The BJP’s massive victory in the Lok Sabha election has thrown the Congress into disarray. With Rahul Gandhi insisting that he does not want to continue as the president of the party, Mridula Mukherjee and Rahul Verma talk about the Congress’s ideology and what could keep it afloat today. Edited excerpts of a conversation moderated by Varghese K. George :
Is the Congress history?
Mridula Mukherjee: No, the Congress has a long history but it is not history. I think it has a future. I think we need the Congress more than the Congress needs us at this crucial juncture, to provide ideological and organisational leadership to the forces that are now tasked with the job of defending the basic idea of India, which is in the Constitution. I don’t think we can afford to let the Congress become history.
Rahul, does the Congress have an ideology and is it relevant?
Rahul Verma: I think that’s the biggest challenge the Congress is facing. It does not have a clear ideological vision. Whenever you question them on what their ideological vision is, Congress leaders say they are focusing on welfare policies and that the party is going to lift people out of poverty. This cannot be an ideological vision because no political party is going to take an opposing stand on some of these issues. On the question of social justice and secularism, the Congress fails to distinguish itself from many of the State-level parties. Say, in U.P., how is the Congress different on the issue of social justice from the BSP? Or the RJD in Bihar?
So, what do you think could be a distinguishing ideological character for the Congress, particularly in a society polarised on religious lines?
RV: See, on many questions related to social justice, the Congress has not been clear from the beginning. Even the granting of SC/ST reservation happened under historical compromise. The Congress did nothing on OBC reservation for a long time. The Kaka Kalelkar Commission was formed, submitted reports in 1955, nothing happened till Indira Gandhi came to the scene, Emergency happened. The Mandal Commission came to the fore. So, the Congress can hang on to issues of social justice and secularism, but because it does not have a clear line on these questions it fails to distinguish itself from other parties.
On the question of social justice, particularly on accommodating the rights of lower caste movements, the Congress has been very slow, if at all responsive. Do you think the Congress’s dominance by upper caste groups has led to the party losing its grip on rural India, particularly in places where lower caste politics became an appealing tool of mobilisation?
MM: In the struggle for freedom, which is the bedrock of the Congress and I don’t think we can understand it even today without that background, this is not true. Mahatma Gandhi, from the time he took charge of the Congress, made the most important issue of untouchability a basic plank of the Congress. Then through the 1920s and ’30s, not only did we have movements such as the Vaikom Satyagraha and the Guruvayur Satyagraha, but also many other movements for social reform. Gandhiji himself devoted almost two years of his life almost exclusively to the issue of caste and the struggle against caste oppression. He went on a tour, which lasted almost a year, and visited the most remote, rural parts of India. He travelled by train, by foot, and sat in village compounds and argued with village pandits and the upper castes. The point I am trying to make is, it’s not true that the Congress leadership has not grappled with the issue of social justice. Obviously Gandhi’s way and the Congress’s way was different from Ambedkar’s way, but that happens very often. A party which is appealing to the whole electorate cannot take a plank of either a leader of a group or a party which by necessity appeals only to one section of the electorate.
That’s a fair point. However, a logical question that follows from that is regardless of what Gandhi may have done and what Nehru may have believed, the fact is that power under Congress regimes was invariably in the hands of upper caste people.
MM: In various parts of the country, the middle caste movements, non-Brahmin movements merged with the Congress from the late 1930s and threw up many leaders.
But has the party been willing to share power adequately with upper castes and Dalits since 1947?
MM: I think the trouble is that we are looking at things from today’s lens and essentially a lens that started in the 1980s and ’90s. The earlier perspective was not so much a question of sharing power at individual levels. It was not a question of representation, it was more a question of programmes and policies. And there, of course, was the Congress perspective, the Nehru perspective, with the focus on economic development and poverty alleviation. Now, you can argue that it was not right or wrong but that does not mean that there was no perspective.
Rahul, Mridula is saying you should judge a political party by the programmes and policies it advocates. Do you think that will be a good enough case to get backward caste and Dalit votes in India?
