Is India without Congress really such a good idea? And is it that easy to wish away the party? UTTAM SENGUPTA
Whatever be the charges against the family, the grand old party of 128 years’ standing cannot be accused of rigging elections at least. It can, in fact, take legitimate credit for building an institution like the Election Commission and for allowing Indians to take free and fair elections for granted. Ironically, it was also a Congress government under Rajiv Gandhi which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 (as an aside, it was Indira Gandhi as the Congress president in 1959 who recommended the creation of Gujarat as a separate state). And an estimated 150 million first-time voters this time, almost one-fifth of the total electorate, are said to be so disillusioned and angry with the old order that the fate of the ruling coalition and the Congress is widely believed to be sealed weeks before the last vote is polled on May 12.
Notwithstanding the widespread lack of credibility of opinion polls, there is little doubt that the Congress is fighting a losing battle against a far better-oiled war machine. Political scientists and authors Zoya Hasan and Sudha Pai make no bones about their feeling that ‘India without Congress’ is a proposition both ill-conceived and premature. But they do agree that the Congress has gone through a ‘leadership crisis’. Hasan blames the party for its failure to communicate its policy achievements and laments the weak campaign it has put up against Narendra Modi. Pai agrees to the suggestion that Rahul Gandhi was found wanting. But both believe it is wishful thinking to suggest the party will wither away.
“Congress failed to resist the rightward shift. It has even been complicit. But it can’t be written off.” Zoya Hasan, Academic “BJP may want to eliminate the ‘family’ politically. But the Congress is in better shape than in 1996.” Rasheed Kidwai, Sonia’s biographer
It has been an effective (but somewhat tacky) catchphrase signifying nothing, except that in its viciousness and vitriol lies a subliminal message directed at ‘the family’. The slogan ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ or an India free of the Congress, seen by some as both tasteless and fascist, is actually a call for a ‘Nehru-Gandhi-family-mukt Bharat’. This is because the family is perceived to be providing an unfair, undemocratic and, more importantly, unearned head-start to the Congress. The RSS, concedes a long-time watcher of the organisation, wants to make the family politically irrelevant. And a seasoned political leader, who has travelled extensively during this election, strengthens the perception when he says he found much more anger directed against the family than against the Congress as such.
“Modi has created a Congress-mukt Gujarat, but can its defining traits be a model for India?” Irfan Habib, Historian “BJP thinks it can replace the idea of India with the idea of Hindutva, but India’s narrative isn’t RSS’s.” Mahesh Bhatt, Filmmaker
“Congress has been unable to counter the hype around Modi but it won’t disappear.” Sudha Pai, Political scientist, JNU “Indira built the Congress from scratch after ’77. Do they have leaders to repeat it in 2014?” Sumit Chakravartty, Editor, Mainstream
*** Modi has indeed taken pains to point out that getting rid of the Congress would essentially mean getting rid of the Congress ‘culture’. The brutal phrases he uses—Congress-mukt or sabka vinaash, the acronym denoting the SP, BSP and Congress—come partly from the RSS, which is rattled by the cases of Hindu terror against it. The second description comes from the BJP’s distaste for smaller parties, which are seen as an impediment to the creation of a pan-India agenda. But the trouble with the proposition is that his own party seems hardly immune to the culture it seeks to ridicule. In Gujarat, a different slogan mocks the original. They are calling it a ‘Congress-yukt-BJP’ (BJP with the DNA of the Congress) there, referring to the fact that of the 26 BJP candidates for the Lok Sabha, 11 happen to be Congress turncoats. By accepting the personality cult around Modi and his authoritarian style of functioning, the party has only diluted the contrasting profile it had imagined for itself. Rajiv lowered voting age to 18; today, 150 mn first-time voters disillusioned with Congress. By all accounts, Modi’s has been a brilliant (and hugely expensive) campaign. To pitch a provincial, controversial and even tainted chief minister to a messianic national figure is no mean task. Some Congress leaders, in fact, take consolation in the fact that if such a divisive figure can be ‘sold’ to the people, there’s still hope yet for the Congress! Indeed, the scale of BJP’s propaganda blitzkrieg and the sweep of its promises have left many aghast. “Media reports that voters are taken in by promises of 10 per cent annual growth, 100 spanking, new cities, millions of jobs and scores of IITs and universities sprouting after May 16 are alarming,” says Hasan. There is some apprehension within the BJP too. A senior party leader confesses that if the party fails to deliver, “it won’t be long before Rahul Gandhi emerges as a national hero”.
