Congress, reform or perish

Congress, reform or perish

The Congress lies in tatters and inspires little confidence so as to stand up against the Modi juggernaut

A worker pulls out a roll of cloth from a boiler after dyeing it with the symbol of India\'s main opposition Congress party at a flag manufacturing factory. Credit: Reuters Photo

Former US President Barack Obama’s description of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi as “a student eager to impress teacher” and one who “lacked the aptitude” is sure to warm the cockles of the heart of those who had consistently riled him with different uncharitable appellations. But the extended pedagogic metaphor, especially as it comes from a distinguished former president, and not from a loose cannon like defeated president Donald Trump, is of special attention, because truth be told, it rings true.

The apparently invincible march of the Narendra Modi bandwagon that is currently on the rampage is as much ascribable to his charisma as to the feckless opposition, which is led by Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Obama recalls how, during a meeting with then prime minister Manmohan Singh, he wondered about his successor, aware that Singh was picked up by Sona Gandhi because he, devoid of any national political base, posed no threat to her son who was being groomed by her to take over the Congress: “Would the baton be successfully passed to Rahul, fulfilling the destiny laid out by his mother and preserving the Congress party’s dominance over the divisive nationalism touted by the BJP?” 

Obama does not dwell on this for long in his memoir, A Promised Land, but does not fail to train our focus on the need for a strong opposition in India and an able pan-India leader mighty enough to take on the labyrinthine ways of Modi and BJP. Rahul cannot usher the Joe Biden moment in India if the prognostications are anything to go by, the outcome in the Assembly elections in Bihar being the latest of the many reverses the Congress faced. 

Now that the Congress lies in tatters and inspires little confidence so as to stand up against the Modi juggernaut, one can wonder if it is a role reversal or not. Way back in the 1950s and 1960s, parties other than the Congress failed to establish secure social bases for themselves. It was because the Congress, with unmatched resources for patronage and influence at its disposal, could employ them either to support or undermine local factions, and during the run-up to an election could operate like a great machine, using its wealth and prestige to ensure that its candidates were well supported and well financed in every region. 

Its policy of relying not only on zones of safe seats or on established sitting members but also on campaigning everywhere, and stratagems such as snatching seats from opposition incumbents and Independents to compensate for some unavoidable losses, seems to be the model for the BJP today. The early years of the 1950s does offer a crucial insight into the origins of the so-called “Congress system” and the manoeuvres to contain and control political opposition. 

Dynastic rule

As the Congress today is too inconsequential to be reckoned as the main Opposition party, the time-worn caveat is that the absence of opposition tends to be seen as proof that a political system is not democratic, and attempts to shackle or outlaw opposition have been the hallmark of repressive or authoritarian regimes. 

The dynastic rule accounting for the downfall of the Congress has been discussed far too often. But the bad blood against 23 of its senior leaders who raised concerns regarding the functions of the Congress by acolytes close to the Nehru-Gandhi family is proof, once again, of the truth well-known by now. 

The simmering discontent and the ideological rupture within the partyfolds that occasionally erupts – as can be seen in the Jyothiraditya Scindia and Kamal Nath feud in Madhya Pradesh, Ashok Ghelot and Sachin Pilot kerfuffle in Rajasthan, the Ajit Pawar episode in Maharashtra or the horse-trading by the BJP of Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) MLAs in Karnataka – point to something even more sinister:  the liquidation of the front-running opposition in India that bodes ominously ill for the state of democracy of India. 

Historian Ramachandra Guha early this year rightly summed up that a “fifth-generation dynast” Rahul Gandhi has no chance in politics against a “hard working and self-made” Modi. He came down on the Kerala verdict electing the Congress leader to Parliament. Guha is not exactly a fan either of Modi or the ruling dispensation but he minced no words in saying that Rahul can hardly be expected to hold a candle to an extremely hard working Modi with an experience of running a state for 15 years, and the vast administrative experience at his disposal. 

In 2018, Prime Minister Modi, on the occasion of unfurling the tricolour at the Red Fort to mark the 75th anniversary of the Azad Hind government, pointed out how leaders such as Subhas Chandra Bose, B R Ambedkar and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel have been ignored at the altar of the Nehru-Gandhi family. If the Congress had earlier protested that Modi misappropriated the legacy of Sardar Patel, there is no gainsaying that Patel remains the neglected icon of the Congress iconography. 

Today, Rahul Gandhi’s thrust for new faces at the cost of veterans such as Shashi Tharoor, Kapil Sibal and Manish Tewari put to an ignominious loyalty test – requiring them to grovel before the so-called Old Guard – may prove counter-productive fomenting dissidence and exodus. 

A party barely able to keep its house in order or choose a leader thus failed to confront the BJP, is singularly inept as it was in capitalising on the many bunglings of the BJP – be it its economic policies, issues of public health, its stand on China, the frittering away of social securities, civil liberties, its conflation of protest with anti-nationalism, the undermining of democratic institutions – the list is endless.

 So, however much Sonia Gandhi cries out that “Indian democracy is being hollowed out”, it is about time the Grand Old Party preening on its past, got overhauled itself and came up with a counter-narrative acceptable to the people before the India that the world knew existed, pales into oblivion.