One hundred and thirty six years is a long period in contemporary history. Like UK's Conservative Party and Democratic Party of the USA, the Indian National Congress is one of the oldest political parties in the world to have survived. There is a simple reason for its endurance. It goes much beyond the leadership styles of Dababhai Narojee, Pheroze Shah Mehta, Gopal Krishna Gokhale to Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad to Indira-Rajiv, PV Narasimha Rao, Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh-Rahul Gandhi era. The simple mantra has been its tryst of continuity with change.
In other words, the ability to move on with times had kept Congress going. Somehow, this aspect of reinventing itself has stopped now, giving the Congress two back-to-back defeats of 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha polls. What is more humiliating and haunting for the grand old party is its inability to sharpen its ideology, moral courage, resolve inherent contradictions, provide leadership and a sense of direction.
Mandate 2019 has shaken Congress' self-belief and faith in ideology.
In terms of 'science of ideas' or ideology, the Congress' strength had been the near absence of ideological clarity. From Jagjivan Ram's description, 'Modern man is the inheritor of all that is noble and good in human thought. And thus our democratic socialism is a synthesis of all that is best in the thinking of the East and the West and provides an ideology superior to other sectarian ideologies which are communalistic or communitarian.' Post economic reforms era, when it began giving only lip service to democratic socialism, the party's socio-economic thinking reduced to a near farcial "sab chalta hai" in Sonia-Rahul era.
Rahul has failed to inspire or lead from the front. His resignation in May 2019 has not helped either his cause or the party. The Congress is hopelessly dependent upon the Nehru-Gandhi family and visa-versa. The possibility of Priyanka replacing Rahul may delay disintegration but it is all caught in 'who will bell the cat' syndrome.
Restoration of inner party democracy may not help the Congress beat the BJP electorally but purely in terms of optics and perception, Gandhis can project themselves as true democrats. Surely, Rahul can not feel threatened by Ghulam Nabi Azad, Manish Tiwari, Shashi Tharoor or Kapil Sibal. If these G 23 dissenters pose a threat to the post and positions of K C Venugopal, Randeep Singh Surjewala or Rajiv Satav, It is both naïve and silly of Rahul to pit himself in the intra-party, endemic rivalries of the minions.
Gandhis alone can clear the mess with substantial sacrifices. Giving a clarion call to various breakaway groups of the party – NCP, YSR Congress, Telangana Rashtriya Samiti and even Trinamul Congress to unite can be a first step and a way forward.
In many ways, the Congress has a lot to learn from its political rival – the BJP. The right of centre ideology has been central to the BJP and its earlier avtars of Bharatiya Jan Sangh, Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS focusing on majoritarianism, cow slaughter, integration of J&K with rest of the country, Ram Temple and broadly the issue of cultural identity of the Hindus in India. There were many setbacks and hurdles. From 1951 general elections till 1969, the country did not have a recognised opposition party or the leader of the opposition. But sticking to the basics finally started bringing rich dividends from 1996 onwards when the first Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was sworn-in.
As per one estimate, the RSS-Sangh parivar have 137 affiliated outfits which indirectly work for the socio-economic and political agenda propagated from the days of Veer Savarkar, Guruji Golkwalker, Deen Dayal Upadhya to present day sarsanchalak Mohan Bhagwat. Sonia and Rahul need to ponder how many institutions the Congress have?
Not to talk about the dedication and quality of the cadre. The Congress has, instead, started counting on liberals and the left to fill the void without realising that left-liberal discourse is often very different conservative sections of society including the bulk of Congress leaders at all levels of hierarchy.
The importance of personality cult has been understated by the Congress. In the recent meeting between G 23 and Sonia Gandhi at 10, Janpath, Rahul said to haas reiterated that for him, personality was not important. Rahul reportedly said it in the context of leadership issues.
The great grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru is grossly wrong in saying that. He should know that in the first general elections of 1951, the Congress slogan was, “A vote for Nehru is a Vote for the Congress!” In most part of her political life, Indira, much like present day Narendra Modi was loved and adored by a sizable section of society and disliked by the rest. The polarization or destabilizing factor kept her winning.
In more recent times, personality has been at display even in Kerala and Hyderabad municipal polls. Pinarayi Vijayan, 75, became a poster boy of sorts in the recently-concluded civic polls of Kerala where the LDF scored an emphatic but surprised victory over the Congress led UDF. Voters in Kerala viewed Pinarayi Vijayan as a saviour of sorts during Covid times.
In Hyderabad, Asaduddin Owaisi consolidated MIM gains in Hyderabad municipal polls even as BJP emerged as a major force. What was BJP’s USP in Hyderabad? From Amit Shah to JP Nadda to Yogi Adityanath, the BJP lineup of star campaigners was no less than Lok Sabha or assembly polls.
Need for research and feedback is paramount. Many associate the BJP's success from 2014 onwards to Narendra Modi and Amit Shah duo. There is no dispute. But a closer scrutiny shows the kind of role and inputs that come from some retired bureaucrats and officers who had served on key posts, was crucial in projecting Modi-Shah as larger than life success. These behind the scene persons remain unsung heroes.
The Congress, in spite of having ruled for over 50 years since the independence, does not have any mechanism or institution to avail services of retired heads of intelligence agencies, armed forces, diplomats etc. These men and women have lot of experience, huge contacts and understand pulse of the people much more than a khadi wearing politician.
Strange as it may sound, the Congress seems to have lost roots in society. As a result, it is falling between the two stools on emotive issues. Informally, the BJP has developed a vast network and functional ties with various religious orders and sects. In every caste-based sabha or sammelan, BJP's vocal sympathisers can be easily spotted. BJP's well-oiled machinery of social media warriors and off-line network has established two-way communication with millions. The Congress may have some goodwill but extremely poor or non-existent network of thought influencers from panchayat to Parliament.
Time seems to be running out for the Congress and Gandhis who have a rather simplistic way of hoping that one day, voters/masses would get disillusioned with Modi-Shah-BJP and return to the Congress. That is not going to happen.