India, says Mainstream editor Sumit Chakravartty, will be poorer without the Congress and the liberal-secular space it occupies, especially with the marginalisation of the mainstream Left parties. An overwhelming majority of people find it difficult to accept the conflicting idea of the BJP, which is unable or unwilling to field a single Muslim from Uttar Pradesh or Gujarat. Yet, despite his scepticism of opinion polls, Chakravartty thinks the Congress has little time to reinvent itself. That is because if the BJP falls short of the halfway mark, as seems likely, it will certainly call for a mid-term poll sooner rather than later and seek a mandate for stability. No one, however, is writing off the Congress, at least not yet, never mind if right-wing websites have been writing its obituary since long. Though deeply disappointed with its leadership and management, historian Ramachandra Guha told an interviewer in 2010 that the alternative to Congress was either “Naxalism or balkanisation”. M.J. Akbar, in his new avatar of BJP spokesperson, would, of course, beg to differ. The Congress, he says, was indeed central to the idea of India once, but no more. Muslims, he goes on to say, were gifted only fear during the UPA regime. “You talk of secularism, but in West Bengal, arguably one of the most secular states, the Muslim population is around 28 per cent but they occupy only 2 per cent of government jobs whereas in Gujarat, which has only 9 per cent Muslim population, the figure is over 5 per cent,” he claims. Akbar also believes the BJP is moving to a more centrist position and is the new Congress. Every word in the party’s manifesto, he insists, was vetted by the RSS, suggesting even they’re ready for change and are now more flexible. The suggestion outrages the liberals. The proof of the pudding, they point out, is in the eating. And there is no evidence to suggest that the RSS has deviated from its core beliefs on Hindutva. The BJP’s transition from a rabid, somewhat irresponsible right-wing party to a sober, responsible and centrist party, they insist, is at best a work in progress. It would take several years. A broad social coalition is required to govern India, says Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president, Centre for Policy Research, but he goes on to question the ‘inclusive’ idea of the Congress. Inclusion on the basis of identity, he suggests, leads to fixity. “The basis of inclusion has to be equality and freedom,” he suggests somewhat enigmatically, parrying the question whether India stands to lose if the Congress gets decimated and whether it can bounce back in that eventuality. If such a divisive figure as Modi can be ‘sold’ thus, the Congress may have hope yet. History could provide a few pointers. In his book, 24, Akbar Road, Rasheed Kidwai provides vivid details of how Indira Gandhi and her sons were forced to move into Mohammad Yunus’s house on Willingdon Crescent after the electoral debacle of 1977. The party office shifted to a Type vii bungalow on Akbar Road. There was no money to pay the staff; Kidwai quotes an employee who completed 50 years of service in 2009 as saying that the party could not pay his salary of Rs 800 a month. Yet, three years later, both Indira and Sanjay hit the streets to craft a comeback. Rajiv Gandhi too, after being voted out of power in 1989, rebuilt the party from scratch and pulled the plug on the Chandra Shekhar government in 1991 when he sensed a shift in the public mood.
The Congress, he suggests, was in poorer shape in 1996, when it lost power again. There is no reason, says the veteran Congress-watcher, why the party cannot rally around a member of the family again. Congressmen themselves believe the party has paid a price for flirting with free market and for liberalising the economy. “The party made the mistake of trying to ride two boats. Now, both big corporate bodies as well as the poor seem to have turned against us,” complains a Congress leader. While electoral reverses are hardly uncommon, several commentators admit to a sense of disbelief at the unfolding scenario. While acknowledging the all-pervasive anger against corruption that prevails in the country, they wonder why it would consume even the mainstream Left and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which spearheaded the anti-corruption movement. Be that as it may, Congress-watchers warn against jumping to hasty conclusions. Indira, they recall, was dubbed a “goongi gudiya”; she proved to be anything but a dumb doll. Sanjay was written off as a rogue cannon while Rajiv was not exactly known for his vision. Yet they rose to the occasion when the need arose. And since politics abhors any vacuum, the grand old party, they hope, will weather the storm and stand up to be counted. *** Personality Test How the Congress and the BJP are not that different, after all Dynastic Rule Congress: For all Rahul’s talk of meritocracy, the Nehru-Gandhi and other regional political dynasties form the core of the grand old party
BJP: Not dynastic at heart, but it hasn’t discouraged the emergence of smaller dynastic fiefdoms and authoritarian personalities
Personality Cult Cong: Is inherent in the dynastic tag. You just have to look at the number of public schemes bearing a Nehru-Gandhi name.
