Despite widespread despair in Congress circles that the party is showing no signs of even trying to revive itself, liberal opinion in the country at large is of the view that only the Congress can take on the nation-wide challenge of restoring the nation to the “Idea of India” expounded during the freedom movement and through the first 65 years of modern nation-building but now under severe stress from an alternative idea that seems to have caught the imagination of a disturbingly large section of our population. I use the expression “liberal opinion” because many of the most searching questions come from liberals who for years have been disenchanted with, and distanced from, the Congress as a party but are now thoroughly alarmed at the lemming-like rush to national suicide which, they reluctantly concede, only the Congress can stem.
This has sparked an open debate among Congress intellectuals in full public glare — unprecedented in the last two decades — on how to pull the party out of the morass in which it finds itself. Participants include prominent Congress parliamentarians such as Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Shashi Tharoor and Manish Tewari, as also the relatively younger element in the person of Sandeep Dikshit, Jyotiraditya Scindia and the Sanjay Jha-Salman Soz duo. I am, therefore, tempted to dip my paddle into the creek even if it means rowing against the tide.
Broadly speaking, two trends of thought have emerged, one that regards organisational elections as the key to recovery and the other that gives precedence to securing ideological and programmatic clarity by holding a series of Pachmarhi-type think-through sessions to consider how to make the four ideological pillars of the party — democracy, secularism, socialism, and nonalignment — relevant to the demands of the 21st century and the people’s changing perceptions. The two approaches are, in fact, complementary and the argument is essentially over sequencing: Which should come first, the chicken or the egg?
I would like to add a further dimension in the sense of asking a completely different question: Should the party aim at coming to power on its own in the foreseeable future or at comprehensively defeating the forces of Hindutva by forging a united front of the Opposition? Most Congress leaders would say defeating the BJP requires the restoration of the Congress as the “natural party of governance”. But there has to be an acceptance of the ineluctable reality that the country is simply not willing to so reverse the falling curve of Congress support as to enable it to do so on its own. Equally, the results of both the Lok Sabha elections of 2104 and 2019 have shown that the combined vote of the secular parties exceeds by a wide margin the vote garnered by the Modi-Shah machine. Is it, therefore, feasible for the Congress to bring on board a coalition of disparate parties to arrest the saffron wave?
I believe this is a feasible political project principally because the Congress (which has never included the word “party” in its official name) had, during the freedom movement, provided a platform for a range of diverse political opinion united only in the objective of freeing the nation from the clutches of foreign rule. Only two political tendencies were excluded or had no desire to join — the communists and the communalists. Can we restore the Congress to the status of a “movement”?
I think that might be possible if we stooped to conquer. If in the tortuous negotiations to set up a common platform, the Congress were to opt for a lower than a higher profile, characterised by a willingness to accommodate and compromise and sacrifice, we might be able to secure throughout India the kind of stable alliance which has held in Kerala for decades. The United Democratic Front, which includes the Congress, and even the rival Left Democratic Front, that includes the two leading Communist parties, provide the template for successfully confining the saffron forces to the margins. Both Fronts have stabilised their alliances by determining well in advance which constituencies the partners in the alliance will fight and which portfolios will go to which partner in the event of a coalition government being formed. And notwithstanding these electoral arrangements, the constituent parties are left free between elections to draw up their own political programmes and seek to strengthen their respective holds on the electorate.
Using this lived experience as a template, and adjusting it to ground realities in different states, it might be possible to build a stable, long-term national coalition which would bring to bear its combined weight on restoring the “Idea of India” on which all but the saffron forces are agreed, while pursuing, if possible by consensus, our respective programmes and policies on other matters. For if we do not do so now, it may be too late in 2024 or later to forge a last-minute secular front against the saffron juggernaut. “United we stand, divided we fall” is the tired old cliché that we now need to make our clarion call.
Of course, such an approach can only succeed if the Congress were to have transparent inner party elections that would throw up a collective charismatic leadership, as Tharoor et al have been urging, as well as clarity on ideology and the pressing issues of the day, as Tewari has been urging, arrived at not in closed-door meetings behind drawn curtains but through “open covenants, openly arrived at”, as Woodrow Wilson might have said. This means linking the rejuvenation measures already aired by both the senior and younger echelons of the party to the strategic objective of uniting with others to restore in the 21st century our joint Vision of India, even if it means disappointing aspirants at the grassroots who would otherwise pressurise the leadership, as they have been doing in a number of recent elections, to field them as candidates even when defeat is a certainty. That is the lesson to be learnt from petulantly fielding candidates for virtually all constituencies in UP knowing full well that not even a handful would prevail and the even sorrier spectacle of all but three of our candidates in the Delhi elections failing to recover their deposits and none winning even a single seat.
This article appeared in the print edition on March 6, 2020 under the title ‘Congress, stoop to conquer’. The writer is a former Union minister.
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