The late Frank Anthony once remarked during proceedings in the Constituent Assembly that many in the Indian National Congress who were technically its members were spiritually with the RSS.
Not without reason.
Excruciatingly, that conundrum seems to have stayed with the party to our day.
How painful it must be for others in the Congress who dourly continue to be committed to the party’s Nehruvian vision of state and polity can be understood. Instructively, some Nehruvians have now made bold to express themselves publicly on the conundrum.
Then there are citizens not formally associated with the Indian National Congress, who remain wedded to the secular and socialist ideals of the constitution, and, seeing these ideals going down the drain, feel compelled to heap repeated comment on the party that shepherded the freedom movement.
They may be excused.
Given that organised politics alternate to the Hindutva forces (other than the Congress) comprises either a disparate spectrum of regional interests or a rump-like Left, citizens who do not wish the republic to be replaced by a theocracy still look to the oldest party to come to an open-eyed determination about its own ideological mind and its obligation to mount a secular-democratic challenge to proto-fascist forces on the Right.
Given the tepid or assenting response of many in the Congress to what went on at the bhoomi pujan ceremony at Ayodhya, with the prime minister, rather than Narendra Modi, present in full regalia of command, there are questions that will inevitably be asked of the Congress. This imperative, of course, is stymied by the fact that the party is in the throes of an organisational ‘Catch 22’ and seemingly in no hurry to resolve the same.
The questions before the Congress leadership
The brute question that the Congress leadership must now ask of itself is this: should it be in politics to win the next elections on any terms, wherever these take place, or should it now worry about reclaiming the secular republic. Indeed, any republic at all which it once authored.
If the former, then it may carry on making prevaricating adjustments to “popular” mood, and yet lose because a more authentic version of nationalism is available to the voter elsewhere. But, if indeed, the Congress determines differently, it may have to forego for some years to come compromised tactics aimed at making a government here or there (and often losing them in short order to right-wing skullduggery), and offer a clearly stated alternative vision and conviction to the masses, pressed relentlessly through self-education within the party and tirelessly firm mass contact immersions among we the people who, after all, have benefited little from the hollow but dogged propaganda of the last six or so years.
Contrary to what was egregiously claimed at the Ayodhya ceremony, this latter praxis may indeed be viewed by the Congress and the country’s secular polity as the second freedom movement in truth, one in which the Congress must find it within itself to gather and mobilise on principle all sections of national politics who comprise the 62% who voted against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in 2019, swallowing pinpricks, big or small.
It could not have escaped the party’s notice that some distinguished observers who were till the other day wishing the Congress dead, are now heard to admit that there can be no challenge to the proto-fascist forces without the Congress, making the same appeal that is made here for a concerted renewal of its organisational apparatus and ideological wherewithal. This fact only speaks to the rather desperate urgency felt in all rational quarters about saving the republic from a more than likely descent now into theocracy.
It should be obvious that the Congress does not have the luxury of time. If the Hindutva right-wing consistently focuses its attack on the oldest party, it is clearly for the reason that any national challenge to it can foreseeably come only from the Congress. What could be a more energising compliment?
It is a mystery wrapped in an enigma to many observers as to what the party means to do with itself, given that no initiatives seem forthcoming to restore a unified credibility to itself first among its own very flummoxed members and then among the people in general.
It was, perhaps still is, the hope of many that between them, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, and now Priyanka Gandhi Vadra would make bold to call party elections and carry the same forward in a no-holds-barred transparency and without any backroom prodding, one way or another.
Let it be said that if the Congress is again to find credence and following on any mass scale (that the party still polls handsomely at the hustings is beside the point here), this democratic renewal is the boldest and best way to begin that reclamation. During that electoral process, let candid debates be undertaken, both as to organisational mechanisms preferences and responsibilities and to the ideological fruit its debates may yield. The Congress can be sure that, were this process to be initiated and followed through, it would have the ear and attention of all sections of the media and polity.
Many Congress women and men understand that business as usual is no longer an option, and yet remain tongue-tied in making freely-voiced contributions to a breakthrough. Like it or not, only the Gandhis can open the flood gates; and the time to that is now. It is only when Congress members take on one another in a democratic exercise that silly arguments about such things as ‘young vs old’ can resolve themselves and furnish leaderships empowered and equipped to take on the fatal task of retrieving the republic, first in the popular mind and, thereby in electoral politics. Those that may be shredded out by this process of reckoning may then be prevented from debilitating the new drive within democratically legitimised cadres and leaderships.
The party must recall that it was from such open and fiercely articulated internal debates that the Nehruvian line found its primacy and put the nation for long years on an inclusive and pluralist path. Reclaiming Nehru is coterminous with reclaiming both the courage of conviction and commitment to diversity.
If the Congress today shies away from renewing those articulations, however acerbic, it would be turning away from a legacy that made us a republic, and falling squarely in the lap of a new politics in power that wishes precisely such a paralysis of thought to continue within the Congress party.
Let us recall that Nehru forged a way, although verily surrounded by numerous sectarian enthusiasts within that generation of Congress leaderships.
What reason then why that memory may not inspire a renaissance now?
It is either that or oblivion.
Congress still remains the only political force that can belong to every Indian citizen.
The Rajasthan crisis
At the time of writing, it would seem a safe conclusion that the Sachin Pilot-led revolt has fizzled out. It is a good augury for the party that the principle of legislative support has won the day, and that the “high command” desisted from undermining that democratic principle by imposing a change of guard.
As this writer had speculated, it was not an easy matter for Sachin Pilot to switch to the Bharatiya Janata Party, both for reasons of personal culture and ideological conditioning. Now that he has renewed his commitment publicly, he must mull the folly of having sought refuge in a BJP-ruled state while the imbroglio was on. It would also help his restoration if he could decisively disprove the allegation that some of his camp were in conversation with the BJP on his say-so. Also, however he may protest the perception, it is clear that he wished to head the government in Jaipur on the claim that his contribution to the party’s electoral victory had been decisive, forgetting that rewards in political life may not follow corporate principles.
What he has sought to centre-stage is, in his view, a frustrating, perhaps humiliating, lack of inner-party democracy, speaking of the Rajasthan unit. This, in principle, is something the party leadership must admit as a possible cause, although Pilot’s claim here does not quite gel with his disregard of the other major democratic verity that whoever becomes head of government must enjoy majority support of the legislature party.
But his grouse about the absence of responsiveness from the Rajasthan executive to, as he claims, his pleas on behalf of his constituency and the people at large once again reinforces the main burden of this piece—the need within the Congress for a transparent and no-holds-barred democratic renewal at all levels of party organisation; and thereafter an above-board structure of receptivity to critical voices that bear on objective ideological or undemocratic aberrations, wherever these may occur. Only when such structural mechanisms are in place, may the party be able to resolve the conundrum that has informed the Pilot revolt—that ostensibly complaints about lack of democratic responsiveness may be expected to be sorted out by a “high command” fiat rather than by a democratic resolution within concerned party forums.
In the meanwhile, those of us who tend to be testy with the Grand Old Party ought to give some room to the reality that in the Narendra Modi-RSS-led Bharatiya Janata Party of today, the nation confronts a formation that has a ruthless aversion to constitutional-democratic pieties, and a populist base impervious to democratic renewals. The task of realising those renewals, therefore cannot fall only and exclusively on the Indian National Congress, although without its own renewal that task may be beyond realisation altogether.
In that context, despite the niggles in Kerala, the Left parties may need to reconsider the imperatives of the present zeitgeist and contribute in a concerted way to forging a united democratic movement that keeps the larger reality foremost in its deliberations and actions.