Signs of welcome change in the Congress

Punjab has been a fiasco for the Congress. But it comes alongside one of the better things that has happened in recent years – the induction of Kanhaiya Kumar and Jignesh Mevani in the Grand Old Party, and the subsequent discomfort voiced by some of its senior leaders. This is just the kind of disturbance and change that the party needs as it is pushed to the wall, desperate in its attempt to prepare to stand up to the BJP and have a fighting chance in the elections, be they the coming Assembly polls or the later national round. When the chips are down, disturbance is better than peace; any change is better than no change.

The Congress has been brought down as much by this list of mini leaders as it is by the fabled command and control of the Gandhis

In the Congress, the standard operating systems for hopefuls to rise has been pretended reverence and visible obeisance to the first family of the party. Once done, it was always politics as usual under the banner of the party. What worked to keep this arrangement going was reward power and coercive power, marking the capacity of the Gandhi family to reward, punish and keep delinquents in check. It worked as long as there was a capacity to give something or take it away or hold the promise of doing so tomorrow. Now, when the party is no longer seen as a contender in that game of national politics, the framework has collapsed. Legitimacy and expertise of the “high command” have also come in question.

While the family is the centre of a lot of criticism for getting it all wrong in Punjab, the curious case of the Congress is that the rest of its leadership is also a set of mini durbars. These second-line durbars represent in their own right a set of entrenched interests, privileged connections and power games without in any way delivering on the political arena. Some of them are highly educated, suave and savvy but they do not speak the language of the people, they cannot hold political meetings and they are more comfortable in clubs and tv studios, not in the hurly burly of the grass roots where the issues are decided. The hard fact is that the Congress has been brought down as much by this list of mini leaders as it is by the fabled command and control of the Gandhis.

If the “hiring” of Kumar and Mevani indicates that the second level durbars of the Congress are being displaced, it is a good sign. But that is only a beginning.  Alongside comes the question on whether the two inductions are to be seen as an acquisition by the Congress or an assimilation and if this is to be read as a signal of bigger change within the Congress fold

None of these Delhi-centric operators capture the imagination of the people; they cannot turn the burning issues before the nation, the crisis that threatens the very fabric of India, into crowds and votes. In fact, the party has not even been able to fire the imagination of the so-called intelligentsia. Who really in the Congress stands up as a credible voice on finance, external affairs, security, health, education? Hunt the names and all that emerges is the second round of durbars who have long sat in power, have lost credibility and are often if not always tainted in some way.

If the “hiring” of Kumar and Mevani indicates that the second level durbars of the Congress are being displaced, it is a good sign. But that is only a beginning.  Alongside comes the question on whether the two inductions are to be seen as an acquisition by the Congress or an assimilation and if this is to be read as a signal of bigger change within the Congress fold. The acquisition format would mean that the  Kumar-Mewani duo, both highly ambitious young leaders, will become one more durbar within the Congress with their own set of power claims as long as they begin to deliver what the Congress desperately wants – crowds and eventually votes. That would be a national replay of the regional drama seen in the ugly antics of the cricketeer-soap artiste-turned Punjab PCC Chief Navjot Singh Sidhu – give me this or I quit.

The aggressive and naked push toward neo-liberal policies in the wholesale under Narendra Modi, the over-corporatisation of power structures, the new ways and means to push the transfer of public sector to private hands (as seen for example in the National Monetisation Pipeline), the obstinacy on farm bills in the face of an agitation that has stood remarkably strong and peaceful one year down the line are all polices and indications that add to the strife and discomfort index of India

The other way would be for the Congress to allow the younger leaders coming from outside to grow, build their base and in due course challenge the entrenched interests within the party. This would demand a fundamental change in the way the party operates – from a hold and control operation it can turn into a vibrant if sometimes chaotic life force. But this kind of perestroika will carry the risk of going the full hog to destroy the very structure of command and control that has worked in the party for long years. It is never easy to change the operating system even if the eventual benefits are many.

Yet, there is little choice the party has.

The change also signals that the Congress will have to move sharply to the Left and open new routes to catching the imagination of the people by focusing on the issues of the poor, the marginalised and the weaker sections. Under the BJP, the national frame has moved too far Right for the comfort of many key constituencies in India.  The aggressive and naked push toward neo-liberal policies in the wholesale under Narendra Modi, the over-corporatisation of power structures, the new ways and means to push the transfer of public sector to private hands (as seen for example in the National Monetisation Pipeline), the obstinacy on farm bills in the face of an agitation that has stood remarkably strong and peaceful one year down the line are all polices and indications that add to the strife and discomfort index of India. But a change cannot be forced by pussy footing on these issues.

The Congress put us on the path to neo-liberal policies as the treasury stood empty in 1991

The ambivalence of some in the Congress on issues like art. 370, the illegitimate fear that Kumar will be seen as part of the “tukde-tukde” team which will open questions on nationalism of the Congress and indeed the thinking that seems to buy into the present-day economic policies and environmental plunder will not help the party. Indeed, the Congress has been as much guilty on these counts in the past, and it can be argued that the BJP has just upped the ante. That past has to be discarded and erased for a new journey forward.

At the same time, the Congress must manage and build strategic partnerships like the successful alliance with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. This taps into dissatisfaction of the eco system with the BJP’s ‘ogre-ish’ style of gobbling up everything for itself. Strategic partnerships open new routes to alliances that can help reform the toxic political climate. This is a complex balancing act.

The Congress must manage and build strategic partnerships like the successful alliance with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra

Therefore, the Kumar-Mewani entry to the Congress may indicate the coming of some big change. It is about time for the Congress to herald that change. There is a long road ahead. It is the Congress that gave us the Soviet-style five-year plans, the “commanding heights of the economy” in the public sector and the approach of ‘garibi hatao’. It is the Congress that put us on the path to neo-liberal policies as the treasury stood empty in 1991. It may well be the Congress that pushes back the agenda to the needs and aspirations of the marginalised sections. That would be a good route to a happy revival.

(The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)