Congress, stuck in a quagmire

In the wake of the divide within the Congress Party on the Narendra Modi government’s unilateral moves on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), an idealistic party insider pointed to me the irony of the chorus against the party’s ‘first family’ — when push came to shove, it was the Gandhis, Sonia and Rahul, supported by sections of the much-derided ‘old guard’, who had proven to be ideologically and constitutionally committed and correct.

A good chunk of the party’s younger generation, among them Jyotiraditya Scindia and Milind Deora, lined up behind the government. They either cited the gung-ho public support for the forced integration of J&K with the Union or held the government’s actions, even if unconstitutional, to be in the ‘national interest’. If this falsified the dichotomy between the ‘old’ and the ‘young’ in the Congress and challenged the assumption that a younger, non-Gandhi member would necessarily be a good candidate to lead the party, it also brutally exposed the ideological schisms within the party ranks.

‘Nothing succeeds like failure’

The Congress had once again shown itself to be riven by confusion on the possible approach to fighting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led regime — which paradoxically has had little to boast about and whose tag line could well be ‘nothing succeeds like failure’.

For five years, Mr. Modi and BJP president Amit Shah embarked on adventures that shattered the country’s communal and social peace and pushed the economy to ruin. But with every setback, every blunder, their party gathered more followers and more victories, its success run culminating finally in the humongous second term it pulled off in May 2019. The BJP thundered home on strategic brilliance and majoritarian bluster while the Congress’s lack of strategic vision, compounded by a brain fog on its core belief, brought it a second humiliating defeat in the Lok Sabha.

The Congress’s official line on the J&K moves has, in a way, taken the party back to its ideological moorings — something its leadership seemed to have forgotten in the race to compete with the BJP for the heart and the mind of the Hindu majority. Rahul Gandhi’s first tweet on J&K on August 6, 2019, which charged the government with unconstitutional action and abuse of executive power, predictably had the Hindutva troll army descend on him and savage him as an ‘anti-national’ and a ‘Pakistani agent’.

The Congress Working Committee’s resolution was even more explicit. Alongside deploring the “unilateral”, “brazen” and “undemocratic” way in which Article 370 was revoked, it made the point that the Article represented the terms of the Instrument of Accession between J&K and India and therefore deserved to be “honoured” until it was amended, after “consultation with all sections of the people”. The emphasis was on honouring the Article and wide consultations. For once, the official line was emphatic, unequivocal and unexceptionable.

With the strongly spelt-out resolution, the missing clarity seemed to have returned to the party. However, the dissenting, mostly younger Congress members were unconvinced and reiterated the need to align the party’s position with the public sentiment. Former Union Minister Kumari Selja apparently asked how there could be a debate on a core ideological issue which should have been automatically clear to the party. However, the battle lines were drawn — the Gandhis, the now-jailed former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ms. Selja and a few others on one side and the rebels on the other side.

It will surprise no one if the endpoint of the dissent turns out to be ‘destination BJP’, the way forward having already been shown by Bhubaneswar Kalita, the Congress’s chief whip in the Rajya Sabha. Mr. Kalita himself joined the hordes, especially from the Congress units in Karnataka and the North-Eastern parts of the country, that have bought themselves better lives in the BJP, using in each instance the catch phrases ‘nationalism’ and ‘national interest’.

When ‘nuance’ is purged

Clearly, even a minimally non-sectarian approach, such as the one followed by the Congress, has become unacceptable in an environment that will tolerate nothing less than robust support to exclusivism directed against Muslims.

The Congress leadership, Rahul Gandhi especially, mistakenly believed that Hindutva could be defeated by Hinduism. Mr. Gandhi’s Shiv bhakti, his visits to temples and his flaunting of his janeu (sacred thread) were all aimed at showing that he was a real Hindu as opposed to his rabid Hindutva counterpart in the Sangh Parivar. He should have known that the BJP had changed the lexicon of national debate: ‘Hindutva’ is the new ‘Hinduism’ and ‘nuance’ is a word long purged and excised from people’s memory and understanding. The BJP’s followers, growing in numbers and shrillness, have been conditioned to demand full adherence to a belief system that excludes Muslims by thought, action, and now, even by law, as demonstrated by the unapologetically sectarian Citizenship Amendment Bill.

The change, since reinvented as ‘New India’, has been in the making for decades. It started with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and the razing of the Babri Masjid and gained muscle during the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat. There was a brief lull in the decade that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was in office — but even that was illusory because Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was already being pilloried for ‘appeasing Muslims’. In December 2006, the BJP picked up a stray line, torn out of context, from Mr. Singh’s address to the National Development Council, to insist that he wanted Muslims to have the ‘first claim’ over ‘resources’. Several clarifications notwithstanding, the BJP continues ad nauseam to repeat its charge. Similarly, in 2007, the party seized on Mr. Singh’s remarks concerning Mohamed Haneef, an Indian-origin doctor in Australia who was falsely accused of aiding terrorists. Today, the same BJP justifies the election to the Lok Sabha of Pragya Thakur, an accused in a Hindutva terrorism case.

The charge of ‘Muslim appeasement’ is now permanently stuck to Rahul Gandhi, making a mockery of his attempts to embrace Hinduism. The allegations have flowed from the BJP’s highest echelons. Amit Shah has accused Mr. Gandhi of ‘helping Pakistan’ via his statements on J&K. One year ago, Minister Nirmala Sitharaman joined BJP trolls in heckling Mr. Gandhi for a mere meeting with Muslim intellectuals.

The Congress is in a quagmire from which there appears to be no escape. The party watches helplessly as the BJP picks and chooses its targets: men known for their intelligence or mobilising capabilities such as P. Chidambaram and D.K. Shivakumar. The people who believe that these Congress leaders are corrupt do not ever ask why the BJP spares its own men and defectors to the party. All this even as more and more Congresspersons either fall to the seduction of muscular nationalism or advocate abjuring from criticism of Mr. Modi. There is no alternative in sight to the trio of Gandhis — Priyanka Gandhi Vadra included — but their appeal is failing and they don’t seem capable of putting the Congress together again.

Vidya Subrahmaniam is Senior Fellow with the Hindu Centre for Politics & Public Policy

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 2:35:40 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/congress-stuck-in-a-quagmire/article29402386.ece

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