Can Congress ever be relevant in India again?


rajiv-gandhiYet again, and crucially for the second time in two years, a political obituary is being prepared for India’s grand old party. Congress, 130 years old and the party that led India to independence from British rule, has performed poorly in key state legislature elections.

Two years ago, it was routed by prime minister Narendra Modi’s BJP in the general election. The cry has gone up that 21st-century India is becoming, as Mr Modi boldly desired some years ago, a “Congress mukt Bharat” (Congress-free India).

That may be an overstatement and it is certainly premature. Admittedly, Congress has just 45 seats in the 543-seat lower house of parliament and last week’s handful of state elections show it is not on the path to regional revival.

The party now rules just six of India’s 29 states, home to a mere 7 per cent of the country’s 1.2 billion people.

Many Congress-governed states are in the relatively politically unimportant north-eastern region. Congress also supports the governing coalition in Bihar, India’s third most populous state.

This is a dismal state of affairs for a party that ruled independent India for 54 of the past 69 years. Until the 1990s, Congress was seen to represent the very idea of India — its values and aspirations — both to the country and to the wider world. But by every token, the party today seems to be on life support, barely drawing breath as an alternative political force in a country that was swept away in 2014 by Mr Modi’s promise of a muscular leadership that would restore Indians’ sense of pride and bring high-tech advancement and hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs.

The Congress party’s leader-in-waiting, Rahul Gandhi, has yet to offer a youthful new vision of a bright — and believable — future. There are at least two reasons for this.

At 45, Mr Gandhi is no longer young, but middle-aged, and seemingly miserably stuck in the family business. His father, grandmother and great-grandfather were all prime ministers, and his mother, Sonia, has been party president since 1998.

Congress remains consumed by reverence for the Nehru-Gandhi family and even senior members are reluctant to speak in forthright tones about the way ahead. No post-mortem of failure ever ascribes blame to Gandhi leadership.

The paucity of truth-telling makes the cut and thrust of politics harder for Mr Gandhi, who has never displayed the instinctive qualities of a natural politician. Overburdened by his heritage, he is the reverse of Sartre’s prescription: man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. In nearly two decades of active politics, Mr Gandhi seems unable to make of himself anything other than what he was not destined to be.

This raises all sorts of questions for a party with a hoary past and a harassed princeling for its putative leader. More than a quarter of all Indians are aged between 10 and 24. They can reasonably be expected to want change they can believe in.

The obituaries currently in the works for Congress ascribe its terminal decline to the conspicuous lack of exciting new ideas and the equally conspicuous continuation of an old-style dynastic politics of paternalism. That hardly sounds like a formula for youth engagement.

And yet, Congress has been written off before. More specifically, in the late 1970s and in 1999. Both times, it came roaring back to life. Even the exquisite agony of its 2014 general election defeat yielded the support of about 100 million people or one in five voters.

For all that Congress now has a limited presence in the populous politically significant Hindi heartland, it is still India’s only national party other than the BJP.

There is much that Congress still has to offer, not least its brand, which is rooted in the basic principles of inclusive growth, social justice, abolition of poverty and protecting the marginalised, including minorities, women, Dalits and tribals.

With its rich history, Congress is the only national political force that could realistically challenge Mr Modi’s divisive Hindu-centric agenda.

More to the point, the Indian prime minister is finding it hard to make good on the promise of economic growth.

Congress, which instituted unbelievably radical market reforms in 1991, should surely be able to challenge the breeziness of Mr Modi’s 2014 election campaign slogan “Acche din aane wale hair” (“The good days are coming”).

It can say that this is vacuous and as unbelievable as the “Make America Great Again” slogan mouthed by Republican Party presidential hopeful Donald Trump, especially when the foundational political construct is ugly, violent and out of tune with a country’s soul music.

But for Congress to make these arguments and be relevant again, it needs to frame an idea of India that chimes with the 21st century — democratic within and without right down to the village and block level; transparent; accountable and restating India’s syncretic values without apology and dissembling.

This can only really happen if Congress lives the change it proposes to bring to India. And for this, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty needs to be placed where it belongs — on a pedestal, if the party wants, to be adored from afar — while a new executive, democratically chosen leadership takes control.

Rashmee Roshan Lall is a writer on world affairs

On Twitter: @rashmeerl

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