Anand K. Sahay | Can Congress do a reboot, and get back in the game?

For a party in serious need of repair, this is a fair enough start, though clearly more needs to happen

The Congress Party’s “chintan shivir”, or introspection camp, held in Udaipur recently, was on course to be unremarkable, although its senior leader Rahul Gandhi made some candid points that should be examined as these have a strong bearing on where the party goes from here.

In a basic sense, what rescued the convention from ordinariness is that some key elements of the dissident G-23 group attended it, and appeared to rally behind the general sentiment of working for party unity if the leadership moved to take counsel from all quarters.

For a party in serious need of repair, this is a fair enough start, though clearly more needs to happen. The presence of Mani Shankar Aiyar, evidently a distanced friend of the Gandhis, is perhaps a sign that the leadership is in a mood to cement frayed ties on the basis of acceptable principles. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, of course, as Shashi Tharoor noted. But the shock is Kapil Sibal.

The distinguished lawyer and leading G-23 figure wasn’t at the forum and resigned from the party a day after it ended. Whether there were issues between him and the top leadership, or angularities within the G-23, which caused his exclusion from Udaipur, someone of his talents and standing can’t be excluded from any serious discussion on reform in the Congress. Mr Sibal seeks to return to the Rajya Sabha, but this time as an Independent with Samajwadi Party support. He claims he is still with the Congress’ ideology and “sentiments”. This would appear to cast a burden on the party’s leadership to reconcile on a political basis.

The presence of G-23 leaders in Udaipur was a signifier of sorts because the Congress has bled conspicuously of late, losing a capable senior figure like Sunil Jakhar in Punjab and the young, energetic Hardik Patel in Gujarat through inefficiency and inept calculations at the central leadership level.

For any party, the departure of mass leaders is a serious matter. For the Congress, it can’t be set off against the G-23 members attending. The consolation the party has for now is that the dissidents chose to show up. Had they been missing even as the situation in Punjab and Gujarat was worsening, there might have been an unreal air about the Udaipur setting.

Mr Gandhi’s forceful intervention was widely noted. He did not mince words when he said the Congress had lost its connect with the masses. He also chose to note that the Congress, alone among the Opposition parties, had an ideology that could challenge the BJP nationally. In knee-jerk reactions, some regional parties seen as “secular” felt slighted. They spoke out, flaunting their local strengths to make their point.

They appear to have missed the point wholesale. Plainly, they were being narrow-focused and pointlessly assertive, possibly adopting a pre-emptive posture for future seat negotiations with the Congress. Moving in quickly to stop friendly fire, at a later London conclave Mr Gandhi chose to stoop to conquer. He explained his Udaipur remarks at some length. His all-too-accurate observation that the Congress is “not a big daddy” (anymore) soothed hurt egos.

But the plain fact is that the BJP’s regional opponents are chauvinistic and in some cases caste-centric, ducking behind slogans of development and discrimination even after gaining electoral and political salience. Politically they are “secular” in that they do not practise discrimination against religious minorities (only against rival castes). Even so, it is true that they do not have a clear ideology.

Consider the Trinamul Congress and its chant of “Maa, Maati, Manush”. This is an appeal to people of a particular linguistic group and their cultural moorings and is hardly distinguishable from “Marathi Manoos” favoured elsewhere. The Left, which allies with the Congress from time to time, bases itself on class struggle (though it’s lost in practice) -- also a segmented approach.

The Congress is very different in its professed ideology. On paper, its ideology is still one that sought to unite every section of India (linguistic and religious groups and castes; elites, working masses and peasants) under Mahatma Gandhi’s inspiring leadership during the freedom movement. The “secular” outlook (as understood in Indian practice, distinct from European) is the bedrock of this approach which considers all people on an equal basis. Going beyond the expediency of politics, this in fact constitutes a worldview.

But can the worldview that gave the anti-colonial movement unqualified relevance, along with Gandhiji’s immutable commitment to ahimsa, stand scrutiny in our own times when practically all parties seem to have staked out particular territories within the population for themselves?

It’s hard to think India can grow in conditions of peace and stability on a long-term basis if sections of the population are sought to be alienated through coercive policy and pronouncements, or on the basis of an appeal to particular sections. Any attempt to do so will be a negation of the principle on which Independence was gained, and the post-colonial republic founded. And yet, besides the Congress, other parties appear to be distracted by expedient, seductive, slogans. There’s a leading question for the Congress: Has is it been true to its ideology in word and deed?

Its organisational structure seems to have evaporated. The apex relies on narrow-based selections and is not re-energised through intra-party competition. No ideology can be practised in any meaningful sense in the absence of a cohesive organisation. Rahul Gandhi can hardly evade responsibility on this count, though to be fair the decline and fall began long before him.
Besides live in a saintly way of his own design, Mahatma Gandhi did two important things. He was devising and leading mass movements or holding “maun vrat” (meditative silence) to protest a wrong — even done by his own side — all the time. But the Congress, which claims his legacy, has not conducted mass movements for ages. It relied on tweets, angry statements and on imposed choices about political activity or devising programmes.

It is said Mr Gandhi hopes to course-correct. For this to happen, a return to basics is needed. This is inconceivable without real organisational elections, which was the other element of the Congress in the Mahatma’s time, though even then elections had their share of un-Gandhian manipulations.

Until elections within the organisation happen, the gap between word and deed will continue to dog the Congress and widen the gap between it and the people, to which Mr Gandhi referred. Regular elections are the nutrition any living party needs. An occasional brain-storming session is no substitute. Udaipur must not be an expedient replacement for internal polls, whose timeframe was laid out.

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