The Congress’s 3-0 score in Rajasthan, where it trounced the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in two Lok Sabha constituencies and one Assembly seat in by-elections, comes shortly after it breached the outer walls of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s citadel of Gujarat last year: it emerged from that contest with the air of a victor even though it did not win the election.
A challenging year
It is amidst these first green shoots in what had been an arid political landscape for the Congress that its recently elected party president Rahul Gandhi promised to create a “Shining New Congress” within six months. This is as he readies the party organisation for eight Assembly polls, including Rajasthan, this year, with the general election then due by the summer of 2019.
The Congress’s victories in Rajasthan have lifted spirits not just in the party but across the Opposition. At last week’s meeting of 17 Opposition parties, chaired by Congress Parliamentary Party chairperson Sonia Gandhi, the consensus was that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is no longer unstoppable. Ms. Gandhi’s formulation — that despite conflicting interests in some States, the Opposition must agree on a national agenda that centres round confronting the BJP on its “politics of hatred” and its anti-people economic policy — found ready acceptance.
The Congress, as the lead Opposition party, has its task cut out. It is not enough for it to spell out the challenges, it must also offer a blueprint, a plan of action.
Creating a “New Congress”, therefore, must entail not only a comprehensive organisational overhaul in which young leaders such as Rajasthan State chief Sachin Pilot are given an opportunity but also an effective counter to the BJP’s deeply divisive agenda, a satisfactory response to the demand for reservation by several dominant communities, while addressing the aspirations of those in the burgeoning Dalit movement. Simultaneously, Mr. Gandhi’s Congress must offer convincing solutions to the crises in the rural economy and job market that are causing social ferment.
Mr. Gandhi has correctly identified intolerance and unemployment as the key issues that threaten India. Privately, too, he has shared with party colleagues the urgent need to work to “de-communalise” society, to create a balance among different faiths and seek answers to caste contradictions: in fact, he is probably the party’s first leader to call exclusive meetings of Other Backward Class (OBC) leaders.
There is now new energy — and hope — in the party.
Mr. Gandhi’s decision to set aside time three days a week to meet Congress leaders and workers is also being read as reflective of his desire to open up communication lines within a notoriously coterie-bound set-up.
The key challenges to the Congress today all came into sharp focus during the Gujarat polls. How should the party promote secularism without giving the BJP the opportunity to label the Congress anti-Hindu? How should the party draw in the OBCs, roughly half the country’s population, many of whom have gravitated to the BJP? How can Dalits, once a critical Congress constituency, be wooed back? How should the Congress convince Muslims that they have not been abandoned? What should be the party’s stand on the demand by dominant communities such as Patidars, Marathas and Jats for reservation? Can youth power, outside mainstream political parties and visible on the streets, be integrated into the battle against the BJP as it happened in Gujarat? And, most importantly, what is the Congress’s blueprint to address agrarian distress, unemployment and the collapse of the small-scale sector?
Opinion in the party remains sharply divided on the wisdom of Mr. Gandhi being described as a “janeu-dhari Hindu” (a sacred thread-wearing Hindu, i.e. a Brahmin) after a BJP blitz about him being listed as a non-Hindu in a register at Gujarat’s Somnath Temple. For some, it was a negative message to non-Brahmins for whom a “janeu-dhari” person symbolises a centuries-old oppressive social order, while the Nehru-Gandhis have been long regarded as pan-Indian leaders, representing all castes, faiths, creeds, regions, a mirror image of the Congress. Mr. Gandhi’s strength, too, lies in his pan-Indianness, not in his being a Brahmin.
The response to this argument has been that with the BJP deliberately portraying the Congress as “pro-Muslim”, some “shock treatment” was necessary to be back in the game.
Possible strategies on how to neutralise the BJP’s skill at polarising votes along religious lines are clearly top of the mind in the Congress. Simultaneously, there is a growing belief that much of the caste ferment among Dalits and OBCs, and angst among Muslims can be partially, if not fully, addressed through an alternative economic programme that focusses on the rural economy, the small-scale sector and job creation. Post-Mandal “social engineering”, BJP-style, does not come easily to the Congress, but it could work at social justice to break the BJP’s stranglehold over the ‘Hindu’ vote.
Finding its inner Congress
If Mr. Gandhi is serious about his promise of a New Congress, the churning in the party must now lead to a structured brainstorming session concluding in a new narrative, a practice the Congress appears to have abandoned in recent years. The meetings it organised in end-2014/early-2015 after its wipeout in the last Lok Sabha polls were not purposive enough. The Congress needs a plan that can help heal the wounds of the last three years and recreate for the 21st century the ideals of the big tent party that wrested freedom 70 years ago.
Smita Gupta is a Delhi-based journalist