Distantly Close: Congress must find a clear response to BJP's Ram-Roti narrative
- The chintan shivir marked the inauguration of much-needed reflection in the party. But execution is key and hard questions remain
It requires no doctorate in political science to understand what exactly ails the contemporary Indian National Congress: Lack of full-time leadership, strong party organisation, self-confidence, and a credible narrative to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s governance boasts and muscular majoritarianism.
Brain-storming sessions or chintan shivirs of the kind held in Udaipur help but only to show that the party isn’t entirely comatose; that it’s alive and attempting to resuscitate itself to action. To that extent, the Congress’s promised push to inject fresh blood in party structures, in states where it has governments and in poll candidatures is a delayed yet welcome initiative.
The carving out of the Gen-X or the Millennials for tomorrow’s leadership will address as much the imperative of sifting or retiring — through proposed age bars and niche roles — some of the old-guard perceived as easy targets for their past malfeasance. The worry on that score was to the fore with Rahul Gandhi’s averment against the run of his speech at Udaipur, that he wasn’t scared of fighting the BJP-RSS for he had nothing to hide: “I haven’t taken a single rupee of Bharat Mata….” An easily drawn inference from his claim is that there are others in the party who perhaps have, or are charged with.
Be it as it may, the point needed to be made and the correctives applied, more so when scores of state legislators are pressured or purchased after winning elections. Graft isn’t a patent of any political party, but the trend is endemic to the Congress.
The narrative conundrum
That said, the Udaipur confabulations threw little light on the party’s proposed messaging in the upcoming polls beyond the stock issues of inflation, unemployment, and jobless growth.
The narrative conundrum is crucial. A party with a seemingly paralysed tongue cannot possibly capture popular imagination in competition with an adversary that’s forever in a hyper-nationalistic talking mode, its assertions force-multiplied by countless mainstream/social media platforms to carry home the rhetoric often without fact check or scrutiny.
The sanjivini of an electoral win the Congress direly needs to stay relevant in our crowded multi-party democracy will remain elusive without a confident narrative enabled by a robust outreach. A party bashful of its past cannot possibly make people rally around its lure, its promise of being a better bet than its rivals. Only a wider, uninterrupted debate focused on educating the cadres on the party’s governance record which, on balance, is formidable, can prepare it with cogent responses to its principal rival’s fact-agonistic propaganda that the post-Independence Congress-era was a zero sum game.
On the nationalism front, the party must enunciate upfront and with greater force and commitment its definition of nationalism. How its rashtravaad is distinct and better informed by historical experiences than what's popularised by the BJP. Politics is the game of explaining issues and offering people choices which the Congress ceased doing with any degree of regularity and seriousness after losing power in 2014.
This makes inescapable the question: Has Udaipur helped find an ideological riposte to the Narendra Modi-led BJP’s success in subsuming the welfare state that’s India in its brand of Hindutva welfare-ism astride the much-hyped free ration scheme? The “Ram-Roti” combination helped the religious right retain power in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, not to speak of Goa and Manipur where the Congress was done in as much by its defection-inducing organisational infirmities accentuated by its lackadaisical ways. Have the washout results shaken the party out of its self-image of being a permanent default option that it was till the 1980s when Mandal destroyed its social base which it is unable to reconstruct till date in the Hindi belt?
The Udaipur session is a pointer that the grand old party finally is in a reflective mode and for good reasons. If the BJP registered landmark back-to-back wins in UP and Uttarakhand, a new kid on the block, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) did wonders in Punjab with its unprecedented landslide victory while the Congress set its own house on fire in the run-up to the polls it seemed certain of winning at one stage. The element common to its defeats in these states — barring UP where it wasn’t a mentionable player despite Priyanka Gandhi Vadra's gutsy campaign — was its proclivity to fall on its own sword.
One will have to wait a while to ascertain whether the Congress has emerged wiser from the shivir convened in the backdrop of such stunning debacles.
The first portents weren’t the least reassuring. Amid the Udaipur huddle, the party’s foremost Hindu face in Punjab, Sunil Jakhar quit the Congress and Gujarat’s Hardik Patel vented grievances in public. Prone though the duo might be to overplaying their angst, they are useful human resource any party should desist losing.
One must admit that certain initiatives the Congress mooted and adopted at Udaipur look promising on paper. Much however will depend on how adroitly and quickly are the decisions executed on the ground. For instance, will the party have an elected full-time president other than Sonia Gandhi vide an organisational election by September? Will elections also be held to the Congress Working Committee?
Bharat Jodo Yatra
The Congress has to steadfastly adhere to the organisational election, scheduled to have in place its lead marcher, be it Rahul Gandhi or anyone else, before the October 2 Gandhi Jayanti launch of the Kashmir to Kanyakumari “Bharat Jodo” yatra announced from Udaipur. If creatively done, the proposed march could be a potent platform to purvey the party’s ideological messaging which at once can bolster its campaign in the November-December Himachal and Gujarat elections. A test of its political savvy will be the way it front-loads its achievements, inclusive of the contribution of its icons, notably Jawaharlal Nehru whose demonisation has been high on the BJP’s agenda.
It is ironical yet true that Nehru was best remembered in recent years not by the Congress but the AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal. Cocking a snook at the BJP in a 2018 speech, he said: “It’s our good fortune that we got Nehru who had the vision to lay the foundations of a modern India. Had he made a 182 meter statue (of Sardar Patel) instead of IIT Kharagpur, I wouldn’t have been able to study there. If he’d made a temple instead of BHEL, would the country have progressed?”
There’s a pertinent lesson here for Rahul Gandhi who in his Udaipur address sought to discount the relevance of regional parties to showcase the Congress as the sole ideological bulwark against the BJP. The age of his party playing solo is long over. It’s about time he learnt to play doubles or be a team player to mount a forceful challenge to the leviathan sangh parivar he keeps daring for a fight. His other failings apart, besides the Congress and the Left, Lalu Yadav is one regional leader who hasn’t forsaken his secular beliefs to cut deals with the BJP like other provincial chieftains.
For its part, the Congress would be better off recognising the relevance of regional force in power in several states. It cannot deride them and yet pretend to unite India, the road to which is regaining the popular-connect which by Rahul Gandhi’s own admission that party has lost.
The Congress’s Bharat Jodo call has to be a yugal geet, a chorus for it to fetch a pan-Indian resonance. A set of attendant slogans that’ll help draw the youth to the party must celebrate social harmony and jobs, or call it pyar aur roozgar if you like, with a ready reckoner on how the ruling dispensation's social policies aren't in synch with its economic ambitions. For a society shorn of peace cannot attract capital.
HT’s veteran political editor, Vinod Sharma, brings together his four-decade-long experience of closely tracking Indian politics, his intimate knowledge of the actors who dominate the political theatre, and his keen eye which can juxtapose the past and the present in his weekly column, Distantly Close
The views expressed are personal