In the aftermath of the election results, various words have been thrown about to stand-in for an analysis of what went wrong with the Congress’s campaign and the way forward. However, a meaningful interrogation of these words betrays lack of understanding of the issues involved.
A key theme to emerge out of the fallout is “accountability”. It is not clear what accountability means without first fixing responsibility. A political party is by definition a platform for collaboration and as such there is collective responsibility. By extension, it is imperative that there be shared understanding of what went wrong and how power (formal and informal) was exercised in decision-making. It is important to have these conversations to fix individual lines of responsibility instead of arbitrarily looking for fall guys. It also must be said that any meaningful discussion of this kind is necessarily internal and cannot be supplanted by motivated leaks and/or casual personalised commentary by those on the outside.
The next umbrella category is “apolitical”, a label affixed on those who haven’t contested elections but have allegedly exercised power to the detriment of the Congress. It is argued that such individuals are disconnected from “the people” and propound niche or impractical ideas. This logic has some merit: The need to contest an election does impose valuable discipline, especially the understanding of the logistics and constraints of mass outreach. However, if the metric is alone having contested elections, then some questions arise: Was Gandhi “apolitical”? Are RSS functionaries “apolitical”? Was Arvind Kejriwal apolitical before his first election? What about the clutch of “celebrities” and political progenies who have contested elections managed by others? What about “lamp post” elected representatives who win in a wave? Have they become “political”? What kind of “political” is the local strongman, who wins his election entirely through local patronage networks? Are political consultants like Prashant Kishor, who have never contested themselves, political? On the other hand, why have “political” leaders come a cropper? This is not to pass value judgment but to point out the lack of conceptual clarity in the definition of “political”, aimed more at delegitimising some individuals instead of conducting reasoned analysis.
Functionaries should certainly be “political” in a political party but the determination is necessarily on an individual not category basis and should be predicated on an understanding of people, of distribution of power, of building organisation, the ability to identify issues, the art of mass communication, etc.
Other themes which have emerged are “dynasty” and lack of “internal democracy”. A cursory look at the political landscape makes it obvious that neither dynasty nor lack of internal democracy are impediments to winning elections. Indian society is structured around kinship and inheritance (including of one’s caste) and power in India remains very weakly formalised. In many ways, inherited political power is a function of these twin themes. There is little evidence that the electorate is repelled by inherited political power as reflected in victorious political dynasts across parties, including in the BJP. As far as internal democracy is concerned, the only formation with some semblance of institutionalised internal democracy is the Left, which is facing its biggest existential crisis. In all other parties, especially the BJP, power and decision-making are centralised this doesn’t send the electorate (and political commentators) into a big tizzy.
This brings us to the two things which matter most on the limited question of winning elections: Whether, on balance, the political party is outward or inward looking; and its ability to refine its own thinking and course-correct based on ground feedback. It is here that the Congress has faltered. The Congress has never been an ideological straitjacket and has always absorbed individuals of various proclivities. This ideological looseness combined with Congress having been in power for much of independent India’s history has suffused the party with acquisitive individuals preoccupied with capturing the internal organisation. Till the Congress was the default party of governance, this inward prioritisation made sense for those motivated by power for power’s sake. “Political” thus became more about the ability to excel at internal intrigue than resonating people’s aspirations to craft a political mandate.
Now that the ground has shifted, this inward orientation is hobbling the party’s ability to regroup. The lack of a clear message and organisation are a consequence not cause. This preoccupation with the internal has rendered the party incapable of critiquing itself; dissenting feedback is necessarily seen as a challenge to power (balance) instead of being evaluated on merit. This is also what is making it difficult for the party to find its way out of the current crisis.
Finally, it has to be acknowledged that this is a somewhat unique moment in history. Around the world, traditional liberal political parties are grappling with majoritarian nationalism. Much of the criticism being meted out against the Congress — elitism, leadership crisis, internecine wars — will find resonance in most other countries. At another time of intellectual churning, it was the Congress which steered the freedom movement to articulate an unprecedented and breath-taking conception of nationalism. The challenge for the Congress at this moment too goes beyond the question of leadership alone: It is a challenge to reimagine liberal politics.
The writer is AICC joint secretary in charge of the student wing of the Congress. Views are personal