The Congress party has been the biggest hurdle for those devoted to remaking India into a ‘Hindu rashtra’ or into a socialist utopia, writes Varghese K George
A FASHIONABLE school of soundbite intellectualism seeks to reduce the outcome of the election to the 17th Lok Sabha into the success of one individual and the failure of another. Prime minister Narendra Modi’s oratory, marketing, cunning, etc and the massive funds available to him were factors in his success while Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s untrained oratory and ineffective command over the limited human and material resources under him were factors in his defeat. But the Modi-Gandhi binary is ahistorical, as 2019 has been in the making for a century — the advance of Hindutva through meticulous organisation building and ideological training, and a corresponding retreat of the Congress on both counts. The contest between the themes, Gandhi’s ‘love all’ and Modi’s ‘I will hit you at home’, could not have been timed worse for the former historically, though this slogan was never an irresistible one. That creed cost Mahatma Gandhi his life; ‘death to Gandhi’ was a slogan of many Hindu fundamentalists before his assassination in 1948, by one of them.
Not a new leitmotif
‘DEATH to Congress’ — or a Congress-free India — is not a new leitmotif in the country’s politics, though the idea appears to have acquired a new urgency for some. This call for a Congress-free India comes from diametrically opposite perspectives. For instance, Bharatiya Janata Party president, and now union home minister, Amit Shah’s call for a Congress-free India is for the advancement of Hindutva, while Swaraj India president Yogendra Yadav wants the Congress dead for the exact opposite reason. Yadav believes the Congress is the only obstruction in the emergence of an alternative to the BJP, presumably his own party which is now TV studio-based.
This certainly sounds ironical, but is neither surprising nor unprecedented. Those who dreamed of reviving India to its pristine Hindu glory and those who vowed to build India into a utopia — of socialist, anarchist or market varieties — all thought the only force that obstructed them in their pursuit was the Congress. They disliked the Congress, variously, for not being Hindu enough, socialist enough or market-friendly enough. They joined hands in waves of anti-Congress mobilisations on different occasions for several decades. While constituents of anti-Congress coalitions had their legitimate grievances about the dominant party, a streak of self-righteous egotism of leaders also contributed to them. Successive waves of anti-Congress mobilisations progressively weakened the party, and opened political avenues for excluded social groups. But they also contributed to an erosion of public trust in parliamentary democracy, party politics, the rule of law and constitutionalism.
The Navnirman Movement in Gujarat in the early 1970s that attacked MLAs to force their resignations, and on its model the Bihar movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan to force legislators to resign, were attempts to overcome the Congress electoral majority in street fights. The latest among these — and India’s first mob agitation raised through social media — was the Anna Hazare movement of 2011 that sought sweeping anti-corruption measures and painted politics and politicians as universally corrupt. The widely held claim of populists all around the world today is that they speak for the authentic people without the institutional mediation of popular will in representative democracy has a history in India. We have rarely witnessed a bottom-up mobilisation against communal and caste violence, and this selective nature of ‘people’s mobilisation’ is also revelatory. At each stage of anti-Congress mobilisation, and electoral alliances in 1967, 1977 and 1989, all individual constituents imagined they were using the others, but it was always the Hindutva groups that came on top. The Anna movement was the prefect precursor to the rise of Modi in 2014.
A post-2002 binary
SO, WHILE it is understandable why Shah wants a Congress-free India, it is difficult to comprehend why anyone anti-BJP would like the Congress to die. In fact, the 2002 Gujarat riots appeared to bury anti-Congressism among anti-BJP parties forever, as UPA-I took shape on the principle of a valid binary: that the fundamental fault-line of Indian politics is whether India shall remain an inclusive and non-sectarian country or become a Hindu rashtra.
While one call is for the death of the Congress party; another is for the end of its dynastic leadership, which sounds reasonable and even desirable. Here, the problem is only practical. Some thought JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar could be made Congress president. Apart from the fact that Kumar landed in the BJP camp soon after the suggestion was made, it is inconceivable that he could have any appeal in, say, Tamil Nadu, where Gandhi still has a certain influence. The Congress’s emotional connect with the Indian public is through the curated memory of the freedom struggle, Nehru, Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, etc, while it also developed a network of material patronage. Over the years, the memory and the Nehru-Gandhi family became inseparable as most other icons were ejected from the Congress pantheon — PV Narasimha Rao is a relatively recent case in point. If memories are the lifeline of the Congress, the fact that they are all embodied in one family helped the Sangh Parivar politics of dismantling it. Sangh politics seeks to manage the collective memory to its advantage — by manipulation or, in some cases, complete erasure.
The other tool of Congress popularity, patronage, turned from patronage of social groups to patronage of individual vested interests first and crony capitalism post-liberalisation. This strengthened the hands of power brokers, who besieged the family and acted on their behalf with arrogance. They could even deliver electoral victories. Its ideological vacuum has been expanding in the meanwhile, and the Congress’s adversarial figure of imperialism became a fading and irrelevant memory for each successive generation in the era of globalisation — while the Sangh Parivar’s imagination of an internal adversary gained more traction with the spread of global Islamism. The Sangh Parivar patronage network also grew stronger. Though a dynast himself, and hence part of the problem, Gandhi has an awareness of the problem. The current crisis in the Congress is a stand-off between Gandhi and the party old guard. Gandhi believes that the old guard has failed his reformative agenda; the latter believes that Gandhi has disrupted the wheels of the party’s election winning machine.
Gandhi has told members of the Congress Working Committee that he would step aside and work as a moral force in politics. He says he does not want to seek positions of power. His desire may be honourable and salutary. But in the current context, that may not be his destiny. Being a political ascetic these days needs film directors, multiple camera angles, attractive and colourful costumes, etc., which is not his forte. Being a dynast may be his biggest burden, but that is also his biggest advantage — the paradox is that only the dynast can rescue the Congress from this abyss, if at all. Nobody else in the party has the moral authority that the rest of the party will defer to.
An inescapable reality
CALLING for a Congress without the dynasty is comparable to calling for a BJP disconnected from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Republican Party minus the evangelicals, or a Labour party delinked from trade unions. There may be many things that you disapprove of in these arrangements, but that is an inescapable reality. Calling for a Congress today without a Nehru-Gandhi at its helm is tantamount to calling for a Congress-free India, at least for now.
TheHindu.com, June 1.
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