Shikha Mukerjee | Either the Congress will survive, or the Gandhis

The existence of the Congress is at stake: the party with the same name as the one that belongs to the nation

The BJP is certainly a national party, which represents voters across India. Its history is short; it was born in 1980 and its predecessor, the Jan Sangh, was founded in 1951. It’s not part of the collective memory of national consciousness.

The Congress, on the contrary, is a party that belongs to the nation, is part of the national imagination as a movement and an inclusive platform that primarily led and sustained the struggle through sacrifice and ideas for an independent republic. It doesn’t belong to either the Nehru-Gandhi trio, who bombard India with guilt by reiterating the sacrifices by the family, as though no one else was killed in the service of the nation; nor does it belong to the Group of 23, led by, among others, Ghulam Nabi Azad, a tiny elite of mostly failed “leaders” who cannot win elections on their own and can’t add heft to election fights in the states.

The existence of the Congress is at stake: the party with the same name as the one that belongs to the nation. This Congress isn’t the one which turned itself into a mass movement and battled British imperialism. It’s a party that’s now hostage to a variety of exotic leaders, who’ve attached themselves to the name, much like orchids that attach themselves to other trees, shrubs and bushes.

The resuscitation plans devised by the G-23 are as inept as the leaders who have been debating intermittently on the subject for two years. The rush of meetings last week, before and after the staged, inconclusive Congress Working Committee meeting, with all invitee members included, was a deception. It ended with Ghulam Nabi Azad trotting off to meet Sonia Gandhi with a proposal for collective and representative leadership, which adds up to absolutely nothing, since it was a petition rather than an initiative backed up with a plan and a timeline.

If the G-23 was business-like and its members responsible politicians, faithful to the Congress, which is a political institution, there would have been a plan to insulate the party from the Gandhis and their continuance as the high command.

There are no reports to indicate there was such a drastic resuscitation plan. Instead, there were vague and dubious noises, by P. Chidambaram, among others, who mooted the idea of the Congress operating as a junior partner of regional and smaller parties in selected areas. The states that were on Mr Chidambaram’s list included Punjab, where the Congress was trounced by the AAP, and West Bengal, where Mamata Banerjee has effectively done what she had sworn to do in 1998, to turn the Congress into a “signboard”.

As Mr Chidambaram had the 2024 elections in mind, as self-interest dictates, because he has been an MP since 1984, the line he peddled -- that the BJP can be defeated “state by state” if the Congress joined forces as the junior partner in some states with regional and smaller parties -- is plagiarised. It will be recalled that Mamata Banerjee, back in 2021, in the middle of the definitive West Bengal election that proved that the Narendra Modi-led and Amit Shah-masterminded BJP machine can be defeated, said much the same thing and was jeered by the Congress. It is also necessary to recall that of all the leaders from anti-BJP parties who attended the July 21 Martyrs’ Day memorial meet in Delhi’s Constitution Club organised by the Trinamul Congress, Mr Chidambaram was among the attendees.

Between July 2021 and the Congress’ defeat in Goa in 2022, Mr Chidambaram was gripped by amnesia. His wayward memory has clearly been nudged by the failure. His line is a statement of fact; the Congress has been a junior partner in several states for decades. These states include Maharashtra, where Sharad Pawar is the elder statesman and the Nationalist Congress Party is the senior partner; Tamil Nadu, where the DMK has been the senior partner for decades; West Bengal, where the Congress has flirted with alliances, but failed to resuscitate itself; and Jharkhand, where the Congress is a dependent and ally of state parties.

The vainglorious Congress, led by people who have long exceeded their utility, is no match for the BJP. The Congress as a captive of the Gandhi trio is not a match for the non-Congress, anti-BJP Opposition regional and smaller parties. Its claim to be a “national party” is a mythology that bolsters its inflated estimation of its political significance and sees the BJP as the only alternative. This is politically convenient for Mr Modi’s party and its hegemonist dreams of establishing a Hindu majoritarian nation.

The Indian political landscape is a minefield. It’s particularly galling for the BJP, which likes things to be neat and tidy, disciplined and organised so that its managers can follow the playbook, instead of having to extemporise and fail, as happened in West Bengal. The untidy landscape may be anathema to the BJP, but that’s the reality and has been for a long time; it has no significance in states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the south, and an unconvincing presence in states like Odisha, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

The BJP’s need for the Congress as a failed “national party” led by the inept Rahul Gandhi, propped up by his family, is to make Mr Modi look like the saviour of the nation, protecting it from imminent chaos. In personality-driven politics, Rahul Gandhi is the perfect foil for Mr Modi. Any other faces, and there are many in non-Congress, anti-BJP India, is a headache for the tidy-minded BJP.

The presidential elections due later this year will confirm exactly how much or how little control the BJP has in terms of legislative strength. The indirect elections will confirm that the BJP has 1,516 state legislators and the Opposition parties have 2,623 legislators, out of a total of 4,139 state legislators who will vote. It will also confirm the BJP’s numbers declined in the Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand elections. It may confirm that parties like the Biju Janata Dal or Telangana Rashtra Samithi, which voted with the BJP in 2017 to elect Ram Nath Kovind, have changed their mind subsequently.

The election will also inform the Congress, perhaps even convincingly, that despite its inflated opinion about itself and in the BJP’s calculated narrative, that it is a political lightweight. It is not the alternative that can miraculously revive, not even if the Gandhis are stripped of control by a responsible party faithful to the institution and its evolutionary past.

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