For a Congress revival, a two-fold approach
professor Suhas Palshikar believes the Congress must act on two fronts, organisationally and in terms of its political mobilisation
Even amidst the despair of defeat, it’s understandable if politicians can see signs of their party’s revival. That could happen at the next election or after several. But does it, therefore, follow that after two consecutive shattering defeats, it’s “a ridiculous idea” to say the Congress could be finished? Surely not.
You don’t need to look at Britain’s once glorious Liberals to accept parties can fade away. It’s happened to several closer at home — Swatantra, Janata and, possibly, the Communist Party of India. In Congress’s case, after electoral decimation in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, and Andhra Pradesh, it hasn’t returned to power.
Yet, if Rahul Gandhi’s boast that it’s ridiculous to say the Congress is “gone” is to be proven correct, it won’t happen by simply waiting and hoping for better. As professor Suhas Palshikar points out, the Congress’s challenge “to remain competitive in a multi-party federal polity” is nearly 35 years old. It started when the party lost power in 1989. Although it’s been in government since, it’s never won a majority again. Soon this challenge could become “insurmountable”.
If that’s not to happen, Palshikar believes the Congress must act on two fronts, organisationally and in terms of its political mobilisation. Even if the party is unwilling to heed his advice, it’s revealing for the rest of us who want a vibrant Opposition and believe the resurrection of the Congress offers the best hope.
Palshikar makes two points about organisation. The most important is “the democratisation of the functioning of the party”. However, by not holding elections for the Congress Working Committee, it’s failed to do this. Palshikar says this was important because “the churn” an election creates would breathe “life” into the party. Nominations would allow dormancy to continue.
The second organisational requirement is to fulfil the commitment to one-family-one-post. This doesn’t simply apply to the Gandhis. It has “more to do with the entrenched interests of many families that control local party units… this is more about the way local politics is conducted.” At this level, the hold of dominant families needs to be prized open to permit “young activists into competitive politics”.
Palshikar also makes two points about mobilisation. “Beyond big speeches… and pious hopes”, the Congress needs to devise “the right formula for coalition-making in the face of a ruthless competitor”. His advice is simple but pointed: “The party should be prepared to be more modest”. In other words, don’t insist the Congress will lead.
The second point about mobilisation is more challenging. It concerns the Congress’s ideological message. “How is the party going to awaken the masses on questions of crony capitalism and communalism?” These are abstract concepts that mean little to ordinary people unless effectively translated into terms that matter in their daily lives. At the moment, they’re lost in translation.
Palshikar is particularly explicit when he talks about the charge of communalism against the Bharatiya Janata Party. As he puts it, “Making sure that the average Hindu is convinced that being anti-Muslim is not necessary for being a good Hindu or a good nationalist is a difficult task.” The answer is not to flaunt its own Hindu credentials, but for the Congress to speak about Hinduism and what it stands for as well as what it requires of its adherents, in a very different way. But that’s easier said than done.
That’s why translating its message into easily understood terms that matter to voters, overcoming all the differences of caste, creed, culture and culinary preference, is daunting.
Which brings me back to where I began. If the Congress can’t surmount Palshikar’s challenge, is it really ridiculous to say the party’s future could be in doubt? The results from the North-East suggest otherwise. If the Congress fails to retain Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and win Karnataka, it will be clearer still. And then there’s 2024.
But, but, but… the Tories lost three consecutive elections before bouncing back under David Cameron. Labour lost four before Tony Blair changed its fortunes. The question is: Can Rahul Gandhi do that for the Congress?
Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold S
tory The views expressed are personal