The current level of interest in the Indian National Congress party is attributable to two events: the start of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, in which Rahul Gandhi is leading marchers for 150 days from Kanniyakumari to Kashmir in a bid to “unite India”, and the announcement of elections to the Presidency of the party over a period of four weeks, culminating on October 19.
Stemming the tide
Both developments promise to shift media commentary away from the habitual hand-wringing over the party’s failure to improve its electoral vote share since 2014 and its repeated loss of State Assembly elections in recent years. They were much needed. It is true that the Congress has bounced back from similar setbacks in the past — electorally, after defeats in 1977 and 1989, politically after a trough between 1996 and 2004, and even after the tragic assassinations of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, in 1984 and 1991 (both of which were immediately followed by general election victories for the Congress). But the crisis of seemingly aimless drift that followed the resignation of Rahul Gandhi as President after the election loss of 2019 has dragged on for more than three years, and here, finally, are two measures to arrest it.
In many ways the Congress party is engaged in an existential struggle, to defend the idea of India enshrined in the Constitution. The Bharat Jodo Yatra is a hugely important contribution to this effort; the ongoing march, and interactions with common citizens along the way, could help define and shape the message. But the struggle for India’s soul will not cease after the yatra ends. While the Congress is working with everyone, including other parties (it was the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M.K. Stalin, who launched the yatra by symbolically handing over the national flag to Rahul Gandhi), non-political individuals and civil society groups, any such major activity undertaken by a political party, undoubtedly, has a political message. And that message is that the Congress is the party that can unite India and stop the process of dividing Indians on the basis of religion, caste and language — a process that is being zealously promoted by the ruling party.
The success of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in foregrounding Hindutva as its leitmotiv, while appropriating for itself the populist welfarism that had been the hallmark of previous Congress governments, makes it all the more urgent for the Congress to define and shape its message. To my mind, that can only be one of “Inclusive India” — an India that works for all, irrespective of religion, region, language or caste, as opposed to the “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan” cry of the Sangh Parivar. As for welfare, there are two arguments the Congress can put forward: first, that its welfare projects were based on an understanding of Indians as rights-bearing citizens entitled to these benefits, whereas the BJP government sees them only as beneficiaries who are supposed to be “grateful” to the Prime Minister and his party for bestowing his (albeit taxpayer-funded) largesse upon them. And second, that while both United Progressive Alliance and the National Democratic Alliance opened bank accounts, made welfare payments and ran development programmes, the Congress not only devised most of these schemes first but oversaw them through competent Ministers and administrators, of whom the party still has an abundance. The BJP has merely taken them over and renamed them. They have been a name-changing government, not a game-changing government.
The presidential election
Turning to the party presidential election, it is an internal exercise, but it also represents an opportunity to ignite widespread public interest in the Congress and to galvanise its party workers. Now that the Gandhi family has chosen to step aside from the election, the prospect of a number of candidates putting forward their visions for the party and the nation, and submitting themselves to a democratic vote, is stimulating. It also points to the fact that no other Indian political party has a comparable process to determine its future leadership, and by adhering to its Constitution, the Congress can set a standard that may finally drag other parties into the sunlight of internal democracy.
The key challenge remains that whoever is elected, the Congress will have to find a way to appeal beyond the 19% of the electorate that voted for the party in both 2014 and 2019 and may be considered the hard-core “true believers” in the party. The party has to find a way to appeal to those who did not vote for it in those two elections and drifted away to the BJP, most of whom did so for reasons other than Hindutva. This would require a leader who looks beyond history to speak to the aspirations of young India — one who firmly believes the party can set the country on the route to a better society, one that is ready to take on the opportunities offered by the world of the 21st century.
If the new president is purely an organisational person, while he or she may be able to lead the workers and strengthen the foundations of the party, they may be unable to galvanise wider interest and bring in the support of more voters to the party. If the president is a charismatic figure but has poor organisational skills, while he or she may be personally appealing to the national electorate, they are unlikely to find a fully supportive party machinery to help translate their charisma and natural appeal into electoral results. The challenge for the Congress is both to articulate a positive and aspirational vision for the nation and to fix the organisational and structural deficiencies that have impeded its recent efforts.
The answer lies in a combination of effective leadership and organisational reform, to reduce the “High Command” culture in the party, decentralise authority and truly empower the grassroots office-bearers of the party. There is no reason, for instance, that District Congress chiefs must be approved by the party president in New Delhi, nor for a Pradesh Congress head to be answerable to a general secretary breathing down his neck from the national capital. Re-imagining the organisation and delegating powers to State leaders will not only free the new leader from the onerous burdens of over-administration but also help create the strong State leadership that in past eras undergirded the Congress’s national appeal.
Catalyst for reforms
In the context of a presidential election, a fresh leader, who has not been jaded by being entrenched within the current system for too long, could emerge who could do both — energise a party that certainly needs it and at the same time, appeal to more voters than the Congress managed to during the last few elections. A democratic contest will bring vibrancy at all levels by prompting a healthy and constructive discussion on reforms — around proposals like the decentralisation of power and authority, giving State units a free hand in the appointment of office-bearers and district presidents, and repairing the breakdown of consultative mechanisms within the Congress through a democratic and collective decision-making process at the national level (which would involve reviving the Parliamentary Board provided for in the party Constitution as well as elections to the Congress Working Committee).
It can be done, and the Congress can do it. The people of India, despairing of the BJP’s overweening dominance and increasingly divisive governance, need us to perform both “Bharat Jodo”and “Congress Jodo”. The yatra and the upcoming election are both opportunities we must decisively seize, in the national interest. India deserves no less.
Shashi Tharoor, of the Congress party, has been elected three times to the Lok Sabha from Thiruvananthapuram. He is Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information & Technology and founder-Chairman of the All India Professionals’ Congress. He has authored 24 books, including a biography of Nehru and a forthcoming life of Ambedkar