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Congress: Unsure of Conscience & Constituency? || Midweek Matters 32

12-10-2021published_dt 2021-10-12T10:23:09.456Z12-10-2021 15:53:09 IST
2021-10-12T10:23:09.456Z12-10-2021 2021-10-12T10:23:09.456Z - - 18-01-2022

Hello and Welcome 

To Midweek Matters.

The deep organisational crisis in the Congress Party is apparent. It is yet to confidently settle for a full time President since it’s massive defeat in the 2019 general elections, its second successive defeat. It’s Punjab unit is in turmoil. Factional feud is out in the open in Chattisgarh, a state where the party is in power. Unrest in Rajasthan, another state where the party is in office with only a thin margin, is simmering. Another Chief Minister from the Northeast openly expressed unhappiness that he was not consulted in the appointment of the state party unit chief. A former Chief Minister in Goa left the party. Senior leaders in the Kerala unit are openly airing their grievances. Concerns expressed by G-23 leaders who called for reforms in the party say the issues raised by them remain unaddressed. In addition to its organisational disarray, the party also seems to be unsure of its conscience and unable to reclaim its constituency. Today I want to share my reflections on the background to this sorry state of the Grand Old Party and the humongous challenge it faces. 

Let’s begin by listening to this lament:  "we have largely lost touch with the masses and, deprived of the life-giving energy that flows from them, we dry up and weaken and our organisation shrinks and loses the power it had." That was Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru at the Lucknow session of AICC in 1936. This was when the Congress was still a big tent mass movement, about a decade before it took power in Independent India. About 50 years after it’s founding in 1885 and when the Mahatma was its great helmsman. 

And now, note this yet another critique of the party. It is a long passage. But it deserves your close attention. "What has become of our great organisation? Instead of a party that fired the imagination of the masses throughout the length and breadth of India, we have shrunk, losing touch with the toiling millions. It is not a question of victories and defeats in elections. For a democratic party, victories and defeats are part of its continuing political existence. But what does matter is whether or not we work among the masses, whether or not we are in tune with their struggles, their hopes and aspirations." 

"…we have weakened ourselves and fallen prey to the ills that the loss of invigorating mass contact brings." 

"…we obey no discipline, no rule, follow no principle of public weal. Corruption is not only tolerated but even regarded as the hallmark of leadership. Flagrant contradiction between what we say and what we do has become our way of life. At every step, our aims and actions conflict. At every stage, our private self crushes our social commitment." 

"…the ideology of the Congress has acquired the status of an heirloom, to be polished and brought out on special occasions…. Our ideology… is the only relevant ideology for our great country. But we are forgetting that we must take it to the masses, interpret its content in changing circumstances, and defend it against the attacks of our opponents."

This one was 50 years after Nehru's lament, at the 1985 centenary session of the AICC, by Rajiv Gandhi. He wasn’t a despondent head of the party speaking after losing an election. He was addressing his party after winning a resounding victory, the largest mandate ever in the history of our republic. 

A decade before that in November 1974, at the initiative of Indira Gandhi, the Congress leadership met in Narora to gain clarity on political challenges facing the party, ideological and organisational issues and to evolve a roadmap for the party's political advance. The camp evolved a 13 point programme with both economic and political components. However, before the programme arrived at in Narora could be fully implemented, Emergency was declared in 1975, followed by the rout of the party in 1977, its return to power in 1980, Mrs Gandhi's assassination, and a resounding 1984 electoral victory in its wake.

Thus Narora brainstorming was overtaken by major political developments and had little impact on the party's wish to reposition itself in the developing political situation in the country. 

Rajiv Gandhi had shown little inclination to follow up on the honest but harsh critique he himself  mounted on the party in his 1985 speech. Shah Bano case, gathering storm over Ayodhya, controversy on the proposed defamation law, and more importantly the Bofors scandal derailed Rajiv Gandhi and distracted his attention from the reforms he might have had in mind for the organisation. The tumultuous two years after the party's defeat in 1989, his assassination, minority government headed by an unlikely leader in PV Narasimha Rao as PM, the economic crisis and reform measures left no time for any serious stocktaking. What little political capital that Rao could muster was exhausted in trying to sell the economic reforms to the Party and the country. His leadership of the party was far from unchallenged. That discouraged any serious political brainstorming. In the event, economic reforms remained a government agenda, not a project fully owned up by the party. The 1996 loss of power reinforced its ambivalence towards economic reforms. Consequently it became unsure both of its conscience and constituency.

