Kicking Out the Gandhis is Not a Panacea for the Congress as Experts Seem to Suggest

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Source: The Wire

The Calvinist-Corporate discourse in the US recognises but two kinds of citizens: the winners and the losers.

Those that fall in between are convoluted wasters who pretend to have something up their intellectual sleeve that weakens democracy by questioning the dominant binary narrative.

Thus when the Indian National Congress pulled off an unexpected victory in 2004 even as Vajpayee-led India was said to be “shining”, Sonia Gandhi was hailed as a great leader.

And, what do you know, again in 2009.

Not having done the same since 2014, the Gandhis are in the dog-house of “expert” political opinion.

Even normally sedate and sanguine television channels began carrying repeated programmes, with reputed anchors smirking and sniggering with a single-point obsession: will there now be a non-Gandhi leadership to the party or not.

The failure of the party to win elections are thus meant to be laid solely at the door of the Gandhis; and, corporate practices are invoked to show how when the “bottom line” crashes, CEOs are removed.

This of course is a historically illuminating circumstance, suggesting how the quality, worth, and success of political formations are now judged as corporate failures or successes.

One would have liked thoughtful and intellectually objective channels to initiate a rather more far-reaching debate: why does one kind of politics, regardless of leadership, succeed at one time and fail at another during the dynamic twists and turns of national life?

Not infrequently do we hear perceptive students of history remark that India before and after 2014 has suffered an epistemic rupture, no longer amenable to lazy formulations of the old, expedient kind.

A probe into what body of transformations has caused that rupture could then lead to more considered evaluations of the discrete genius both of political formations and their leaderships.

Should such matters be subjected merely to corporate yardsticks, failures of “leadership” might come to be detected in parties other than the Congress as well, and resignations sought beyond the Gandhis.

What may we say of the BJP leadership that fails to win most of the republic beyond the cow belt? Or of the Left parties whose record in this sense must be seen as forgettable and abysmal?

Yet, no demands have so far been made for the BJP top brass to lay down leadership mace, since India both below the Vindhyas and along the Eastern coast remains immune to their superlative prowess.

Nor is it argued that a Sitaram Yechury ought to give up his general secretaryship of the CPI(M) because his party remains confined as a “success” now in one state only, despite being a “national” party.

Nor is the dynasty accusation singularly applicable only to the Gandhis, since, as sections of the media often note, such practices afflict most of India’s political parties, and at most levels of organisation – barring the Left.

Remember that the Liberal Democratic Party in Britain, more than a century old, has hardly ever occupied the seat of governmental power, but nobody has suggested that the party’s leaderships have solely been guilty of this circumstance, or that the party should be wound up unless it jettisons those planks of its ideology which set it apart from a winning concatenation of gestures.

Any discussion or analysis of party-political “failures” or of political leaderships must reach beyond headline-grabbing stories to a scrutiny of how, through history, polities come to change character, wholly or in part, and how any principled political formation is pressed to either jettison their principles, unsuccessfully most of the time, or find alternate ways of intervening in national life such as do not always lead to electoral successes.

It is another rather crass matter that individuals who now stand for elections on one party’s platform, and then make fruitful adjustments with some other party which they may have lambasted during their electoral campaigns are seen as “smart” cookies who place “success” above “principle”.

Here is what the Congress may ponder with some irony: that the neo-Liberal economic policies it set in motion in 2004 came to yield a new class of affluent and influential Indians who now regard free-booting capitalism as the non-negotiable feature of India’s march to greatness.

(After all, the Manmohan Singh UPA government did nearly triple India’s GDP from $709 billion to $2 trillion over a time span of ten years! Curiously, over the last seven years, this figure has only gone up to some $2.7 trillion dollars – a point to think about in relation to claims of “development” made by the corporate-cosy Modi dispensation.)

Concomitantly, this new class of Indians has come to look down upon the sort of rights-based welfarism that accompanied the neo-Liberal policies of the ten years of UPA rule.

Seizing upon that altered Zeitgeist, a corporate-funded and driven right-wing cannily introduced a religion-based reconstruction of the public psyche, especially in the Hindi belt, to counter a secularism propagated as inimical to majority interests.

