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What Congress must do to save itself from itself

The author is a Delhi-based commentator and analyst
Published : May 29, 2019, 1:00 am IST
Updated : May 29, 2019, 1:00 am IST

The job should go to someone like Mr Chidambaram, who can draft what the party’s approach should be to the new political situation in the country.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi (Photo: G.N. Jha)
 Congress president Rahul Gandhi (Photo: G.N. Jha)

After the defeat on May 23, there were many outside supporters of the Congress Party who demanded that its president Rahul Gandhi should resign, and who felt that the “first family” of the party had become a clear liability. Mr Gandhi offered to resign immediately and he is reported to have said that the new president should be from outside the family. And it was also reported that he expressed displeasure that some of the senior leaders, including former finance minister Palaniappan Chidambaram had demanded tickets for their sons. There is no way of checking out what had really transpired at the Congress Working Committee meeting on May 25. It is hoped that the minutes of the meeting have been made and they will appear sooner than later in the series of party documents. The first thing that the party can do is to keep the record of the internal rumblings which will enable future historians of the party to make a fair assessment.

There should not be much debate whether Mr Gandhi should quit. He should, and without much ado. Apparently, he has been prevailed upon to stay on. The denouement was predictable because the party has in the last 40 years and more lost its nerve, and it feels it cannot survive as a national party without the Nehru-Gandhis at the helm. The argument has enough merit in it despite the sycophantic overtones. The party, however, cannot leave all the hard decisions to the party president, who is a member of the first family. One of the hard decisions is to elect a president who is not from the family, if he or she is a non-family person who is not actually a meek family retainer.

The job should go to someone like Mr Chidambaram, who can draft what the party’s approach should be to the new political situation in the country. Someone like Digvijaya Singh, with his stereotypical notions about secularism and socialism, is not the man of the hour, but he should be given the important assignment of getting in touch with the party’s cadres across the country.  The cadres need to be galvanised, and Mr Singh has a certain flair of working with the cadres.

It needs to be ensured that neither Mr Chidambaram nor Mr Singh should depend on the endorsement of the first family for what they do. It is not an easy task because of the factional feuds inside the party and how these factions use the family connection to checkmate their opponents. We know that Mr Singh has famously or infamously described Mr Chidambaram as intellectually arrogant, and he had to apologise for it at the insistence of then party president Sonia Gandhi. Mr Chidambaram could provide the ideas framework which the party needs, though he is not the man to reach out to the party cadres, and Mr Singh could reach out to party cadres though he did not cover himself with glory in Goa after the Assembly elections in 2017 when the Congress should have formed the government.

Mr Chidambaram would be unflinching in articulating ideas, which is necessary for the party. Of course, the party would have to debate and ratify the new ideas. But they need to be articulated in an uncompromising fashion. Populism will not save the day for the Congress. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has bolted with the horse of populism. It is time for the Congress to come up with some solid ideas about what needs to be done in the country on the economic and political fronts. It should not fall back on the old Congress vice of compromise. The Congress has got to hold on to some core ideas uncompromisingly. And the core ideas of yore like secularism and socialism do not work any longer because the country has changed. The party needs tried-and-tested veterans to steady the rocking boat. Societies and polities need ideas to cope with the future.

The transition would require Mr Gandhi not only to resign but also not to withdraw his resignation. And he should remain a part of the CWC and follow the lead of whoever replaces him. Second, Mr Gandhi can facilitate the change by not listening to the factions. There would be much internal turbulence because of this, but it will help the party to revive its spirits and shake off its decades-old passivity.

The Congress can never be a hidebound ideological party with cadres of the faithful in its ranks like the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Communist parties. It should be able to respond to the challenges of the polity at any moment. It requires the old-fashioned ear-to-the-ground sensibility and sensitivity. And its programmes should be a pragmatic response to the demands of the moment.

The Indian polity today needs a constitutional liberal party, which adheres to the system of due process and which at the same time reckons with the winds of change. The BJP is pushing the country towards a Machiavellian state of amoral power, and its core ideology of Hindutva does not provide it with a moral compass. The Congress should return morality -- and it might seem the most atrocious suggestion ever for a party that has become cynical and immoral -- to the polity by adhering to the laws of the land while upholding individual liberties. The majoritarian impulse represented by the BJP needs to be countered, and it falls to the Congress to do it.

Of course, this does not mean that the Congress will do what is required of it at this moment of history. Constitutionalism and liberalism never attracted the party. It loved the socialist adventurism even as the BJP loves the nationalist adventurism. As the BJP establishes itself as a populist right-wing party, the Congress should be the foil to the BJP by upholding the fair principles of constitutionalism and liberalism.  This is antithetical to the Nehruvian legacy of the party. Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi pushed the party towards populism and socialism of the benign kind. India has changed. The two iconic figures are antiquated. Mr Modi has appropriated Mahatma Gandhi and he could even do the same with Nehru. The Congress should do liberalism, and not populism, to be useful to the country.

Tags: rahul gandhi, digvijaya singh