For a party that everyone insists is dying and will soon pass on into history, the Congress still continues to attract a lot of attention across the country. Even in their triumphalism, the BJP’s leaders and spokespersons never fail to draw attention to some crime, real or imagined, of the Congress Party. The vast army of trolls on the social media is always lurking around looking for evidence of support for the Congress, particularly among journalists. If indeed the Congress is breathing its last and the nation will be free of its loathsome legacy, why bother with it?
The litany of complaints are many, but most of its detractors tend to focus on two. One is its dynastic traditions. The BJP’s spokespersons are quick on the draw when asked about almost any issue, but before they address that point, they first must talk about the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. That is the party’s original sin — and everything flows from there. This, of course, is ridiculous. Dynasty is a bane of Indian politics, but even a casual glance around the country will show that the Congress is hardly the only party where sons and daughters are groomed for succession. Two of the BJP’s allies — Akali Dal and Shiv Sena — are good examples of dynastic politics, not to forget the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
Now even the BJP has been afflicted by this virus — Poonam Mahajan, Pankaja Munde and Anurag Thakur are just a few of the many examples within the party’s emerging generation. There is no evidence to suggest that voters care deeply about dynastic succession; sometimes it might even work in the candidate’s favour. Another long-standing complaint about the Congress is its “high command culture”. To which, one can only ask: has anyone seen the kind of control Jayalalithaa, Mayawati or Mamata Banerjee have over their party members?
If anything, the old high command system of the Congress has almost totally dissipated; Sonia Gandhi is not like her imperious mother-in-law who could make a regional satrap quake with the quiver of her eyebrows. These are the characteristics that define Indian politics in general, and are not exclusive to the Congress. Pointing fingers at the party over these failings is, therefore, the lazy way out. Not just other politicians, who at least have a motive, but even journalists and pundits have internalised these bullet points, glibly voicing them whenever the Congress is mentioned.
Yes, the Congress has serious problems, but neither the dynasty nor the so-called high command culture are among them. As a party, specially in its post-Indira Gandhi era, the Congress had little time for the urban elite and the burgeoning middle class, which, ironically, benefited from her socialistic policies like bank nationalisation. Even before the reforms of 1991, Rajiv Gandhi had brought about economic liberalisation, which benefited urban India, but the party’s heart remained firmly on the left.
The many rural upliftment programmes initiated by the Manmohan Singh government were due to Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s pressure; while the middle class, which by now had significantly risen in numbers to count as a voting bloc, loved his economic policies but was restless with schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, and the like.
Public memory now extends to just a year or two in the past, but it is worth remembering that when the Congress won in 2009, the stock markets had zoomed. The party posted better results than in 2004, which was really a freak victory, and by 2009 the “aspiration classes” too backed the party and believed in the India story.
It was during the second term that corruption, that accompanied the economic boom of the earlier tenure, came to the fore; and the Congress had no answer to the campaign by Anna Hazare and to the BJP’s obstructionist tactics in Parliament. The result was policy paralysis, for which the government — deservedly — got the blame. The fickle voter, specially in cities and small towns, began to look for alternatives — and Narendra Modi, with his development agenda, seemed the right fit. The Congress had nothing new to offer.
The party’s internal structural weaknesses — lack of internal elections, poor coordination structures, durbar culture and the emergence of Rahul Gandhi without a clearly defined leadership role — had not mattered in the good times; but now they were starkly apparent. Perhaps the party’s biggest failing has been its inability or unwillingness to stand by its core values of liberalism and secularism. At a time when nasty divisiveness and growing communalisation is all around us, it was vital for the Congress to emphasise its convictions; instead, it seems to be responding in a wishy-washy way on a case-by-case basis.
It has been noted that the Congress won far more seats in the just-concluded polls than the BJP. But the BJP has won a state, that too for the first time, and taken it away from the Congress. Should the Congress be happy being number two everywhere? There is a Congress presence in every Assembly, and it is still a national party, but how soon before the regional parties treat it as one more among many contenders?
Reports of its demise are surely exaggerated, but if it doesn’t want to head in that direction, it must undertake a long-term overhaul that completely transforms the structure without altering the ideological foundation. Greater inner-party consultations and empowering a new generation of leaders would be a good way to begin. If it also means getting rid of deadwood, so be it. The country has not yet fully voted out the Congress, whatever its opponents may claim, but if things don’t change soon, that day is not too far off....