Shikha Mukerjee | Congress must forge unity out of its internal diversity

Columnist  | Shikha Mukerjee

Opinion, Columnists

The Congress has shown unexpected focus and discipline

There are three challenges that this collection of leaders have identified as critical to the revival of the institution, which, if it is achieved in the next round of Assembly elections, will position the Congress to do the absolutely necessary heavy lifting for the INDIA alliance in 2024. (Image: PTI)

The Congress Party is entirely truthful when its leader Rahul Gandhi acknowledges that the party is not an organisation; his take is that it is a movement. Earlier generations described the party as a platform. The Congress is certainly an institution and the purpose of the two-day Congress Working Committee meeting in Hyderabad of some 80 leaders was to motivate the top brass into working together as an organisation: a lean, mean fighting machine that can deliver election wins instead of losses or misses.

There are three challenges that this collection of leaders have identified as critical to the revival of the institution, which, if it is achieved in the next round of Assembly elections, will position the Congress to do the absolutely necessary heavy lifting for the INDIA alliance in 2024. There is no escaping the responsibility that the Congress has to confront the gigantic machinery of the Bharatiya Janata Party, with its limitless resources and the advantage that comes with being the defending champion with a superstar whose cult following exceeds by far the popular appeal of any other leader in India today.

The three challenges are -- one, to convert the “movement” into an organisation to fight the five state elections in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha battle; two, iron out wrinkles, frictions, factional fights and convince wilful, feckless, self-serving leaders to work for the party, ailments that are as endemic as they are debilitating to the 138-year-old institution; three, forge working relationships with hitherto sworn enemies to create the foundations of the INDIA alliance. The good thing is that these are three short-term goals that are like the preliminaries before the main test, when the Congress has to be ready to engage in single combat with the BJP in about 200 seats.

Getting powerful state satraps to serve an organisational goal in the Congress is as big a challenge for the leadership as is facing off with the BJP and the cult that has grown around Prime Minister Narendra Modi, snidely described as “bhakts” by the progressive chattering classes on the social media. Even as the CWC kicked off to a big start, with the ailing Sonia Gandhi in attendance, in Chhattisgarh, a state where elections are due around November, the recently promoted deputy chief minister T.S. Singh Deo struck a discordant note by praising Narendra Modi sky high for Centrally-designed schemes that are under implementation in the state. This is just one example of the capacity of Congress leaders to inflict injury, create dissonance, light a fuse in the moment when doing so increases the vulnerability of the party to the advantage of the competition.

Making mischief in the name of doing good is a signature move within the Congress. Even as the CWC proceeded to discuss the long agenda that Mallikarjun Kharge had put together for the meeting, there were leaders like Ajay Maken and P.S. Bajwa raising questions about the dependability of the Aam Aadmi Party as a member of the INDIA alliance. By outing their doubts, Mr Maken and Mr Bajwa brought into focus the difficulties that the Congress faces vis-à-vis its hitherto sworn enemies. By making it sound as though these were irreconcilable differences, the idea and the process of forging a united alliance against a common enemy, which is the larger picture, was undermined, even if temporarily.

Mr Kharge has been explicit about his expectations from the members of the CWC and in doing so has set himself a very tough task. That he did not ignore the problems within the party he was elected to lead is a measure of how he determined he is to make the organisation a stable and sustainable instrument for big and small political purposes. It is intriguing that the media did not swamp the public with a flood of stories about the dissensions and cross-cutting conversations that must have taken place during the two-day deliberations. By all accounts, there were no rebel groups that set themselves up as standard-bearers of the institution or guardians of the sacred tenets, whatever those may be.

With what is now characteristic of Mr Kharge, he set out his agenda and his expectations. He pointed out that the “challenges aren’t just those of the Congress Party; they concern the survival of Indian democracy and the preservation of the Constitution of India”. With brutal accuracy, Mr Kharge politely told off the Congress leadership and handed out a job profile: “This is not the time for us to rest”.

The unvarnished truth that the Congress won in Karnataka because “organisational unity is of utmost importance… only through unity and discipline can we defeat our adversaries” -- was both a challenge to the factional warriors in the party and a caution that Mr Kharge delivered during the CWC meeting and put it out on “X” to make sure that there was no distortions in what he said and expected. The end goal was “we must unite and overthrow this dictatorial government in order to save our democracy”. He was explicit: “In the last 10 years under BJP rule, the challenges faced by ordinary people have multiplied”. His prescription was equally direct: “We must work tirelessly, putting aside personal interests. We must prioritise the success of the party putting aside our personal differences.”

By dodging the snares that the BJP has planted, like the Prime Minister hitting out at the “INDI Alliance”, calling it “ghamandiya” (arrogant), and claiming that the nation would be set back by a thousand years, which has to be understood as a reference to Mughal times in the RSS chronology, for it has a “hidden agenda of attacking Sanatan Dharma, which they want to destroy”, the Congress has shown unexpected focus and discipline. The choice of Hyderabad for the CWC meeting is another instance of its renewal; it hopes to, at least, jostle the BJP out of the running as the principal challenger to K. Chandrashekhar Rao’s Bharat Rashtra Samithi, if not actually win the state.

The Congress leaders have collectively handed themselves a task list: the five state elections where their determination and winning capabilities will be tested. The state elections will be a face-off between Narendra Modi and INDIA, with the Congress going to war on behalf of the alliance. To an extent, what is won and/or lost in the state elections will contribute to building capacities within INDIA as a group and the Congress, which has the biggest stake, for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.