From a party to a movement: on Congress

To be politically viable, the Congress must align with social protests outside the fold of electoral calculations

March 11, 2019 12:15 am | Updated 12:27 am IST

Indore: Farmers stage a protest over not getting the right prices for onion, in Indore, Saturday, March 9, 2019. (PTI Photo) (PTI3_9_2019_000092B)

Indore: Farmers stage a protest over not getting the right prices for onion, in Indore, Saturday, March 9, 2019. (PTI Photo) (PTI3_9_2019_000092B)

The Congress faces an uphill task. After the terrorist attack in Pulwama , it is playing it safe as usual — it has no narrative and is simply buying time for the hysteria to fade out. The party looks confused as to whether it should build on the nationalism narrative that has gained traction or raise procedural issues about India’s response that have little appeal on the ground. Why is the Congress hesitant to produce an alternative narrative? Why does it insist on being silent instead of coming up with an emphatic narrative that can counter the ultra-nationalist rhetoric of the Prime Minister?

The Congress’s failures

To begin with, the Congress is worried about a Hindu consolidation against any possible critique that it might offer as an alternative narrative to the narrow ethnic nationalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh combine. This is a somewhat justified concern. For over half a century, the RSS has been doing work in the sociocultural domain that has set the terms of reference for others, while the Congress has done nothing in the cultural domain apart from building a rhetorical and half-hearted campaign for inclusive nationalism without mopping up social consent for it.

Further, the party itself aided and abetted the emerging Hindutva consensus, with former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi acting against the Shah Bano judgment and former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao paving the way for the controversy around the Babri Masjid. By introducing neoliberal reforms, the Congress dismantled the welfare state and the legitimacy of social democracy, while continuing with secularism as a social policy, which sections of the majority Hindu community began to perceive more and more as an appeasement to Muslims rather than as legitimate citizenship benefits.

Without a shared ethos on the ground, ‘market fundamentalism’ began to destroy the ideal of a harmonious social fabric of religious and caste groups. The Congress’s ‘politics of accommodation’ took a beating when the Other Backward Classes first moved to regional parties and later to the BJP. In due course, the Congress became more and more dependent on Muslim and Dalit votes to win elections. In this scenario of induced dependence on the minority vote, the Congress began to look more tilted towards the Muslims without actually doing much for the community — it did not, for instance, enact effective policies to counter the kind of backwardness that was noted by the Sachar Committee report.

It is against this backdrop that the phenomenon of Narendra Modi emerged. Mr. Modi and the BJP began to actualise the RSS’s vision of a Hindu Rashtra. Mr. Modi built his credibility both by highlighting the failures of the Congress as well as appropriating the liberal-progressive critique of those failures and packaging within that an aggressive majoritarian politics. The appeal of the Hindutva brand of politics is based on consolidating various micro-narratives to form a metanarrative of ‘othering’ Muslims. While dynasty became a symbol of old patronage politics, Muslim appeasement began to symbolise the various kinds of exclusions and failures in ensuring inter-generational mobility for Hindu caste groups. Mr. Modi occupied this symbolic space. The credibility and trust he enjoys today is the articulation of the angst of an aspirational new generation, and the anger of traditional caste groups.

Mr. Modi became the TINA (there is no alternative) factor of Indian politics. In spite of failure on the economic front, people are still not prepared to question his intention of Saaf Niyat, Sahi Vikas (clean intent, right development). The electorate today has nagging doubts about his competence, but not about his will and intention to do well. Mr. Modi’s campaign for the Lok Sabha election is based on this reality on the ground. It affords him a space to contradict himself in his campaign speeches. Ministers and BJP leaders can afford to make claims of what transpired during the air strikes as well as make tall promises because the electorate continues to trust Mr. Modi and considers him to be beyond doubt and above critical interrogation. And that trust emerges from the Congress party’s chequered history. Mr. Modi’s campaign style and rhetoric reflect this deep trust that people have invested in him. There may be contradictions in his speeches, but people continue to justify all of this in the name of nation and religion.

What the Congress can do

In this situation, what can the Congress do? It needs to change the terms of reference and the lens through which the electorate today is evaluating things. This is a difficult task but not an impossible one. For this, the Congress needs to go back to being a movement. It needs to closely align with various social protests outside the fold of electoral calculations. It should become the vehicle for mainstreaming various small struggles for basic survival, including the struggles of safai karamcharis , Dalits, Adivasis, those displaced by development projects, internal migrants, students, and others. These are unheard voices on the fringes of society, and the Congress should try to make them heard.

Without such deep change in the the DNA of the Congress, it will be difficult for the party to be a viable political or electoral alternative. Social consensus has shifted to the right, across castes and classes in India. The RSS has made this possible in a diverse society such as India through its rugged survival in the margins for almost a century. What we are witnessing today are the fruits of that labour. It is through such sustained work that it has captured the public imagination. It has gained the capacity to now set the agenda for popular politics. It has learnt to co-opt all that is hegemonic in the public sphere to package its own exclusivist and authoritarian brand of politics. The Congress needs to get a handle on these micro-aspects to set a more inclusive agenda the way it did during the anti-colonial movement. Its own future depends on whether or not it is able to make this transition in the days to come.

Ajay Gudavarthy teaches at the Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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