What does a party do when it faces an existential crisis? It certainly does not wait two-and-a-half months to resolve the leadership issue. Having waited that long, it would rarely latch on to an interim arrangement. And above all, it won’t allow the interim solution to look like a problem in itself. But this is precisely what the Congress has done. Therefore, its latest attempt to run away from the real problem deserves an interim assessment. Interim, because we do not know if the party is going to rejuvenate, ideologically deteriorate in pursuit of power, or simply hang around. Clearly, it is difficult to dissolve it — indeed it was difficult enough in 1947 itself, but much more so today. And as this writer has argued just before the second resounding defeat of the party (‘Dear Yogendra, I disagree’, IE, May 22), more than any other time, democratic politics requires a middle-of-road democratic platform. But then, one surely does not want a party that will trudge along aimlessly and become a transit platform for various elements awaiting rehabilitation within the current ruling dispensation.
What exactly does the recourse to Sonia Gandhi represent? True, Sonia led the party through its worst crisis until the 1990s. She weathered the storm then and presided over the party when it returned to power for a full decade. It might be tempting for Congresspersons, therefore, to imagine that she is capable of putting the party back on track. For the workers who have grown up believing that the Gandhi family alone can lead the party, this interim moment will be one of some respite as if Sonia were supposed to keep the chair warm for either Rahul or Priyanka to take over. But beyond these naïve hopes and simplistic beliefs, for an outsider, this move represents desperation at best and abdication of politics at worst.
The desperation is related to the much talked-about threat of fragmentation. With a steady stream of party leaders joining the BJP, the worst fears of unimaginative Congresspersons would be that some leaders may be tempted to form their own political outfits as a better bargaining counter to negotiate either with the parent party’s leadership or purchase a handsome reward inside the BJP. It is expected that if Rahul keeps a low profile, Sonia can keep the flock together with her ability to invoke a sentimental appeal and her style of not rubbing the so-called party heavyweights the wrong way. It is indeed possible that this interim arrangement might dissuade some ambitious leaders from forming new “Congress parties” as it happened around the mid-Nineties.
Will that rejuvenate the Congress? More than its unity, what is at stake is the ability of the party to attract the voters and enthuse workers on the ground. It is possible that at least some voters may have voted for the BJP simply because of the non-availability of a strong, positive, nationalist alternative at the all-India level. They will be hardly convinced that this change makes the Congress such an alternative. It would, in fact, convince them further that they cannot expect much from the Congress. Similarly, the second coming of Sonia may only perform the basic function of keeping a semblance of unity — albeit the threat to desertion will always loom large. Young entrants to politics will hardly be encouraged into throwing their lot with the party if it is still to come out with any game-plan. The interim arrangement smacks of total cluelessness as to why things happened the way they did and how to respond to the defeat. Thus, for young party workers and for lay voters who do not have any particular emotional connect with the family or the party, the move would hardly have any political purchase.
Sonia would be remembered for three things. Symbolically, she will be remembered for converting her political limitation into a virtue when she stayed away from governmental power. Two, by stoically avoiding to craft a new party, she allowed the Congress to remain a clumsy platform of unprincipled accommodation. Three, having been an outsider to the pride and prestige of the older Congress, she ensured that the Congress did not shy away from making compromises for purposes of coalition politics. While a future historian will give her credit for these, the analyst of the contemporary cannot but point out that the virtues have run their course.
Instead, Sonia Gandhi’s return as party president is likely to impede the real task of party-building that the Congress has been postponing since the 1980s. Rajiv Gandhi reminded the party of this when it was celebrating its centenary. Sonia could not do it when she took over in the late Nineties. The defeat in 2014 failed to provoke the party into reviving itself. Rahul Gandhi’s resignation gave the party a dual opportunity. It could elevate him to the moral high ground by immediately accepting his resignation for having failed in the election and thus making him a hero; it could also begin an audacious experiment of choosing a new party president. This would have been crucial (it still could be) because it would be an experiment wherein the party would be run by someone outside the Gandhi family even while the family members were active in the party. The party could thus derive benefit of leadership of the Gandhis and yet be managed by a non-Gandhi. That would have signalled the ability of the party to move toward a collective leadership it has not seen for some time. It would also induce healthy factionalism characteristic of a nation-wide pluralist party. It could teach younger party workers the art of intra-party democracy along with the discipline that would be required to fight a dominant party like BJP.
The interim arrangement further indicates the inability of the party to both make sense of the current moment of Indian politics and shape a political response to it. We are currently passing through a peculiar mix of the global trend of populism and the homegrown tendency of majoritarian politics. This combination allows India to ignore the economic downturn and live in an imagined era of glory and strength. It induces replacement of people’s material concerns by the dangerous search for enemies. This moment is potent with a false sense of democratisation, which in reality corrodes democracy.
The present moment requires two basic elements for a robust response: Leadership as an exemplar and an untiringly sustained engagement through local networks of party workers. Of course, these would have to be woven with ideas that the masses can relate to. Interim arrangements by their very nature are unable to encompass these considerations.
Or, is it that the Congress is aware of these challenges, the need for a cohesive political response and wants to avoid that responsibility? Is it that the interim arrangement suggests the party’s own sense of being tentative — that it looks upon itself as an interim party?
This article first appeared in the August 13 print edition under the title ‘Ringing in the old’. The writer taught political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune, and is chief editor of ‘Studies in Indian Politics’.