Anand K. Sahay | Can Kharge & Rahul's yatra energise Cong, target govt?

The vastly-experienced Mallikarjun Kharge, from the large, oppressed Dalit community, has convincingly won the Cong presidential election

Update: 2022-10-27 17:44 GMT
Congress leader and Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge (ANI)

The Congress president’s election inhabits a different sphere from the Bharat Jodo Yatra. But the two have an embryonic connection that can’t be overlooked. If the protagonists keep this in view, the result can be energising for the Congress; if not, the two -- standing in isolation or in disregard of one another -- can wither, giving the ruling establishment a freer run than before.

Rahul Gandhi’s long march is a month and a half old, and has covered about one-third of the distance it set out to traverse. The response so far has been overwhelming. Of course, the more difficult part -- northern India’s terrain, where the Congress organisation is jaded due to inadequate attention by the Congress leadership (meaning the Gandhis themselves) -- is still to come.

Yet there is no gainsaying that Rahul Gandhi, helming the Yatra, is now in public perception a very different political figure than earlier. The BJP’s propaganda campaign of many years, which depicted him as an incompetent who thought he was the entitled one due to his heredity, had worked but has now fallen into disrepute.

Mr Gandhi calls a spade a spade. He challenges the Narendra Modi government’s policies upfront, eliciting praise of even critics. He doesn’t get personal. He shows no bitterness although the government has been nasty. He seems serene – almost like the Dalai Lama, a world figure of the first rank who battles an implacable, hostile dictatorship.

As a scare tactic, the Centre has thrown the Enforcement Directorate and the CBI at Mr Gandhi and his ailing mother Sonia Gandhi, in the manner these things are done to political opponents and dissidents in crude autocracies where the welfare of the people is the last thing on the government’s mind.

What’s true is that the rulers have gone after political opponents in practically every state in an effort to demoralise, defeat and denude opponents of legitimacy and to spread the message that those offering succour to the government’s critics could find themselves in serious trouble. Those within the ruling party but not inside the controlling factions have also earned the establishment’s ire, as Union minister Nitin Gadkari might know.

Recent Chinese manoeuvres come to mind as deplorable means are employed. Strong-arm tactics characterise government-opponent ties. All of government seems to be directed at feeding the hubris of those who matter and to advance ideas and modes of thought that close out democratic ideals and aspirations.

In such circumstances, the limitations of the forum of Parliament -- in the forging of government policies, discussing national questions, or debating the country’s future -- are all too obvious, causing anxiety about the stability and longevity of the institution of Parliament as envisaged in the Constitution.

Our Parliament can only work when all parties agree on the basics, treat genuine debate and discussion as an article of faith, show respect, not just technical tolerance for opponents, and demonstrate determination to not use extra-judicial force or violence against ruling party critics or any section of the people -- on any pretext.

This is far from being the case in “New India”. Values of parliamentary life and parliamentary procedures are now noted for their conspicuous disregard.

What can be more compelling than a discussion on China -- a hostile neighbour -- having occupied traditional Indian lands in Ladakh for over two years? But that isn’t permitted. What comes through loudest in New India is self-serving propaganda about Very Old “India” from a time when, in fact, there was no India.

In Parliament, there is seldom more than a superficial discussion or a ministerial statement on the jobs situation, on the hunger index or on the nuts and bolts of policies on Kashmir or the Northeast. The government doles out clichés, hyperbole, and anti-Opposition rhetoric and substance stands overlooked.

On the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Mr Gandhi noted the government refuses to let Opposition parties express themselves in Parliament, and that’s why he thought to connect with the people direct and talk to them about national concerns. He has a point we can ill afford to ignore.

When discussion through consensual channels is refused, as a society we could court disaster.

The vastly-experienced Mallikarjun Kharge, from the large, oppressed Dalit community, has convincingly won the Congress’ presidential election. He bears an extraordinary burden. He comes in at a time when the party has been at its weakest, when India is in a state of social and economic crisis -- a situation that lures moral decay. The party is also up against an overbearing, hostile establishment. Mr Kharge must take charge straightaway.

He will have to choose his tactics and instruments, and gather advisors from various states without losing time -- in fact, before a fresh Congress Working Committee can be elected and the Parliamentary Board set up. There are too many state elections coming up before the next Lok Sabha polls in about 18 months, to permit delay. Pressing questions abound. For instance, can Mr Kharge leverage his caste background for elections?

There may be a historical necessity for the new president to craft a relationship in relation to the storied Gandhis, who have shaped the Congress’ broad path since Independence, but also miscalculated and erred. They have voluntarily excluded themselves from the leadership stakes. Now they can only go as far as their name and reputation carries them.

If the new party leader were to heed his critics -- who are the same as those of the Gandhis and the Congress itself -- he should seek to exile the Gandhis to oblivion to show he is his own man. This will please the rulers, not just Congress critics.

In that event, it is clear that Mr Kharge will preclude himself from establishing synergy with the Bharat Jodo Yatra which has created buzz of a kind not heard for decades. BJY is already making the opponents nervous. The BJP, for instance, announced a yatra in Gujarat but quickly scrapped it, fearing drawing unfavourable comparison with Mr Gandhi’s march.

The BJY is of the Gandhian civil disobedience mould, not aiming at an imperious assault on the citadel as, say, the JP movement was. This is one of its strengths. It is noticeably a gathering force which can attract unlike elements that may be harnessed to a common cause -- defining of regeneration – and raise a non-violent, civil disobedience-style challenge to the all-round political repression of the government’s opponents that combines with severe deterioration in the nation’s social and economic life, leading to a level of deep-going polarisation India hasn’t experienced at any time in the past.


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