Sonia Gandhi is in frail health. She had to leave New Delhi for a while on medical advice in order to escape the winter pollution. Is there a vacancy at the top that can be filled in orderly fashion and even routine party functioning restored, or will the old firm break? India’s founding party may just be at that sort of moment.
Should the Congress break, it is unlikely to become two as in 1969, and then again become one under a decisive leader. There is no such leader on the horizon. It will therefore likely become several regional entities, and then probably scatter like the Janata Party, which had some big names in it but no stalwart with mass, nationwide, appeal.
Mrs Gandhi had pulled a rabbit out of the hat when she produced two UPA governments at the Centre on the trot through sheer political sagacity, coalition-building prowess, and light-touch political management. This reprieve for the Congress was gained in 2004 in the face of sheer adversity and was the more remarkable for that.
The circumstances then were not propitious. The BJP had come into its own and formed governments at the Centre under a well-liked figure. In contrast, the Congress had haemorrhaged. Key party leaders -- Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee -- had split away in the late 1990s, with Ms Banerjee even joining the BJP-led NDA alliance for a while and Mr Pawar doing tactical manoeuvres with the BJP as per his convenience, although he would later join the UPA government.
While Mrs Gandhi’s shepherding of her party in such circumstances is the stuff of folklore, it is now equally plain that in those years of wielding power (2004-14) the Congress leadership did little to ground the party organisation and nurture it, although it was clear that a cadre and ideology-based national party -- so far on the fringes-- had already emerged as an alternative.
The Congress had little to offer to counter the ideological propaganda of the RSS-BJP. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government had delivered a sustained average rate of economic growth of nearly eight per cent per annum over a 10-year period. The Congress gullibly thought this would be enough to see it through in the elections.
This was a gross underestimation of the power of industrial-scale communal propaganda, aided by a hostile media which, effectively, acted as a force-multiplier. The media’s stance was an indication that India’s big business was far from pleased with the Manmohan-Sonia government. The reason was that the government had gone well outside the prism of a hundred-per-cent-market focus to extend benefits to poorer communities. This was too much for the corrupt, self-serving, elite.
At the same time, the small and medium companies and the urban middle classes and the rural communities -- the very sections for whom Congress rule had been benign -- became hostage to the continuous stream of a vicious, communal, mind-bending, propaganda onslaught. These in fact participated, happily, in preparing the ground for the mythical hero to arrive -- one who will slay every demon.
The Congress comprehensively failed to meet the challenge of majoritarian right-wing elements because it had frittered away the thought-and-action system nurtured by Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhash Chandra Bose, Maulana Azad and countless fearless men and women who gave their lives for an ideal that would necessarily unify India, rather than divide it, or cater only to particular sections of it.
Rajiv Gandhi downwards, the Congress projected itself merely as a party of governance -- and not one that united the people on the basis of effective policies, effectively communicated.
This is fundamentally why it permitted itself, in slow stages, to overlook the importance of having a worthwhile party organisation. Even when a party has an active ideological ingredient, it is of no use when there is no organisation to back it, and to disseminate it. And the Congress, for long, has become a party which, in the main, has left its ideology on a museum shelf. It also lacks an organisation.
Ideology and organisation are indeed inextricably bound. There is some irony in the fact that prominent Congress dissidents -- who go under the rubric of G-23 -- rightly underline a democratically elected organisation but do not even mention ideology. That is a fool’s errand.
Once the Congress’ demise is guaranteed, how long many of the so-called secular regional parties, or those on the Left, survive is also a matter of conjecture. Historically, these are -- in the main – a derivative of the wider “Congress system” that Rajni Kothari spoke of, although each emphasised specific concerns (some caste, some class) and arose in opposition to the Congress. This question needs be considered in the face of entrenchment in power of a far-right, chauvinist, cadre-based, party whose priority is to mobilise the resources, agencies, departments and all institutions of the State -- including the uniformed forces and the judiciary – to obliterate other political parties, big or small. The Constitution of India can then simply be dispatched to a dusty corner of the archives.
Rahul Gandhi, an honourable and intelligent man, had resigned as party president on a point of principle. He supports democratic elections from top to bottom. He must be permitted to have his way.
Among the contemporary generation, he alone displays an ideological will. Let him provide that ballast to his party and not be distracted by the burden of dynasty.