One can sympathise with the conundrum faced by the Congress after its resounding defeat. To meet the sticky charge of dynasticism, Rahul Gandhi must go, it is felt, but ejecting the family will remove the “glue” that holds its myriad factions together. Yet, the Congress needs to ask why it needs the family to hold it together in the first place. Does this not reflect an ideological vacuum? Rahul Gandhi claimed that he fought an ideological battle. A certain ideology crafted by leaders of our freedom struggle was indeed defended in the campaign. But not nearly strongly enough. The Congress failed its own history, its ideals, and ultimately the Indian nation. For this, it must assume responsibility.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Congress has forgotten the grand pantheon of thinker-politicians — Dadabhai Naoroji, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lajpat Rai, Bipin Chandra Pal, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad, Jawaharlal Nehru and, above all, Mahatma Gandhi — each of whom moulded the nationalist ideology as they inspired the people of India to unite against the British Empire. The Congress had a clear stance on what constitutes Indian culture and history, on values like democracy, secularism and pluralism, on India’s economic and foreign policy. It struck a morally justifiable balance between individual and community rights, had an unflinching commitment to social justice, attempted to reach decisions by consensus and articulate a largely non-masculine idea of courage and firmness.
Moreover, its nationalism was sincere: Many Congressmen were genuinely convinced about its moral worth, and their political actions were driven by it. Possessing clarity and conviction, Congressmen like Gandhi and Nehru could communicate this nationalism to the people of India, who comprehended it, found it reasonable, and were moved by it. While countless other factors were at play, the Congress’s continued adherence to this coherently expressed nationalism explains its unparalleled popularity in politics for at least two decades after Independence.
Undoubtedly, one major reason behind the Congress’ recent electoral defeat was its inability to communicate sincerely and coherently its nationalist ideology to voters, leave alone getting them to emotionally connect with it. The Congress might discuss its flawed slogans, alliances, communication, party organisation, or even its leadership, but ignoring its current ideological vacuum will be at its own peril.
Today’s Congress appears to have forgotten what its core values were, and why they are still worth defending. Unclear itself, the Congress failed to convey to voters what was really at stake. To an ordinary voter, its appeals to “Indian nationalism”, “the Constitution”, “democracy”, “inclusivism”, “diversity”, just appeared to be nice-sounding words. And so, the other side won the battle of ideas and values. Against a relentless campaign from the BJP, which provided a daily dose of its robust nationalist ideology to voters on their smartphones, the Congress’ complacent delivery of its lazily articulated Indian nationalist narrative stood no chance. If Rahul Gandhi believed this was an ideological battle, he under-estimated his rival’s clarity, missionary zeal, and their superior understanding of social media.
If the Indian nationalist vision so painstakingly fought for by our freedom fighters is to survive, the Congress needs to overcome its amnesia. This requires a deep, sincere study of its own rich intellectual resources and heritage. It also requires the humility to seek help from historians and political philosophers. This is not a suggestion to construct a theoretical, overly-intellectualised ideology but in fact its opposite — to weave a robust, meaningful narrative that explains to ordinary citizens the meaning of the Congress’ nationalist values and why they matter. Further, the Congress must learn from its formidable opponent the skillful use of all kinds of media. It needs a communication model as creative as its rival’s, albeit with different content. A media onslaught from one side can only be met by an equally passionate campaign from the other.
The stakes are terrifically high. The Congress must not endanger the nationalist vision which its forbearers so painstakingly evolved and for which they sacrificed so much. Indeed, those citizens who still understand the true worth of this vision are filled with dread at the prospect of its loss. These people deserve better. Will they be disappointed again?
The writer, 31, has a D.Phil in History from Oxford University. Her dissertation focused on Lajpat Rai’s nationalist thought
— This article first appeared in the June 24, 2019 print edition under the title ‘Congress, know thyself’