That ideological package was then sealed in a militarist call to defend the “true nation” against the “other”, both within and without the country.

These reformulations have led to an uncritical assent to a new centralised leadership cult, affecting all aspects of the republic’s democratic moorings – its educational preferences, the constitutionally mandated independence of state institutions, the choices made by bulk of the media, the deployment of punitive agencies to quell critical voices, however salubrious to a democracy.

And no mere change of leadership in the Congress can then be a panacea to meet the onslaught which has fundamentally impacted older habits of allegiance and idealism among vast sections of Indians.

The Congress

It is noteworthy that despite these calamitous shifts in national perceptions and in the psyche of the hoi polloi, which in the Hindi belt, no longer minds the objective destitutions and degradations of its livelihood opportunities and realities so long its majoritarian identity makes it feel close to the seat of power, the grand old party still draws a vote share next only to the ruling right-wing BJP – 12 crores against the BJP’s 23 crores in the last general elections.

But, to go any further, as Salman Khurshid has recently stated, it is not just the matter of the Gandhis in leadership that the party needs to ponder but rather the “crisis of ideas” (Khurshid’s term) that has inevitably ensued upon the drastically altered Zeitgeist.

There are now those in the Congress who recommend going the Hindutva way, others either the socialist or the capitalist way, and yet others who warn against berating Modi, as Khurshid does.

Think that even among the disgruntled, the spectrum of differences on matters of ideology – be it with respect to “nationalism”, economic policy, relations with neighbouring countries, inter-community relations and the rights of minorities, tribals, even different sections of Kashmiris, the independence and use of state institutions –  are substantial; no Mani Shankar Aiyar, for example, may be expected to see eye to eye with policy directions that a Kapil Sibal may have in mind on a plethora of issues.

Khurshid, therefore, is on the ball in suggesting that not until the party finds a new consensus can any leadership be expected either to formulate with confidence lines of policy or be successful in delivering results.

Way forward

Not being Prashant Kishor, this intervenor has no sleight-of-hand recipe to recommend to a party that is more than 125 years old, having gone through and negotiated vicissitudes of great complexity in its magnificent career.

As a mere citizen wedded to the ideals that the freedom movement bequeathed to us and that the Indian National Congress has sought to pursue, however strenuously or not at different points of its history, both in government and in the opposition, I will say this:

Take all ideological and policy options to the last woman and man in every party forum, from block level upwards; let a free and bold expression of views have their democratic play, take a vote among  all party organisations – among women, minorities, students, the youth wing, panchayat leaders etc.,

Bring the outcome to an elected AICC, take a vote there, bring the outcome to an elected CWC, and pass on the consensus, or the majority view to an elected party president, and take it from there.

I may emphasise the importance of taking a vote at each point; not until there is a registered record of opinions can either opportunism or bickering come to an end.

This, as is well-known, is the way in which Communist parties formulate their “line” which is then handed to the politburo to implement.

One thing seems certain to me: the conundrum that the grand old party now confronts may not be resolved by mere iterations of time-tested positions, or declarations of intent by eminent Congress people, or any pro forma reshuffling of personnel here, there or elsewhere.

Only a  hard-nosed dive into the features of the conundrum may yield a course of theory and practice to which Congress women and men feel freshly committed, and one that they may be trusted to propagate with conviction from the grassroots upwards.

And the entire membership of the party must be drafted behind the reformulated directions, and set to work 24×7 as do workers of the ruling BJP.

One other thing that also must be put to debate at all forums is this: should the Congress seek reunification with those who have gone on to float separate parties, and in what ways may the Congress seek to build bridges with diverse secular parties to forge an Indian People’s Front to combat the fascistic turn of the Indian state.

I may proffer the anguished view that the fate of the Congress party seems to me symbiotically interwoven with the fate of the republic per se.

It would be in order for media channels friendly to the republic and attentive to the quality of problems that the grand old party faces to consider their own future as well in that larger conglomeration of concerns, and make bold and strenuous efforts to address the national crisis.

Badri Raina taught at Delhi University.

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