Yogendra Yadav’s claim, that the Congress needs to die so that the way for a new politics may be cleared, calls for a response. In these times of easy branding, arguing in favour of the continued existence of the Congress runs the risk of being ridiculed both by pro-establishment circles and self-righteous pro-transformationists. So, the caveat is that the following is not an endorsement of “the Congress”. It is more about the fundamental nature of India’s politics, and also about the long romance called non-BJP, non-Congress politics.
The Congress that Jawaharlal Nehru led was transformed by Indira Gandhi beyond recognition. This led to the crisis that the party has been facing since the late 1980s. Since then, the Congress has never been able to reorganise itself. Neither could it instil a new purpose among its workers nor convince voters to remain loyal to it. Many have often believed that the decline and demise of the Congress would open up new possibilities electorally, and also in terms of changing the nature of our politics. They believe that the Congress is an impediment to structuring any new politics. In the past three decades, liberals, radicals, leftists, have miserably failed to create a different politics. Using the Congress as an alibi for those failures tends to understate the in-built difficulties in the project Yadav is looking forward to.
Along with the dream of alternative politics, the present moment also represents, as Yadav himself has recently articulated, India’s imminent journey into a dark tunnel. If one agrees with this prognosis, then the “utility” of the Congress should not be ignored. It would act as a buffer to the BJP and its power machine because it would want to protect itself. In the process, the Congress would end up protecting many others with whom it may not fully agree. The kind of assault on dissent and diversity the BJP is likely to unleash, would require a relatively strong political counter. It is likely that elections may not throw up a stronger counter to BJP than the present, wounded and incompetent Congress. Yet, this Congress would have its uses in times of crisis of democracy. The Yogendra Yadavs, Prakash Rajs, Kamal Haasans and Kanhaiya Kumars, despite the goodwill they enjoy, need larger social acceptability beyond their immediate circles in order to be operational.
India’s democracy does not easily admit a liberal fringe or a radical liberal extravaganza. Nor is there enough space for an autonomous but healthy politics of “alternatives”. The politics of alternatives seeks to mainstream itself by changing society in the first place. Until society changes for the better, such politics has to piggy-back on political forces that occupy the mainstream. So, in seeking an end to the Congress, Yadav is probably undermining the feasibility of his own politics. This may sound an instrumentalist argument, but the politics of change also needs political support, a political vehicle, a sympathetic political mass. But beyond this instrumental logic, are there other reasons to plead for the survival of the Congress?
First, among the dispersed non-BJP political forces, the Congress gets at least two votes out of every 10 — next to the BJP’s three in every 10. This is not an inconsiderable political space, though it is residual. This space shall go only to the BJP if the Congress were to die. Two, the Congress seems to be countering the BJP ideologically. One may not be fully happy with the response, but in the backdrop of the lame (or vacuously shrill) counterarguments made by state parties, the Congress would surely deserve credit for mobilising a semblance of opposition to the BJP.
Three, if the Congress were really to die, the oppositional space would be occupied only by the state parties. Most of them have, at one point or the other, been allies of the BJP and facilitated the latter’s entry in the states — Odisha and Bihar being examples. In other words, in any electoral counter to the BJP, the Congress continues to be crucial despite itself.
But there is a more fundamental reason for arguing against Yadav. Radical or transformative ambitions notwithstanding, at least in the near future, the game of electoral competition and shaping of public opinion will be played out within the range of broadly “middle-of-the-road” or centrist possibilities. Today, the BJP seeks to dominate this space and claim that it represents centrist tendencies. The Congress comprises possibilities of presenting the public with a somewhat different version of centrism. As is known, historically, the party included “right-wingers”, Hinduists and socialists et al. While the party may have lost that accommodative agility, it still has the capacity to attract citizens attracted to a centrist position. The death of the Congress would mean only one version of centrism survives — the one advocated by the BJP. The politics about the kind of democracy India would remain will be played out on the terrain that is more or less middle-of-the-road and that is where not just the Congress but many other parties, with clumsy ideologies and even limited visions, would be valuable.
A victory for the BJP’s version of centrism holds three challenges. One, its pursuance of Hindutva, which has already contaminated ordinary Hindu religious sensibilities. The other is its present leadership, which represents a cynical appropriation of existing liberal democratic spaces toward the end of uninhibited personalisation of authority. Even without Hindutva, this is reason enough to ensure that there is enough political possibility of constraining them. Third, the centrism of BJP is rather fragile, it can be easily set aside by Adityanath or Pragya Thakur; they, certainly, are not the fringe, but claimants to the main space of the BJP, representing a more direct attack on India’s diversity and plurality.
Of late, Yadav himself has been talking about reviving the true swabhav and swadharm of India. The Congress may not be actively protecting that, yet its existence would allow many Indians who still hold on to their swadharm — simply through their native wisdom — to retain that innate character of being true Indians.
The writer was a professor of political science and is based in Pune