Rediscovering its marathon self

The liberal-intellectual establishment has of late begun lamenting the steady (and they feel, terminal) decline of the Indian National Congress. It has almost unanimously concluded that the main reason for this decline and fall is its vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s leadership, and that till he is at the helm of affairs (notwithstanding the party president Sonia Gandhi), the party is heading for extinction. Most pundits have already called the 2019 election for Narendra Modi. It is argued that there is no alternative pole, no challenging leadership and no parallel narrative or script. So Mr. Gandhi is doomed, and with him the Congress.


The idea of India

There are, of course, some who still say that the party which was the vanguard of the freedom movement, and led by giants such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, cannot be junked in the dustbin of history. With or without Rahul Gandhi, or without even the Gandhi-Nehru family at its apex, the party will revive from today’s low point. Their argument is that the party is in essence the DNA of India itself, that the centrist and inclusive character as well as the secular-liberal-welfarist agenda of the Grand Old Party of India are the threads that bind the country together. Unity in diversity is not a slogan or a cliched description, but the true idea of India.

But the Congress is ill-equipped to fight the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP has an ideology of Hindutva, howsoever vague and vicious it may be. The party has a vast cadre built over 90 years by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS has infiltrated almost all institutions in the last 70 years, despite the long Congress rule — the bureaucracy, academic institutions, the media, the police, the intelligence services, the armed forces, even the judiciary. As a result, even if there was a government led by the so-called liberal-secular Congress, the state machinery was often controlled, sabotaged, derailed and manipulated by various shades of saffron. There have been sleeper cells of the Sangh Parivar everywhere. But what they did not have a firm grip on was political power.


The Congress is a party without cadre, without a well-defined ideology or core like the RSS has. In fact, for most of the time, that was an asset for the Congress. There have been all kinds of trends and tendencies in the party. There were Marxists, socialists, rightists, capitalists too and Lohiaites, casteists, linguistic chauvinists, and even Hindutva followers. It was an umbrella party, which, under the overall leadership of Nehru first and later Indira Gandhi, managed these contradictions.

Losing touch

But the global decline of socialism and the rise of market forces, the dawn of globalisation and its technological spread — with the information-communication revolution exemplified by the mobile phone and Internet — created a new socio-political environment. This info-tech revolution gave rise to consumerism, hedonism and hyper-individualism. The ideas of collectivism (trade unionism, for instance), austerity and simple life, compassion and piety (as reflected in Gandhian values in films such as Jagte Raho, Do Aankhen Barah Haath and Pyaasa), idealism and faith in goodness began to be seen as outdated.


Though the Congress was not practising Gandhianism or socialism, it had respect for the values therein and before the advent of the new mobile phone-driven consumerist capitalism, it was possible to live a simpler and collective life. In the last nearly quarter century, the Congress lost touch with the emerging new world. Its liberalism and pluralism were challenged by identitarian Hinduism, and its semi-socialism was confronted by market forces driven by liberalisation, globalisation and privatisation. Indeed, these policies were actually unleashed by the Congress itself in 1991-92. But the party could not have seen that these forces were attacking the vitals of Congress culture, ethos and broad ideological architecture. The BJP at once integrated right-wing economics with conservative Hindutva. That has proved to be a near fatal blow to the idea of the Congress, with its left-of-centre programme and multi-cultural-Sarvadharma-Samabhava known as its version of secularism.

For a space of its own

The question therefore is not merely of the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, or the so-called dynastic character of the party. Just by bringing in a new face (Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot or Kamal Nath), the party cannot overnight start building its cadre to match that of the communists or the RSS. The party cannot give up its mass character. It had maintained mass contact without the structured cadre system. It cannot give up pluralism and an inclusive approach. It cannot and must not become a “soft Hindutva” party to attract the saffronised middle classes, in India or among the diaspora. The Congress cannot sacrifice its idea of social justice and welfarism. The Congress still has a network, though weakened in the last decade, across the country, with roots in the legacy of the freedom movement and Gandhism and Nehruvism. The party has neglected these strong roots. It has to define, campaign and set its own agenda, and not become a reactive party merely responding to and questioning the BJP. That approach only strengthens Narendra Modi. He has a Teflon character, nothing sticks, and no megalomaniac can be challenged on his turf. The Congress has to create its own political space with or without Rahul or the Gandhis.


Mr. Modi is a transient phenomenon. The Congress is not a transient idea. Mr. Modi is not the future of the BJP. Neither he, nor the RSS can represent the magnificent multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-dimensional India. Modernity does not mean using modern gadgets as Mr. Modi appears to think. Modernity lies in values, ideas and attitudes. It lies in humanism, pacifism, respect for all religions and cultures, faith in civilisation and hope for a better future for the whole world, not just in becoming a superpower or attaining membership of the UN Security Council. That is Nehruvism in the Gandhian mould. The effervescence of the Modi mood cannot replace those values, and therefore cannot last for too long. Modi-ism and the RSS have a limited shelf life. The Congress is a long-distance runner.

Unfortunately, the Congress has lost this faith and confidence in itself. It has been afflicted by a strange identity crisis, and in panic it is looking for existential survival in the face of supposed extinction. Even the so-called dynasty is transient. Each person who believes in the secular religiosity of Mahatma Gandhi, in the vibrant idealism of Pandit Nehru and in the profound legacy of the freedom movement will help resurrect the Congress. Its form may change, but the content and substance will reshape the organisation and leadership.


Our code of editorial values

Kumar Ketkar is a veteran journalist

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 3:34:40 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/rediscovering-its-marathon-self/article17653086.ece

Next Story