More than a year after the Congress’ poor performance in the 17th Lok Sabha elections, the party remains rudderless at the helm. However, a recent joint letter signed by 23 Congress leaders, old and young, offers the slightest ray of hope. Much will depend, however, on how the leaders at this present moment write themselves into history books. Will this be the serious-minded clarion call that was finally heeded to? There is reason for hope.
But first, a turn to lessons from the history of the Congress party. To begin with, this moment requires a reckoning with the question of ideology. When commentators call for a coalition of anyone who will stand up to Hindutva and RSS ideology, they need to spell out the contours and contents of their own ideology. What is it that they are defending when they speak of secularism? The Rajiv Gandhi variant, the Nehruvian or the Mahatma Gandhi one? Are they even aware of the inconsistencies encompassed in the Congress position over the last century? Mindless devotion to Congressi politics is no substitute for a thoughtful reckoning of the past.
It was the “extremist” leader of the Indian National Congress, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who first incorporated religion into politics with his celebrations of Ganesh Chaturthi across Maharashtra, thereby giving it its first gloss as a “mass” party. Decades later, when Muslims objected to singing verses of the Vande Mataram as a national anthem, the same Congress party turned to Rabindranath Tagore and came to a meaningful compromise on the song. Even as the Congress floundered miserably in forging a political coalition with the Muslim League in 1937, it was capable of forging a creative compromise on matters of faith.
Coalitions are always a product of compromise. Recall the coalition against Indira Gandhi that was forged in 1977. Even Jayaprakash Narayan’s close friends, the Dandavates, never quite understood why he allied with the RSS, thereby giving the once-banned body respectability in politics, as we learn from Gyan Prakash’s recent study of the Emergency. JP’s defence, quoted in Gyan Prakash’s book, was: “How can any party which had lent its support to total revolution be called reactionary or fascist… then I am also a fascist,” has not stood the test of time well.
So, it isn’t forging a coalition that is of consequence as much as forging a coalition that will survive the ups and downs of everyday politicking — the mud raking, the corruption, the defections — as well as that of the broader question of purpose and ideology. First, the Congress must clearly declare what ideology it stands for and will defend. That will mean having the courage to own up that some of its own recent positions (and appointments) were (and are) wrong. Then, it must seek coalitions with those willing to subscribe to its ideology, and, yes, a common minimum programme.
The common minimum programme, in the era of COVID-19, should be easy enough: Jobs, jobs, jobs. But should the Congress speak in terms of restoring faith to institutions and returning transparency to politics, it might rightly be the case of the pot calling the kettle black. For, what has been its own record as a party?
The Congress, especially in recent decades, has been built on darbari intrigues. Read, for instance, Vinay Sitapati’s biography of P V Narasimha Rao, especially the chapter wherein he details how Rao’s assumed lack of ambition made him acceptable to Sonia Gandhi as a prime ministerial candidate. There can and should be no room for such intrigue in 2020. The Congress working committee should be disbanded, be elected rather than nominated, and grow a spine. The rudiments are there, in the letter that includes some of their names. There is reason for hope. However, the CWC resolution of August 24, which reiterates faith in the “two leaders” does not go even an inch towards addressing the diplomatically worded grievances voiced by 23 different leaders of the party earlier this month. What is the point of asking CWC members not to air their concerns publicly when privately worded concerns are routinely ignored?
Finally, UPA-3 should go beyond a common minimum programme and discuss the elephant in the room: Leadership. It is natural that regional leaders with decades of hard-won electoral and administrative experience will not wish to make room for an amateur with unclear ambitions. But there is good news here too. There are portfolios and portfolios, and there is also the matter of personal, collegial relations. Mamata Banerjee, for instance, may never agree to serve under a Rahul Gandhi but that the TMC helped elect Abhishek Singhvi as Rajya Sabha member from West Bengal is interesting. Alliances can and must take different forms; the distribution of portfolios can allay anxieties.
Editorial: Are you with Gandhis
The Indian National Congress used to be a microcosm of India, an umbrella party that included people of different political and ideological affiliations. Only in 1938 did the Congress require its members to sign a form stating that they were not members of any “communal” organisation, and would owe primary loyalty to the Congress party. This, too, came in the wake of the knowledge that former Congress presidents such as Madan Mohan Malaviya had been campaigning for rival Mahasabha candidates.
The Congress party today is a pale shadow of its former self. That the landscape of politics in India has completely transformed is obvious. But there can still be room for the Congress as an all-India party, if it can find its ideological centre, draw from its finest moments in the past, not its most egregious, unforgivable mistakes. This is also the moment for the tech-savvy in the party to figure out a way to convene an AICC session, not wait indefinitely for COVID-19 circumstances to clear. Time is of the essence.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 29 under the title “For Congress, a history lesson.” Neeti Nair is associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She is the author of Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India.