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We need ‘Gandhi-mukt’ Congress, not ‘Congress-mukt’ Bharat

A genuine center-left national opposition party like the Congress is key to the health of our democracy

Written by Rohan Parikh | Mumbai |
Updated: June 15, 2016 4:28:40 pm
congress, rahul gandhi, sonia gandhi, congress news, BJP, Narendra Modi, Indira Gandhi, Congress mukt bharat, aam aadmi party, AAP, india news Rahul Gandhi at a meeting of Congress leaders in Mathura (Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

In politics, be careful what you wish for.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on his campaign trail called for a ‘Congress-mukt’ Bharat, probably even he didn’t imagine that we would be here so soon. The Congress now has just 10 per cent of the seats in the Lok Sabha and rules just 7 per cent of the country at the state level. While my readers will know that I have no love lost for the Congress, who I hold responsible for India’s criminal underperformance over the last half-century, I do believe however, that a genuine center-left national opposition party is key to the health of our democracy.

Thus, I argue that we do not need a “Congress-mukt Bharat”, but rather we need a “dynasty-mukt Congress.”

First, a democracy needs checks and balances to ensure that untrammeled power does not get to its leader’s heads (as we saw with Indira). More importantly, the Right does have a lunatic fringe that needs to be kept in check. As long as there is a credible opposition on the Left, centrists like Modi will hold the key to power in the BJP. In the absence of a credible opposition, we will see the far-right emboldened. A perfect example of this is the current collapse of the (left) Labour party in the UK, which has resulted, not in smooth sailing for David Cameron, but rather an increasing challenge from the far-Right of his own party.

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Second, the Indian nation, the world’s greatest experiment in multicultural, multilingual democracy, has always been a fragile construct. For us to function, we need a good balance of power at the state level, and a strong center. Too much power spread out over regions would weaken us and maybe ultimately lead to disharmony and secession — a problem that the European Union, with its strong regional (national) identities and weak central identity is grappling with today. A strong center cannot exist without strong and popular national parties. There is no greater threat to our nation than the kind of regionalization we see in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal (and even, to an extent, in my very own Maharashtra) where power is held by strong regional parties who do not have the ability to look beyond the regional interest to that of the nation, and who aren’t above pitting their “sons of the soil” against the nation.

Further, the thought of a “Mahagatbandhan” government at the center, like the one we recently got in Bihar is too scary to contemplate – a coalition of ideological enemies united only in their lust for power and the spoils that come with it. Imagine a Lalu Yadav foisting his 22-year-old, barely-educated son, on us as a Deputy Prime Minister someday. That is what happens when fractured coalitions are based on expediency and regional needs, and not core beliefs.

congress, rahul gandhi, sonia gandhi, congress news, BJP, Narendra Modi, Indira Gandhi, Congress mukt bharat, aam aadmi party, AAP, india news Rahul Gandhi at a function marking the 98th birth anniversary of Indira Gandhi, former Prime Minister of India (Express Photo by Renuka Puri)

No, for the health of our democracy, we need two or three or more national parties that embrace national themes, be it development, security, or social justice.

Thus, the terminal decline of the Congress and the rise of regionalism (and protest parties like AAP) is scary. But there is hope yet. The Congress still pulled together 19 per cent of the national vote in the 2014 election and they still have a strong brand recall. However, instead of continuing to dig their grave, they need to take some tough decisions.

The first step to recovery is to admit you have a problem and the Congress has 3 major ones: its dynastic obsession is preventing grass-root leadership from rising; its socialist, paternalist economic policy of sops and schemes are out of touch with modern, aspirational, India; and its “smile and wink” tolerance of corruption has destroyed the party’s soul.

Unfortunately, rather than admit the problem, its sclerotic, incompetent leadership, alternates between denial, bluster and lies.

What better captures the Congress sense of feudal entitlement than Rahul Gandhi’s famous statement that “Congress is India’s default operating system”. This smacks of the sort of sense of ownership over India (“Baap ka maal” to use Mumbai slang) that has enraged most of the electorate. Thus, we witness the ludicrous spectacle of Rahul and Sonia’s “Save Democracy March”, in response to Sonia being named in the Augusta Westland investigation. As if our democracy cannot survive the news that the Gandhis were less than upright!

congress, rahul gandhi, sonia gandhi, congress news, BJP, Narendra Modi, Indira Gandhi, Congress mukt bharat, aam aadmi party, AAP, india news Congress president Sonia Gandhi passes by PM Modi during a felicitation programme for Sharad Pawar on his 75th bday in New Delhi (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

The dynastic disease eats deep into the Congress. Take a look at their so-called “next Gen” and we see the Pilots, the Scindias, the Deoras — a dynast’s feast! This must end. Rahul’s greatest gift to his party would be to do the honorable thing, reject the crown, set an example and hand over the party to its grass root leaders and activists.

Next, the Congress must relook at its economic policy. The election of 2004 was a kiss of death that led the Congress to mistakenly believe that its ruinous policy of handouts and “right to everything” were what Indians wanted. As the typhoon of 2014 showed, they were wrong. As a Bihari worker in Mumbai told me recently – “we don’t want their charity, we don’t want their MNREGA, we want real jobs, real respect”. In the age of satellite television and mobile data, the poor cannot be kept happy with “roti and tamashaa”. They are hungry to join the 21st century — something the economists that advise the Congress, must ditch their socialist jholas, and do too.

Finally, the Congress believed that as long as their regional satraps distracted the masses with freebies, and delivered votes, they could loot and plunder the national coffers at will. No one would care. But one can only fool the Indian voter for that long. Nothing grates both the common man and well-heeled businessman alike more than the thousands of daily humiliations heaped upon them by over-bearing officials, greedy bureaucrats and insensitive leaders. The stink of corruption runs deep in the Congress, and as any branding expert would say, they need to re-launch their brand. To do this, they need to take an axe to corruption in a way that hasn’t been done in the history of the party. They may lose a few past vote winners, but they will gain the respect of the voter. The only thing that matters. Without this change, protest parties like the AAP will only gain at the expense of the Congress.

The path to Congress’s recovery seems obvious to anyone outside the party. Whether the party’s own leadership has the vision and the guts to carry it through is another issue – however, as the party seems set to crown Rahul Gandhi as its president, it seems that he will go down in history not as its savior, but rather as its Bahadur Shah Zafar. The last dynast.

In politics, there is no such thing as a vacuum. Should the Congress fail, what will fill its void? Whatever it is, we should be prepared for some rocky times ahead.

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The views expressed by the author are personal. The author tweets @rohanaparikh

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