The A.K. Antony panel report, probing the Congress debacle in the Lok Sabha election, seems little more than a ritual of expiation by the party leadership. After 45 days of soul searching, the report concludes that the Gandhis were not to blame for the party’s no show, and that its best way forward lay under their aegis. The probe was a typically opaque Congress exercise. Commissioned by party president Sonia Gandhi, the contents of the voluminous three-part report remain shrouded in secrecy. A party trying to emerge from its worst electoral defeat needs a more radical self-examination than the Antony report seems to offer.
There is no denying that the Congress is a party with an identity crisis. The 2014 elections showed it peddling the old pieties, unable to keep up with emerging realities such as the blurring of the rural-urban divide or the softening of caste politics in urban, aspirational votebanks. Electorally decimated, it now faces insurrections in various state units — witness Assam and Haryana. In the Lok Sabha, reduced to just 44 seats, it has been an opposition racked with self-doubt — Rahul Gandhi’s storming of the Well on the issue of communal violence in UP was not followed up with sustained debate or asking tough questions of the government. The Congress needs a convincing new narrative, to weave its way back to political relevance but also to galvanise a demoralised party rank and file. In June, when Antony had observed that the Congress’s version of secularism confused equal justice for all communities with the appeasement of minorities, it seemed the party was finally ready for some serious introspection, questioning its most deep-rooted assumptions. Yet the Antony report is said to fall back on comforting commonplaces, blaming the blunders of government rather than party, external factors such as skewed media coverage and the BJP’s blitzkrieg, which overshadowed the Congress’s low-key election campaign, and the party’s organisational weaknesses. If the panel has identified other, substantive reasons for defeat, and provided a blueprint for revival, these are not known.
What has become evident is that the Congress’s revival must happen through a more dynamic, bottom-up process, not just the bureaucratic filing of a classified report. While Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi speaks of organisational reform and elections for party posts, the democratisation of the Congress cannot be limited to structural changes. More voices must be heard, ideas must travel up, the fate and direction of the Congress must be decided through debate and dissent. To start with, let the Congress president and vice president share with party colleagues — and with the people who vote for them — their response to the Antony report.