces only political timidity and policy confusion, as was so irritatingly evident during the molly-coddling of a disgruntled general.
The Congress also needs to mind its manners. If the party wants to worm its way back into middle class respectability, it has to raise its own decency index. At the very minimum, the country needs to see for itself that the Congress has respect for constitutional and political institutions. As the oldest and the most responsible political party, it is the Congress's historic burden to inculcate good manners in the polity. It should be a matter of considerable concern for the Congress leadership that for the first time the Election Commission had reason to reprimand three Cabinet Ministers.
Because they have become a closed shop, the Congress leaders have become far too enamoured of “jugaad.” And as it lurches from one election to another, the party is not able to see its way beyond immediate electoral gains. This unedifying preoccupation has been particularly injurious to the party's image and its government's credibility.
Only after it has kicked its expedient habits can the Congress hope to deliver on its obligation of firm and fair governance; which means Cabinet Ministers start pursuing the public interest so that the country feels reassured that while imperfect policy choices have unwittingly produced disproportionate gains — even windfall profits — for a very tiny business elite, the party and its government do possess an internal moral compass. It is not too late for the Congress to recommit itself to the first principles of good governance. A muscular pursuit of political wholesomeness can be the only basis for the party's claim to the nation's affection — and to another five-year mandate in New Delhi.
(Harish Khare is a veteran commentator and political analyst.)