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Chalking out the Congress’s enduring revival

Indian democracy is at an inflexion point. Not only has the Indian state been captured by a ruling party which is creating a religious hierarchy of citizenship but Indian democracy is also being systematically deinstitutionalised to dismantle the very constraints on state power which make it possible to contest it. The only way to stop this assault on the institutional edifice of our democracy is by capturing state power at the Centre.

Still a force to reckon with

The importance of the Indian National Congress Party at this point cannot be overstated. Even at its nadir, the Congress commands 20% of the electoral vote and is the only Opposition party with a national footprint. It is thus the only party which can provide a coherent national framework for a viable Opposition formation. Unfortunately, the Congress party is failing to do justice to this moment, and to its own deeply inspiring legacy.

There is no dearth of advice for the Congress; however, much of it is motherhood generalities — “you must be among the people” — which does little to clarify the way forward. Critiques of the tactical choices which any political party must make in the electoral arena also have limited value. The policies which constitute the party’s political platform are contingent on the moment. What is important for the enduring revival of the Congress Party is its larger perception in the minds of the Indian people and how it builds organisation.

Nation-building identity

For this, three things need to be done. Give members a positive sense of identity: with the politicisation of every day life and consequent polarisation, political affiliation is increasingly a part of one’s identity. Association with the Congress Party must allow people to feel good about themselves and give them a sense of pride and virtue if not opportunity and power.

Earlier being a Congress-person imbued an identity strongly co-related to our national identity. With the range of activities such as spinning the wheel, an ordinary person could feel like s/he was part of the nation-building effort. This identity has been lost. Consequently, we lack political programmes to give supporters an accessible and respectful sense of belonging.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the other hand does give its supporters an identity outside of partisan affiliation — of being a proud Hindu and/or ascendant subaltern who can dismiss the “corrupt elite” (the Congress and its affiliates in this narrative). The BJP’s supporters have ways of exercising this identity without necessarily having to engage with the BJP organisation. Merely exercising one’s Hindu identity through festivals is becoming enough to be a BJP supporter, whereas an instinctively liberal person on the street is a Congress voter, often by default in opposition to the BJP.

With the politicisation of our national identity and its increasing association with the BJP, the Congress Party cannot come up with a counter through ad hoc economic promises alone, especially because citizens are sceptical of the state’s intent and capacity to deliver outsized new economic benefits. Instead, the Congress Party must articulate its own vision of India’s national identity, design political programmes which will allow members/supporters to exercise this identity, and find leadership at all levels and constituencies (students, the youth, farmers, Dalits, women, etc) to embody this identity.

Politics of organisation

Second, meld the organisation with the political process: mass communication and mass outreach are at the heart of electoral politics. A political party must thus have ‘organisation’ across the spread of its electoral footprint. While the Congress has always been a mass-based party, the need for organisation is especially acute right now to bypass media subservient to the ruling party and to tailor messages for different constituencies. In the absence of organisation, the Congress Party is too dependent on the media to get its message across and is constrained by blunt messaging instead of tailoring content by interest/constituency. While there is recognition in the Party on the need for organisation, there is an attempt to build organisation through procedure instead of politics. This approach can populate the organisation and help with data collection, but only a political process can create a chain of committed leadership, influence and accountability.

At the grass-root level

The Party may have data for some notional worker in a booth, but who will inspire, coax and cajole the worker into actually going out to canvas? This is an assiduously political process where ideology and commitment of leadership at each level cannot be supplanted by technology or surveillance. Part of the impetus for a technocratic approach is the somewhat unrealistic manner in which we define our immediate organisational task, such as identifying 10 workers for 10 lakh booths across the country wherein it is near impossible to deploy personalised discretion inherent in a political process.

The Party may be better served if instead it were to focus first on establishing a committed block-level organisation across the country, giving importance and stature to the roughly 6,500 block presidents and 700 district presidents in the process.

Issue of the leader

Third, establish strong top-down leadership: None of the above can be done without a strong and interventionist Congress President. Political parties — the Congress in particular — are defined as much by internal conflicts as external. Politics is dynamic with constantly opening and closing pathways to power. Without a strong leader at the top to take and enforce decisions, the Party will continue to be pulled in different directions.

Moreover, only the active facilitation of the Congress President can create space for substantive deliberation required right now — both as a political process to draw everyone together and to form a political platform expansive enough to accommodate the Congress’s historical big tent positioning. At present, this leadership can only be provided by Rahul Gandhi. This is not a sycophantic statement — if any other leader had to emerge in the Party, he would have done so over the last year. Instead, different factions prefer status quo rather than allowing one group to ascend and upset the balance of power for everyone. Organisational power thus continues to reside in Mr Gandhi. The way then to revive the Congress and consolidate this power is one and the same — its full and frontal exercise.

Ruchi Gupta is All India Joint Secretary in-charge of the Congress’s student wing; twitter.com/guptar. The views expressed are personal

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Printable version | Mar 8, 2021 5:48:46 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/chalking-out-the-congresss-enduring-revival/article33367931.ece

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