In 1998 the party assembled at Panchmarhi to take stock. The discussion document identified that "the blurring of the ideology of the party in critical areas…had caused confusion not only among the electorate but even within the ranks of the party as to what exactly it stands for." 

The leadership also felt that the party did not "accommodate the aspirations of a whole new generation" of Dalits, Adivasis and Backward Classes. It recognised that that was the main reason for Party's decline in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Sonia Gandhi in her address admitted that "the loss of our social base, of the social coalition that supports us and looks up to us" was disturbing. However, the 1998 Panchmarhi session did not show any signs of grasping the gravity of the challenge that the Sangh Parivar and the BJP were silently building up with their quiet political work. The project of reclaiming the Dalit, Adivasi and OBC constituency was ill executed. It could not wean them away from the entrenched regional parties that championed caste identities. 

The six years between Panchmarhi and the 2004 elections saw little ideological work by the Congress. The Panchmarhi resolve to reclaim the social coalition that was its erstwhile supporter was acted upon ham handedly. The defeat of NDA in the elections owed much to the BJP leadership's tactical mistakes. However, in victory, the Congress overlooked the social and political ground it left uncovered. It mistook the electoral defeat of NDA for the second consecutive time in 2009 as the irreversible weakening of BJP's and Sangh Parivar's appeal.


In its second innings Congress got bogged down in dealing with the allegations of corruption. Miscalculation of the Andhra Pradesh situation cost a southern state that solidly stood by the party during its worst of times. Congress Party's organisational machinery could not match the energy, aggression and resources of BJP's campaign in 2014. Perception of corruption in the government and the narrative of policy paralysis effectively propagated by the BJP's campaign overshadowed the government's impressive economic performance and welfare initiatives. It failed to notice that the middle class has begun to desert it in a big way. If it did, it did nothing to stem it. During the anti corruption agitation it was evident to anyone who cared to see that the youth in tier one and tier two cities and towns across the country were connecting more with the septuagenarian Anna Hazare than with a young Rahul Gandhi. Congress lacked the organisational machinery that could stop the exodus from its fold of sections that rooted for it in 2004 and 2009 elections. The government panicked and the party could not put together a coherent ideological appeal.


Serious assessment of political and ideological challenges was conspicuous by its absence in the January 2013 Jaipur Chintan Shivir of the party. Just a year before the general elections, it showed no signs of recognising the serious challenge to its power. Even after the 2014 defeat the Congress could not reposition its ideological appeal for the 2019 elections. 

Ideological engagement between Congress and BJP is unequal now. During the last seven years, Congress political attack is limited to transactional issues. It’s necessary, no doubt, but insufficient. It only targets Modi, and his government's performance. It fights shy of enlarging the scope of attack to the ideological bases of the saffron party. BJP, on the other hand, attacks the foundations of Congress, mocks at its secular project, belittles socialist policies and public sector, portrays its pluralistic approach to society as appeasement. It holds every congress leader, beginning from Jawaharlal Nehru down to Manmohan Singh, responsible for the country's ills and cancels its achievements. It deftly appropriates Congress leaders for itself. It is pushing the Congress to the fringes of India’s polity both electorally and ideologically with little resistance from Congress.

Congress seems to be distracted by the BJP-RSS public presence in the recent past from their quiet perseverance, hard and unglamorous indoctrinating work that is carried on away from limelight and is unconnected to electoral politics. This is the work that summons the dark forces of toxic and hateful othering that nourish the BJP's roots. This is the work that makes majoritarianism the new normal in the Indian political consciousness. Congress has not made efforts to respond to this work. An ensemble of organisations of the Sangh Parivar can harness the energies of a sophisticated lover of Sanskrit as well as an unlettered lumpen to its political cart. Congress woefully lacks such ideological scaffolding for its political edifice. Congress engages the BJP in merely electoral battle. Absence of concerted effort at making its idea of India accessible and appealing to the masses renders that battle unequal. It’s time for it to recognise that it is a clash between two weltanschuang, between two contending world views. Any electoral victory without addressing this challenge will only be fortuitous and temporary. It can not save the humane, diverse, plural, rational and secular idea of India. That Idea then will have to begin an agonising journey in search of a new custodian. 


That’s all for this week,

Will be back again next week, lunch time

At 1:00 o’clock 

Stay safe and do take good care of 

Yourselves and all your loved ones.

Until then, Bye.