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One problem is The Dynasty

Congress’s secular nationalist narrative has lost its vigour. Internal elections must be brought back even if they oust its first family.

Written by Ashutosh Varshney | Published: December 12, 2013 3:30 am

Congress’s secular nationalist narrative has lost its vigour. Internal elections must be brought back even if they oust its first family.

However one wishes to cut the statistical cloth,the recent state elections have delivered a resounding defeat to the Congress party. Of course,there are other issues that have emerged,too: whether the Aam Aadmi Party has the potential to extend its reach beyond Delhi and the extraordinary implications that might have for the nation’s politics; how Narendra Modi’s charisma was unable to turn anti-incumbency into a BJP win in Delhi and why the margin of BJP victory was so narrow in Chhattisgarh; and,finally,why the BSP got nearly wiped out in Delhi,Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan,in each of which it had established a promising foothold.

There are at least two large and noteworthy conclusions. First,India has yet again watched a remarkable festival of democracy. Turnouts rose,a new party emerged,the Maoists were unable to disrupt elections in Chhattisgarh,and no losing party questioned the integrity of the verdict,as was customary in India in the 1980s. For all its flaws,India’s democracy is by now deeply institutionalised. There are legitimate questions about how to improve the quality of Indian democracy,but there is no threat to the existence of democracy per se,a historically unique phenomenon at a low level of national income.

But the bigger conclusion,from an immediate perspective,is the abysmal performance of the Congress. For the party,it can hardly be a consolation that relative to 2008,its vote share went up in MP and Chhattisgarh (and it won Mizoram). The more politically salient point is that in MP and Chhattisgarh,where the BJP has been ruling,it could not create an anti-incumbency wave,whereas its own incumbents in Delhi and Rajasthan were virtually decimated.

Until post-poll survey data prove otherwise,it is hard to read the results as a reflection of state-level realities alone. Previous surveys have demonstrated that voters think of both the state and Centre while voting in state elections. These voters have undoubtedly passed a verdict — substantially if not wholly — on the Congress-dominated UPA in Delhi. Since,with the partial exception of Maharashtra,the Congress is struggling in all large states of India — Uttar Pradesh,West Bengal,Andhra Pradesh,Bihar,Tamil Nadu — the Congress must now be rated as an underdog in the 2014 elections. This does not yet mean that the BJP will come to power,on its own or in a coalition,but it is now a frontrunner beyond doubt.

Why has the Congress come to

such a sorry turn? What ails the Congress party?

Unlike any other party,the Congress bears the burden of history. That burden has an ambivalent character. The party is closest to the greatest narrative that Indian politics has generated since the rise of the freedom movement: namely,secularism,or secular nationalism. In its distinctly Indian meaning,it is an umbrella term for the idea that one,all communities,regardless of caste,language and religion,are valued members of the larger Indian family and two,the minorities and the lowest castes need special protection,or they would be swamped by the majoritarian logic of a democratic polity. Secular nationalism is the founding master narrative of independent India.

That master narrative,even if a winner in the past,is not working any more,especially if misgovernance and corruption accompany it and the corrupt and the venal hide under the canopy of secularism. Unbridled pursuits of self-seeking and barely concealed acts of self-aggrandisement have sought the cover of secularism for legitimacy. The Congress has acquired the ills of parties that rule for too long.

To be sure,realising that secularism alone might not work,the party has been trying to reinvent itself. It is increasingly becoming a party of social welfare. Historically,its primary social base consisted of the upper castes,especially Brahmins,Muslims,Dalits and Adivasis. Other parties have significantly chipped into each of these categories. It is,therefore,trying to be a party of the poor and the underprivileged,attempting to add a class dimension to its historically grounded identity politics. Over the last few years,a whole host of rights-based legislation has come into being,the most important being the right to food,the right to education and the right to employment in the countryside (for roughly a third of the year).

At one level,this move towards the poor began under Indira Gandhi. But the circumstances are different now. The old planning model,within which Indira Gandhi sought to reimagine her politics,began unravelling under Rajiv Gandhi and completely collapsed in 1991. Today,welfare politics has to be played in a market-oriented framework,which essentially entails two simultaneous pursuits: embracing markets and enhancing growth,and protecting the low-income groups from the well-known vagaries of the market. The Congress,over the last five years,has gone too far in the direction of the latter,forgetting that without high economic growth rates,welfare schemes cannot easily be financed. Inflation is often a result of excessive government spending. The Congress would like to woo the vast masses of the poor by giving them new rights,but the financing of these rights in a slow-growth environment leads to inflation,hurting low-income groups in the process,and also hurting the party.

To the declining vigour of the secular nationalist narrative must be added one more factor: the dynasty. The reliance on the dynasty is both a short-run blessing and a long-run ill. The Congress is faction-ridden. The factions are knit together by the dynasty,but dynasties are fundamentally anti-modern and anti-democratic. When India was predominantly rural,dynasties were quite acceptable. As it becomes more and more urban and millions of new voters who have no memory of the greatness of Jawaharlal Nehru enter the political process,a rebellion is bound to set in. Many Indians today find the idea of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty revolting. What percentage feels this way remains unclear — survey research will make it statistically clearer — but with rising urbanisation,the proportion is surely rising.

Moving forward,this may indeed be one of the biggest issues for the Congress. The party needs to solve its fundamental organisational problem: it needs to create a new cadre of leaders who rise through the ranks via internal elections,not dynastic nomination. Rahul Gandhi appears to have done quite a bit of that for the youth wings of the Congress. But the core of the party remains unreformed. Internal elections in the Congress party began in 1920 under Mahatma Gandhi’s stewardship and lasted till 1973,when Indira Gandhi suspended them. For the party’s long-term future,internal elections must come back,even if such elections run the risk of ousting the dynasty from the top rungs of the party.

The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University,where he also directs the India Initiative at the Watson Institute. He is a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’.

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  1. H
    H.K. Satija
    Jan 7, 2014 at 7:37 am
    I fully agree that for the Congress party's long-term future, internal elections must come back, even if such elections run the risk of ousting the dynasty from the top rungs of the party.
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