Much is being said about the mishandling of the Scindia affair by the Congress party. The snubs, the neglect and the impotent arrogance are well-documented. Assuming, therefore, that Jyotiraditya Scindia was indeed sidelined, the episode brings into sharp focus the state of affairs within the Congress party. Groups and factions are not unknown to any party, much less the Congress. The question is how a party evolves mechanisms to handle them and, in the last instance, whether the leadership is able to assure all groups that there is a possibility of fair share in power. Clearly, the Congress has repeatedly failed in this respect, because organisational structures are contingent and intra-party decision-making processes are hardly in place. When a party is out in the wilderness, it is particularly handicapped because it can offer little by way of crumbs to factions. Therefore, what has happened in Madhya Pradesh is a story foretold.
In fact, this is an overdue development — and it is not just about one leader quitting the party. A full-blown internal war needs to explode in the party. More than leadership crisis, it is an identity crisis and that can be solved only through a painful process of “in-fighting” and possible fragmentation. Portents of that have been in the air when many Congress leaders began to publicly express their concern about the leadership vacuum. But loud complaints over the leadership issue, though necessary, are not sufficient.
They are necessary for two reasons. One, in the backdrop of the second debilitating defeat in 2019, the party has failed to settle the question of its leadership. The idea of “interim” arrangement is self-delusional, and months after that arrangement came into being, a long-term solution is not in sight. The murmurs on the leadership issue are also justifiable as they recognise that in this time of leader-driven politics that Narendra Modi has ushered in, the party would need a dynamic and popular leader. However, they are insufficient because they elide the crucial question of organisational structures. What the Scindia affair shows is that the party lacks an organisational mechanism and the fact that many Congresspersons have had to publicly talk about the leadership issue means that there is no organisational room left for such deliberations.
But the obsession with the question of leadership and the related question of what its critiques have popularised as “dynastic” rule, is woefully insufficient also because it ignores another key element that the BJP has brought into play — ideology. The emphasis on intra-party routes of communication and sharing of power, though important, should not stop at saying how the Congress should have accommodated Scindia. Such analysis does not tell us why politicians like him change parties and what political alternatives they choose subsequently.
It is not at all extraordinary that ambitions of political actors don’t fit in with the functioning of the party. Therefore, there is nothing to be scandalised if there is disgruntlement and a parting of ways. Scindia’s actions should invite attention less because he left the Congress party and more because he has chosen to tie the knot with the BJP. Let us, therefore, for a moment, not lament about the loss he may inflict on the Congress, but focus on the larger message his action carries.
The short and crisp resignation letter by Scindia is instructively symptomatic of our contemporary politics: It is absolutely short on questions of ideology and frankly articulate about the nature of politics being pursued — not just by Scindia, but by most political actors today. The letter simply mentions, as a vice president of some company might say, that he is “moving on”. When politics becomes a career, politicians become commodities that can be easily procured and parties become baggage that can be disposed of. As Sahir Ludhianvi wrote, “talluk bojh ban jaye to usko todana achcha”.
There are two ways in which Scindia’s action of cosying up with the BJP can be understood. One, he and others like him are so obsessed with power that they are ready to ignore or adopt the BJP’s ideology. So long as a party offers power commensurate with one’s expectations and sense of self-importance, ideology does not matter. In this sense, Scindia represents the genre of politics that is ideology-neutral. His language of “moving on” supports this hypothesis. He is not alone in thinking in this way; many others before him have done this and many will follow suit. This is not only about political morality. It is about the division that is taking shape in Indian politics.
With the Left parties almost extinct, the simple and clear division in our politics consists of the BJP’s Hindutva versus an ideological blankness. It is this non-ideological character of most parties that allows their workers or leaders to join the BJP without engaging with the question of what the BJP stands for and how they can reconcile their own ideological predilection with that of the BJP. Being the dominant party currently, the BJP would not mind such non-ideological elements joining it and then reining them in with its ideological rigour and hegemonic hold.
Ever since the Mandal and Mandir controversies broke out, the Congress has avoided taking clear ideological positions. The language of social justice and secularism, which helped many political forces emerge and reconfigure during the Nineties and later in the first decade of this century, did not carry ideological conviction nor did it have popular resonance across the country. With the agenda of social justice being formally accommodated in the political system, most parties turned into non-ideological enterprises subsisting on limited electoral gains. Once the BJP re-emerged with its shrill ideological expression, this weakness of other parties has become even more evident. Now, political actors from most non-BJP parties can join the BJP due to their weak or non-existent ideological backgrounds.
Then there is another, related possibility — the retreat of ideas. The two handsome victories of the BJP must have told the political class that the tide of popular sentiment is turning in favour of a particular set of beliefs. Broadly identified as Hindutva nationalism, this new political culture does not have much patience for ideas of inclusion, diversity, compassion and co-existence. So, in hard realist terms, it makes sense for political entrepreneurs like Scindia to abandon those values and ideas which the average voter does not seem to relate to. He may have quit the Congress only now, but Scindia indeed veered to this option much earlier when he welcomed what the BJP did with Article 370. He was not alone in doing that. This only means that momentary excitement over his quitting the Congress apart, the larger challenge of a unipolar ideological universe stares our democracy in the face.
Scindia’s move thus needs to be seen not merely from the prism of selfishness but that of giving up on dreams and possibilities and attending to the routine task of maximising political gains. As more and more political actors in their search for power give up politics as the realm of ideas, they end up adopting the dominant ideas, and in the process, add to the dominance of those ideas.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 12, 2020 under the title ‘Scindia is only a symptom’. The writer, based in Pune, taught political science and is currently chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics.