Words of wisdom for the Congress’s ‘last Mughals’

‘How is it that a party that governed India for long has been reduced to a sideshow?’

‘How is it that a party that governed India for long has been reduced to a sideshow?’ | Photo Credit: The Hindu

On the eve of India’s 75th year of Independence, we the people of India are groaning under the poison of Hindutva and a rudderless Opposition. Collectively, these two factors are overseeing the destruction of India’s political liberalism. There is little hope for constitutional values such as sarva dharma sama bhava (equal respect for all religions under the law), and the same treatment for all citizens. Quite tragically, we are in a situation where India could morph into a Hindu Pakistan, as was willed by the assassins of Mohandas Gandhi.

Political development

India’s foundational figures had understood the importance of religious diversity. Swami Vivekananda, the patron saint of the Indian youth, had argued for the necessity of religious diversity. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army had consistently worked with all the faiths to defeat the British. Bose’s closest associates were Muslims. The experience of the struggle for freedom was enshrined in the constitutional idea of India, that was created by Maulana Azad, Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar, Sardar Patel, among numerous other stalwarts.

The legacy of the freedom struggle was the fundamental reason India shocked the world by turning into a resilient democracy with abundant poverty, where civilian control over the military was established. The Congress Party, led by Sonia Gandhi, largely built on those foundations. It not only engendered a rapidly growing and globalising India but even consolidated citizenship rights and welfare. India’s growth even surpassed China’s during the first decade of the new millennium, while historic financial and human investments were made to redistribute that wealth. These remarkable achievements are forgotten today.

India’s Congress problem

Today, we find only paper champions defending that idea of India. The once mighty Congress Party, the bulwark of the Indian nationalist movement, is in a state of such disarray that even Opposition parties consider it to be a liability. How is it that a party that governed India for nearly 60 years has been reduced to a sideshow? To comprehend this predicament and evolve, the Party must self-reflect critically on four salient factors.

First, the Congress Party has a leadership problem. It has much to do with those who control the reins of the party in the name of the Gandhis. Sonia Gandhi’s managers such as Ahmed Patel, Motilal Vora, Janardan Dwivedi, Oscar Fernandes and Ambika Soni were politically grounded, and well versed with realpolitik.

Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, wanted to assume the role of a democratiser within the party by experimenting with the party’s youth and student wings. Yet, he has ironically replicated the very high command model of his mother and grandmother, with the difference that his team is politically inept and rudderless. K.C. Venugopal, Jairam Ramesh, Ajay Maken and Randeep Surjewala do not possess the political acumen of a Digvijay Singh or an Ashok Gehlot. None of these and other advisers have honed the art of winning elections.

Unsurprisingly therefore, a report recommending radical reforms chaired by the former Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan was summarily assigned to the dustbin of history by loyalists. The recent recommendations made at the Chintan Shivir (Reflection Conclave) held in Udaipur earlier this year (May 13-15, 2022) may see a similar fate. Former Delhi Chief Minister, the late Sheila Dikshit’s son, Sandeep Dikshit, was not even invited to the conclave, among significant others. That the Congress Party would refuse to introspect after the catastrophic political losses is mind boggling.

Second, while experimentation with political tactics is healthy, ideological confusion is not. Today’s Congress high command swings between the extreme right (flirting with soft Hindutva) and the extreme left (flirting with radical anti-establishment ideas). The right-wing leadership matches Hindutva by visiting temples, flaunting the sacred thread, and, soft peddling on issues such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the dilution of Article 370, and numerous attacks on minorities. Such a disposition of the three Gandhis would have saddened Jawaharlal Nehru.

On the other hand, the Congress’s left faction wishes to create an anti-corporate and ideologically pure Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) type cadre, without hankering for political power (till 2029 or even 2034). It is this faction that has persuaded the leadership to distrust supposedly power-hungry Congress leaders, and replace them instead with outsiders such as Kanhaiya Kumar, Jignesh Mewani, Alpesh Thakore, Hardik Patel, Nana Patole, Revanth Reddy, Navjot Singh Sidhu, Siddharamaiah, etc.

A clear political narrative will need a new Congress leader who can create a consensus out of this maze. Such a leader would need the intellectual sophistication to weave a pro-poor, secular and liberal outlook with. Given that India has a youthful population, this leader would need to be young and energetic as well.

Third, successful political leadership demands a combination of charisma and astute political management. The charismatic leader can draw the crowds while the political manager strategises elections, makes the machinery of government work, and ensures adherence to the party’s ideological agenda.

Nehru had a Sardar Patel to work with. While Nehru articulated the idea of India, Patel ran the party. This model was replicated under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, which Dr. Manmohan Singh ran, while Ahmed Patel managed the party. The same can be said regarding the political success of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.

Even though Rahul Gandhi has declined the throne of the Congress President since 2019, his team calls the shots, supposedly at his behest. Hence, in the public eye, he and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra have run the party to the ground. The party was absent from almost all the major protests, on issues such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the National Register of Citizens, farmer’s remonstrations, or the Agnipath scheme for the armed forces. In contrast, the Congress chose to protest Rahul Gandhi’s interrogation by the Enforcement Directorate in the alleged National Herald scam.

And, finally, the Congress’s enviable connections within the state and society have collapsed. The party once commanded an enormous network within the administration, media, civil society, and even with foreign governments. It could raise substantial funds. This infrastructure was a resource that the party could leverage to support less well-endowed parties in a coalition. If it cannot deliver on all these, why should Opposition parties work with the Congress? Yet, the team led by Rahul Gandhi has failed in strengthening old bonds and creating new ties. This is why the Congress’s sphere of influence is shrinking rapidly.

The future

The million-dollar question is: where will the Congress go? Will the party gerrymander its internal polls due in September 2022 till a Gandhi is reanointed as president? Or, will it once again delay the election hoping that Rahul Gandhi changes his mind after the Bharat Jodo Yatra (now from September)? In that case, the Gandhis, like Bahadur Shah Zafar and his sons, might well be the Congress’s last Mughals. However, they still have the time to invest in the right persons, so that the Congress Party can move forward. This is the best service that the Gandhis can perform for the party, and for preserving much that is precious in India’s civilisational journey.

Rahul Mukherji is Professor and Chair, Modern Politics of South Asia, South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University, Germany

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Printable version | Aug 11, 2022 10:38:29 am |