This Bertolt Brecht poem could be paraphrased for Rahul Gandhi: if the people repeatedly refuse to accept his leadership, should he dissolve the people and appoint a suitable replacement? If that is not feasible, should Congress reconstruct its own leadership?
But first, we must answer two other questions. One: is Congress worth the bother? Yes, it is. It remains, emaciated as it is, a national presence that runs governments or is the principal Opposition in several states, secured 19% of the vote in the 2019 elections — five times as much as the third-largest party. Unlike regional parties, it is conditioned to think about the nation as a whole, its economic and geopolitical strategy.
It is best placed to serve as a national Opposition. Is it capable of playing that role? Sort of. In the wake of BJP chief ministers announcing plans to make laws banning ‘love jihad’, Congress leader and Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot came out with a statement defending individual liberty and attacking BJP for trying to divide society.
It might seem like scraping the bottom, in the search for an encouraging sign, to cheer this elementary defence of democratic rights. But ever since BJP and the Sangh Parivar mainstreamed their brand of social conservatism and political othering of Muslims, most parties have found it expedient to go with the flow rather than to stand up for what is right. That makes Gehlot’s statement, welcomed by other Congress leaders, a welcome show of spine and a promise of resistance to majoritarianism.
So, how should Congress reconstruct its leadership? Is escaping the grip of the Gandhi family on the political imagination of the party’s rank and file the answer? To reduce Congress failure to Rahul Gandhi’s failings would be to underestimate the problem.
Yes, Congress Matters
At its core, the problem would appear to be that Congressmen understand politics as being confined to seeking or retaining power. Power, however, is not the end goal of politics. Politics is mediating the relationship between the state and the people. To what end is what differentiates one party from another.
BJP wants to redefine Indian nationhood as Hindutva. Regional parties seek regional glory. What does Congress seek to achieve with power? From where it left off after the freedom struggle achieved its proximate goal of ending colonial rule, the goal should have been to build democracy — instituting a liberal democratic Constitution is only the beginning of the task, not its completion — empower the people, especially the traditionally disempowered, the poor in terms of income, social and cultural capital, while enabling India to secure the rightful place a nation comprising one-sixth of humanity deserves in the comity of nations.
Empowering the people is not primarily a question of government schemes for the less privileged; rather, it is a question of organising them in their various spheres of life to advance their democratic rights. Such mobilisation and organisation are vital precursors to mobilising votes in polls.
Sardar Patel is, in the discourse, a Nehru rival or a tall statue. Few Congressmen probably remember him as the organiser of the cooperative society of cattle farmers that went on to become the nucleus of the Amul revolution. Congressmen competed with Communists to organise workers and peasants. From such activity, leaders emerged.
Today’s Congress leaders emerge not from political activity on the ground, but by the patronage of the High Command. Both Jyotiraditya Scindia, who defected, and Sachin Pilot, who tried and failed, became leaders by appointment, on the strength of their lineage. One major flaw of the recent Congress campaign in Bihar was the imposition of relatively inexperienced Delhi-based appointee leaders on the local leadership of Bihar.
Issuing statements or tweeting incessantly is a tiny part of politics. Rahul Gandhi would appear to confuse it for the whole nine yards. In Kerala, Congress has to compete with the Communists and so engage with the people on a daily basis. Congress does not win or lose Kerala elections because of any Gandhi at the Centre.
In how many states are Congressmen active round the year, mobilising people vis-à-vis the state?
As BJP’s Anti-Thesis
If and when Congressmen practice everyday political activity, guided by the goal of enriching democracy, leaders would emerge from that activity, the party would regain relevance. Those leaders would elect a viable all-India leadership.
BJP is clearing the path for a Congress revival. It forced anti-CAA protesters to recognise they are fighting for democracy and rights, not for sectional patronage. BJP seeks Hindu unity, using hostility towards Muslims to transcend caste divisions. Caste-based parties cannot resist this. Only a party that unites people for democracy, regardless of caste and community, can counter this strategy. And only Congress fits the bill, at least for now.