The lessons for Congress party from Jyotiraditya Scindia’s exit episode are simple and straightforward. A leader, who has been very close to Rahul Gandhi and was sharing charge of Uttar Pradesh with Priyanka Gandhi until recently, developed a deep sense of uselessness about whatever he was doing or not doing in the grand old party. Scindia’s decision to leave the party is a consequence of a mind-set common amongst Congress workers and leaders – that they are born to be in the ruling dispensation.
It’s a reflection of the inability of the top party leadership to come to terms with the national reality. The entire party was under the impression that it would be the natural choice of voters in 2019 due to anti-incumbency against the Modi government. It did not happen, as the Congress could neither analyze the loss of 2014 nor understand the totally different character of the Modi-Shah politics.
Nothing changed even after 2019 Lok Sabha election, in which the party massively underperformed. At least after 2014, the veteran leader A K Antony was asked to prepare and submit a report analyzing the poor performance of the party. We do not know of any actions taken based on the Antony report. We only know that its major conclusion was that the majority of Hindus has developed a negative perception about the Congress party’s secularism.
No such exercise was considered worth the effort after the 2019 Lok Sabha defeat, and the party’s president himself lost in his family pocket-borough. The Congress even could not come to terms with the right precedent that Rahul Gandhi tried to set by resigning from the party presidentship. That was a moment when Congress men and women should have expressed themselves openly about the state of affairs within the party. The opportunity was lost. But it’s not lost forever.
The Scindia-led challenge is yet another opportunity for the party to reinvent itself. Reinvention not in terms of a change in politics, but in carrying out the same politics with conviction and innovation. What is at the core of any politics is consistency. The Congress has been lacking this since 2014. It has been bulldozed with the advices from friends and foes mainly on three matters.
One, distancing from the Gandhi family.
Two, to be ideologically firm and resolute.
Three, to be in agitational mode to expose the faults and fallacies of the Modi government.
The Congress is unable to act on these lines. A kind of loose flirtation with these ideas has the party behaving without any consistency. The ideas look attractive, but remain fantasies for a party whose development in post-independent India was on a different path. It is like chess-players being asked to perform street-plays.
After independence, being in power everywhere for a considerable period of time, it was not required for the Congress to be a party of movements and agitations. Whenever it lost power at the Centre or in the states, in most cases it managed to return to power without much need for street agitations or grand movements. Perhaps Kerala was the only exception.
Of course, here anti-incumbency helped the Congress, but it was also organizational connect at the ground level that was instrumental for the party being in the thick of politics. The post-2004 Congress leadership was too engrossed with being in power at the Centre to pay the minimum attention required to organizational affairs on the ground. Madhya Pradesh was the best example of this lapse. Arjun Singh, Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Suresh Pachouri were union ministers. Digvijay Singh was all powerful in the Congress organization those days and was a close confidant of Rahul Gandhi. Yet, the Congress kept losing assembly elections in the state, until it was also uprooted from the Centre.
When the Congress finally managed to win the state in 2018, it was not because of any agitations it led in the state. It was as a result of better organizational coordination and reaching out to different sections such as farmers and traders that the brand Shivraj and brand Modi were trumped by the Congress in Madhya Pradesh. The story in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh was not very different. The Congress still has its base and core voters in many important states. It requires to reach out to them through its effective performance in state assemblies and parliament, by regular organizational activities and with the effective use of the media. The Congress can do it as effectively as the BJP, if not better. Most importantly, it has to showcase model schemes and programmes that its state governments must go on to implement.
To begin with, the Congress governments must implement some of the promises from its 2019 Lok Sabha election manifesto. Not too long ago, Sonia Gandhi demonstrated Congress power during the days of the Vajpeyee government by regularly organizing conferences of Congress Chief Ministers. Today, the Congress can repeat this, and include the governments where it is a junior partner. It is not the agitational mode of politics, but such organizational novelties that the Congress lacks today.
Congress’ ideological dithering, majorly on the issues of secularism and social justice, certainly caused its decline. Today, the social justice agenda of the 1990s is accepted by all political parties without exception. The Congress’ failure to champion this agenda has led to its marginalization in two major states, i.e. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Also, the Congress has lost the secular space to some regional players on the one hand, and its mistakes have been the BJP’s gain on the other hand. The party has to find out the ways to regain the secular space along with the means to reduce the BJP’s Hindutva space. This is the most fundamental and tricky challenge before the party. It has to cleverly decide when and where to engage and not to engage the BJP on issues of secularism. It has to defend secularism without letting the BJP spread canards like Hindu Khatare Me Hai (Hindus are in danger). Most importantly, it has to train its leaders, activists and followers on what secularism is in Indian context and why it is intrinsic to Indian nationalism. Secularism can’t be strengthened through street agitations; it has to be done through mass education. The Congress has to direct its state governments to instill and perpetuate inclusiveness, brotherhood and rule of law through the education system.
Without these values secularism is a hollow concept. Who would be more relevant than Mahatma Gandhi for the Congress to learn from, adapt to the conditions of communal onslaught and champion secularism? The Congress must read into the pages of history scripted by Gandhi, Nehru and Patel to understand how they stood against the bigotry of the Muslim League and the venom of the RSS-Hindu Mahasabha during the period of partition.
It has also been proved sufficiently that today’s Congress has no tall pan-Indian leader to replace the Gandhi family from the apex organizational position. The Congress without the Gandhis would vanish in no time, even while the Congress with the Gandhis is unable to win elections. Thus, the role destined for the Gandhis is to either keep on controlling the terminally ill party or bring in the innovations to open up space for aspiring leaders. The Sonia-Manmohan model of leadership is the best option available to the party at this moment.
The only required change in the model is to make the Manmohan space in the arrangement as competitive as possible. Let Shashi Tharoor, Amarinder Singh, Gulam Nabi Azad and others compete to become party’s face to lead in the Lok Sabha election. As Congress workers and leaders seem to have lost the craving for bringing in the required changes, the responsibility falls again on the shoulders of the Gandhi family to enforce a new strategy and put it in place in the organization from top to bottom.
What Sonia Gandhi demonstrated in 1991 and 2004, by respectively rejecting the role of party president and prime minister of the country, needs to be repeated in the current scenario. Earlier, she decided for herself. Now, she must step in to take a similar decision about her children. She has the will, but will she?
Parimal Maya Sudhakar
14th March 2020