RV: I don’t know whether policies and programmes can bring votes for the Congress. I partially agree with the argument that one should not judge a political dispensation just by looking at whether it managed to provide representation to groups or not. But you cannot deny the fact that the making of the Indian Constitution at its very heart had group representation, and even the Congress party was not advocating individual rights during the making of the Constitution. Representational blockage of certain groups became the starting point of the rise of socialist parties, which in some cases became the backward caste parties in the ’60s and ’70s. Even on the question of economic policies and programmes, what I think is that the Nehruvian era was in some ways contested. We equate it with the idea of India but even in those times, in the ’50s and ’60s, the Nehruvian idea was contested from the right as well as from the left. And what we see is that once you stop giving representation to groups, the left and the right get an opportunity to mobilise groups. So, in the ’30s and ’40s, there was the socialist left. Once Indira Gandhi came to power, she started moving the Congress towards the left of centre, which opened the space for right-wing parties to coalesce there, and also right-wing groups within the Congress started moving out of the Congress. You would remember that the interim Prime Minister Gulzarilal Nanda was also one of the founding members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. So, the point I’m trying to make is, if the model you are building is based on group representation and you fail to provide that in the policies or within the party organisation or in the government, then this is bound to happen.
What should the Congress do to get renewed ideological identity and focus?
MM: I still believe that secularism is at the core of the Congress’s ideology but I, of course, see that there are many deviations from it and I would argue that here you have to get back on firmer ground. One should not get frightened by accusations of appeasement. One must come out very clearly against communalism of all kinds, whether Sikh or Christian or Muslim or Hindu. And one’s secularism has to be clearly asserted. You can define it in various ways, you can talk about social harmony, you can talk about love and peace, but secularism has to be at the core.
RV: One needs to understand what the ideological space of Indian politics looks like today. The BJP now has become the dominant party. It occupies the space from the centre-right to the extreme right. The Congress cannot be playing a little bit here and a little bit there. It has to be very clear that if it is about the question of inclusivity, diversity and secularism, it needs to have a very clear position on that. Secularism cannot be an ideological vision out of compulsion, out of convenience. There must be some sort of conviction that secularism is the only way to go about believing in the idea of India or whatever the Congress’s vision of India is.
Second, even on the question of social justice, how do you want to accommodate various groups into the body politic? This is a challenge even the BJP is going to face sooner or later. Once you become an umbrella party, if you fail to give representation to people who are voting for you, they are going to find new political entrepreneurs who will be mobilising on the issue of giving exclusive representation.
Do you think there is a Congress without the Gandhis?
MM: In the short run, no, because you cannot displace established political leadership. And this is true for all political parties. No party undergoes this kind of a complete overhaul. There is a certain leadership in place. It always takes time for an alternative leadership to emerge. So, I think going away from Rahul Gandhi’s leadership would not be wise at all today; it would be suicidal for the Congress. They should not come under pressure, they should look at the interests of the party and not what others are talking. Every party in India virtually has dynasty now at its core, but somehow it’s pure for them and impure for the Congress.
RV: The Congress is in real trouble. The problems are intertwined in a way which makes it hard to see. The party has an ideological crisis. It does not have an organisation in most parts of the country. If you look at the bigger States, it has not been in power for 30-odd years and the States are also facing leadership challenges. All of this is tied to the idea that they have a dynasty sitting at the national level and in many States. Now, you cannot have a new ideological vision without a new leadership and you cannot have troops on the ground who can mobilise and change a party structure from the bottom to the top without an ideological vision that they are convinced about. So, in a way, I don’t know what the solution is. But the problems are intertwined in a way that there are two ways of going about it. Dismantle the whole structure and think afresh, or wait for some time and think that there will be some miracle that will change all of these three or four variables. I agree with this argument that perhaps the Gandhi family has the authority within the Congress party to get it to overcome the crisis of ideological vision, but can the dynasty or the first family think of a new ideological vision for India?
(Rahul Verma is a political scientist and co-author of ‘Ideology and Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India’; Mridula Mukherjee is a historian and former director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)