BJP: Has never shied away from building up, say, a Vajpayee, but it now seeks votes for Modi—above and despite the BJP
Corruption Congress: An old-party tradition was carried forward by UPA-2, thanks to the 2G, Adarsh, Commonwealth Games and coal scams
BJP: From disinvestment to telecom, the BJP has had a history of scams; more recently land scams in Gujarat and Karnataka
Sycophancy Congress: Despite many attempts to change its “culture”, sycophancy forms the core of the Congress party’s being
BJP: Though there have been attempts at independent positions, quick retractions point to a growing Modi cult
Communalism Cong: Despite 1984 and other riots, positions itself as a secular champion, but not averse to using soft communalism
BJP: Post the ’92 Babri demolition and the 2002 Gujarat riots, push towards hard Hindutva has intensified; Muzaffarnagar is latest
Centralisation Cong: Panchayati raj to forming more states, it has tried to decentralise power and engage with states—but not always effectively
BJP: Also likes to push big, national schemes; for all the talk of reaching out to states, remains a centrist party
Inner-party Democracy Cong: Despite some reforms, inner-party democracy remains a myth; Rahul’s ‘primaries’ in 2014 were a non-starter
BJP: Holds no elections, displays same cult-building traits; Modi imposed, not elected, as campaign committee chief and then as PM hopeful
Dual Centres of Power Cong: Party and govt have been two parallel centres for a decade now; Sanjaya Baru book suggests otherwise
BJP: RSS parallel power centre, Modi could be unitary force now
*** A Short History Of The Congress Some of the seismic events in the lifetime of the grand old party 1948: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is assassinated by right-winger Nathuram Godse
1966: Indira Gandhi is made prime minister over Morarji Desai in the wake of Lal Bahadur Shastri’s death
1967: Samyukta Vidhayak Dal challenges Congress hegemony and wins large number of seats in north India
1969: Indira’s fight with the ‘Syndicate’ leads to split in the party
1975: Alienates nation with declaration of Emergency; faces countrywide protests
1977: Further split in the party leads Indira to lose power at the hands of the Janata Party
1978: Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay face charges of ‘misuse of power’ by the Shah Commission
1980: Sanjay Gandhi, Indira’s heir apparent, dies in air crash
1984: Indira Gandhi is assassinated in the wake of ‘Operation Bluestar’ on the Golden Temple
1987: Rajiv is charged with accepting ‘kickbacks’ on Bofors deal; senior party leaders defect
1989: Congress loses power to V.P. Singh-led Janata Dal coalition government
1991: Rajiv Gandhi is assassinated by an LTTE cadre in an election rally
1996: Loses power to BJP and other opposition parties in the wake of hawala scandal
2004: Sonia Gandhi’s ‘foreign origin’ issue forces her to choose Manmohan Singh as prime minister
2008: Faces Mumbai terror attack—the worst terrorist attack on India. Earlier, survives a no-confidence vote in the wake of Left parties withdrawal of support on Indo-US nuclear deal.
2010: CWG scam in the wake of Commonwealth Games in Delhi and reports of widespread corruption
2011: 2G spectrum irregularities, leading to subsequent arrest of key members of coalition partner DMK
2012: Scam over unauthorised allotment of coal blocks to private players leading to loss of crores of rupees to exchequer
2014: Perceived non-performance leads to its marginalisation in run-up to Lok Sabha polls
By Uttam Sengupta with Pragya Singh, Pranay Sharma and Namrata Joshi