Congress is a movement. It is unlike other electoral parties that are driven by political Hindutva, political Islam or Communism.

File image of Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi for a story on the revitalisation of the Congress what direction can the party takePTI
Voices Blog Thursday, September 10, 2020 - 20:02

Many are speculating on ‘the right leader’ who can become the party president and revive the Indian National Congress. On whether that person should be a Gandhi or a non-Gandhi. But there is a fundamental flaw in this question around ‘the one’ who has to lead the Congress or ‘the one who can counter Narendra Modi’. This optimism in believing that ‘a right man’ is the solution for the crisis the party finds itself in is juvenile. But that doesn’t mean being sceptical is the only available option. These discussions are fundamentally deficient to contribute anything constructive in the process. It is disappointing to see people who efficiently describe history coming out with prescriptions that reveal their intellectual disinvestment to the present, much like contemporary Indian English journalists.

The model of revitalisation of the Congress cannot be a replica of successful PR strategies in contemporary electoral politics. Because, even those strategies could succeed only on the basis of a strong organisation on the ground. One can recognise this by analysing the performance history of the master strategist Prashant Kishor. From collaborating with the NDA for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to working with the AAP in Delhi, Prashant worked with parties that were on the winning side with a strong organisational base. It is more like Prashant making a successful career by collaborating with successful parties than Prashant creating success for the party (with all due respect to his professional skills).

Congress is unlike other electoral parties that are driven by political Hindutva, political Islam or Communism. It doesn’t possess a truth into which its cadres march in the prescribed route nor does it offer a totalitarian political system that would appeal to the cognitively submissive. Congress is a movement. It is a movement of people that has a broad framework which consists of values like nationalism, secularism, consensus building, equity and such.

How could such a movement once become synonymous with India? Though Dadabhai Naoroji, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Bal Gangadhar Tilak toiled to build a strong foundation, it was when Gandhi happened that the Congress could become what it was meant for.

Gandhi almost mocked the Congress as an elite English-speaking club of the urban class. In the eighth chapter of his book The Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru offers us glimpses of the process called Gandhi. Nehru recollects his own experiences of working in slums and hovels of industrial workers, and visiting coal mines where womenfolk come back from work gasping for breath. If we read the life story of Sardar Patel, the same thing would unveil, perhaps in a more concrete form. Champaran, Kheda and Bardoli provided the life blood for the Congress to become a successful national movement.

Perhaps it was Rajiv Gandhi who made the most significant criticism on the post-Independence version of the Congress. He could sense an organic movement getting corroded into a parliamentary party and the transformation from championing the causes of rural India to mediating in the power corridors as middlemen. While casteism and religious fundamentalism could reinvent itself into intellectual rhetoric and grassroot reality, the Congress was trapped in the corridors of power with middlemen. But history was not kind to India nor to the Congress to let Rajiv navigate the party from that state.

Political commentators do advise the Congress to change itself. But what is the direction the party should take? There are three probable directions of leadership available to the Congress.

First direction

If a full-time active president takes charge and revives the Congress into the pre-Gandhi era of a club of English-speaking urban elites, will it be worth a revival in a country that has the biggest labour force in its unorganised sector? If the Congress takes this direction, liberal intellectuals would be softer on the party and media spaces would be liberal in giving more space to it. It may consist of handsome, fluently articulating gentlemen who would mostly prefer the Rajya Sabha. They might perform well in the media and in Parliament. Yet, the organisation will not have a base on the ground or have the rigour to capture the imagination of the Indian masses. There won’t be anything concrete despite the glow, if you consider the question – what exactly is the reform they represent for the Congress or the country?

Second direction

What if observers and sympathisers wish for a Congress that was diagnosed by Rajiv as infiltrated by power brokers and middlemen? Then wait till that day when the feel-good reality sold by the NDA fails to outdo the concrete Indian reality. The Congress may pull it off with a khichdi alliance and by Congressising the terrains reborn from the ‘Mandal-Mandir-Masjid’ universe to be in political power technically. But it will be naive to believe that the party will bring radical progress to the country. Even with electoral majority, the Congress will not be the most organic Indian movement. Gandhi, Patel and Nehru will have ritualistic presence but will not be imprinted in its soul.

Third direction

There is a third way that would enable the party to shrug off its parliamentary decay and open the doors of the organisation for workers and farmers. That might be a longer route or the tougher route. Gandhi will not come back to India with the wisdom from South Africa again. PR groups or media platforms will not lobby for that. Liberal English-speaking intellectuals may not prescribe it. If anyone wishes for the revival of a mass movement called the Indian National Congress, then the trajectory will have to expand to the likes of Ajay Kumar Lallu and BV Srinivas. If that is the path, the Congress needs a leadership that would open itself to leaders like Lallu or Srinivas. A leader who can perceive them as leaders and lead the organisation to a future in which an Ajay Kumar Lallu or BV Srinivas has more sense of stake and belonging.

If one wishes to see the Congress marching in the third path, he or she will not see its signboards in PR groups, Indian English media (which has made a Gandhiji out of an Anna Hazare) or liberal intelligentsia (which would pounce on Gandhi for the usage of violence in the name of cow protection by the political descendants of his assassins). The decorative lamps they all wish to sell seldom consist of the magic of enlightenment.

Athul P is author of Epiphanies of an Indian Love. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

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