Shaking up India’s grand old party

The late senior Congress leader and General Secretary Vitthalrao N Gadgil once sought to explain how much the Congress was embedded into the fabric of the nation by a single statement: Go to any village in India, he said, and you will find three permanent fixtures – the postman, the policeman and the Congress party. That was of course a long, long time ago. But as long as some kind of connection with the grassroots was alive, the party had a system to read, connect and build its base and ground its agenda in the people.

The party needs change, internal democracy will do it a world of good, dynastic control is of course a problem but none of this points to the deep collapse of a party that is seen to have turned away from the needs and aspirations of the ordinary people and the toiling classes.

That connection was eroded over time, and led to a further and accelerated decline as a bureaucrat, much acclaimed at one time, was handed the controls by the Congress and ruled for two terms that finally ended with the BJP becoming the dominant party of the nation. Under Dr. Manmohan Singh, a career bureaucrat, there could be no connection with the last mile. His game was to manage up.

The economic crisis meant that the reforms he launched under his predecessor P V Narasimha Rao had to be placed on an even keel. In the process, the language and the emphasis of the government, and of the Congress party willy-nilly, changed from talking about the people at the grass roots to the language of liberalisation and privatisation and globalisation – all of which had nothing to do with the vast mass of India. Dr. Singh often visited Mumbai but never could hold a mass rally to meet with everyday party workers. More common was a lunch meeting at the Cricket Club of India, arranged by the then Mumbai party chief and businessman Murli Deora.

The Congress today needs a head who can make some fundamental changes and offer a clear alternative to the current dispensation

It is important to recall some of this narrative as the Congress seeks to open up, hold elections and have a democratically elected leader take charge of the party.  This is an important milestone in the history of India’s GOP. The party needs change, internal democracy will do it a world of good, dynastic control is of course a problem but none of this points to the deep collapse of a party that is seen to have turned away from the needs and aspirations of the ordinary people and the toiling classes. The Congress did do many course corrections; it went aggressive, for example, on the right to work with MNREGA, the school mid-day meal schemes but the tone and tenor could not be changed. The narrative stayed of a party turning away from the poor and the downtrodden, enmeshed in corruption and engaged in pursuits of powerbrokers rather than peasants. The result is a party at the bottom of India’s political heap.

Shashi Tharoor may be suave, well-meaning and well spoken. But he represents the G-23, which is not to be opposed because they spoke up against the Congress leadership but must be recognised and named as a subset of the same failed group whose members acquired power because of the party and contributed very little to its growth

The significance given in the media now to the so-called rebel Congress leaders who were styled as the G-23 and challenged the top brass of the party for bringing on the mess missed the central point that many if not all of those leaders were themselves cut off from the people. They grew in a party that had turned away from the people, or was at least seen as such. Any party tuned to a different audience would have little or no use for most of the G-23 lot. They will win no votes. They were committed only up to a point, as can be seen the way in which members of the G-23 have quit. They believed as long as the going for them was good. The G-23 need not be completely dismissed but they were mostly the suave, well connected, well-heeled lot, not the grassroots variety politician who can pick the pulse of the people.

Curiously, the person doing good work just at this time is Rahul Gandhi with the nationwide walkathon that is underway

The Congress today needs a head who can make some fundamental changes and offer a clear alternative to the current dispensation. First, of course, it must reunite the nation, a theme akin to the ‘Bharat-jodo’ yatra of Rahul Gandhi, but it also needs a new narrative on the economy, a new narrative on peace, non-violence and sustainable growth. All of this has to be taken as a well packaged message to the people of India, notably in the northern States where the party has taken a beating and ceded all ground to the BJP.

Shashi Tharoor, who has turned up as an aspirant for the position of Congress President, is not that person. He may be suave, well-meaning and well spoken. But he represents the G-23, which is not to be opposed because they spoke up against the Congress leadership but must be recognised and named as a subset of the same failed group whose members acquired power because of the party and contributed very little to its growth. Tharoorisms are good for a twitter feed; they cannot win votes, connect with the masses or stitch together a powerful new narrative that is a desperate need of the hour. That Tharoor thinks he can or should stand for the position in itself shows how much removed from the challenge before the Congress he or his sympathisers might be.

Rahul Gandhi’s language is looking good, his statements carry meaning and while the real test will come as he enters the north of the nation, right now it appears that a rather strong narrative is taking shape

Curiously, the person doing good work just at this time is Rahul Gandhi with the nationwide walkathon that is underway. He has called it a ‘tapasya’, or penance, as he tries to reconnect with the masses, read the mood and discover how he and the party can explain the steep decline of the nation into a climate of hate and division. Rahul Gandhi’s language is looking good, his statements carry meaning and while the real test will come as he enters the north of the nation, right now it appears that a rather strong narrative is taking shape.

Quite simply, it says, an attack on fellow Indians is an attack on India; the flag must be respected but also the values that the national tricolour stands for.  Some of these are clean and simple themes that can go far in helping re-build the party and the nation. Needless to say, the party must simultaneously go through the internal election, place an elected head at the helm and go on build more positions that are democratically filled. In the end, the party will gravitate towards those who are connected with the people and can bring in the votes. If the ‘Bharat-jodo’ yatra continues to earn the goodwill it has thus far, that leader down the line and over the years may well be Rahul Gandhi but then he can rightfully claim to have earned the position and not got it as a birth right.

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

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