Congress Party president Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Dr Manmohan Singh and other leaders during the second day of the 84th Plenary Session of Indian National Congress at the Indira Gandhi stadium, on 18 March 2018 in New Delhi. (Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • Does the Congress have the niyat to fix its body and mind? Or is this easier said than done?

With Rahul Gandhi relinquishing the post of Congress President through his emotional but wobbling letter, the Congress has at long last been stirred from its sloth. It is on the move, albeit unsure of the direction, just like a trekker who has lost his compass. The spate of resignations set the tone for some action at the top. Now the question in everybody’s mind is whether the Congress can revive itself.

A quick disclaimer from this author: he is perfectly happy with the defeat of the current entity that is elitist, out of touch with reality and corrupt. That their idea of India got the boot by the people of India, twice over, is a vindication of this author’s belief that in open systems an elite minority cannot hold sway for long. Every activist wears the hat of an analyst at some point and looks at a political organisation just like a management consultant looks at a client organisation.

It is said that a week is long time in politics. But looking far into 2024, the chances of the Congress party looks bleak. There are fundamental issues staring at the party. Let’s break it down into three broad categories — ideology, organisation and leadership.

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Ideology

The Congress in the last few years has behaved more like a fringe or an upcoming party. It has adopted outrage as a strategy backed by nothing. The Rafale campaign is a glorious example. Such tactics are operated by say an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) or an All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM). They stay in the news and invigorate their small cadre base by manufacturing or getting involved in outrage.

The Congress’ siding with the “tukde tukde” gang did them no favours. They did not act as the responsible Grand Old Party. Perhaps the Congress leadership --- lacking a clear ideology --- became susceptible to the ideas of the new entrants in the organisation. These new entrants won over the leadership by showing the glitz of social media, apps and “big data”.

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The party dilly-dallied in presenting an authentic picture on where it stood on the idea of secularism. On the one hand it wanted to pander to its traditional vote bank, earning the epithet of “Muslim appeasers”, and on the other hand, to counter this perception, it made its leader drag himself to temples. In the end, it fooled nobody. It is time the party clearly states its stand on secularism and acts on it consistently to win the trust of both Hindus and Muslims.

In the economic sphere, the Congress perhaps missed an opportunity to spell out a clear economic paradigm. They failed to differentiate themselves. Perhaps the taint of corruption on senior leaders lead them to not tom-tom the high growth rate of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) era. Their successes in liberalization of the economy found no place in their narrative. Nor did they completely vouch for “pro-poor” government doles. The “Rs 72,000 plan” in their manifesto came too late and got buried in the other narratives of the campaign.

Going forward, the Congress could do well to clearly articulate a socio-economic vision and go all over India selling it. It should present people with a clear choice. Presenting a grand vision for the uncertain decade ahead is an opportunity that they can use. It should not be forgotten that democracy, though manifested by people, is a contest of ideas.

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Organisation

To say that the central party organisation inspires no confidence at all will be an understatement. The fossilized Congress Working Committee (CWC), where some people never seem to leave, creates an image of stasis. Metaphorically, the sewage pipe is blocked leaving behind a septic pool.

Only 19 of the 54 CWC members (including invitees) contested the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, of which 16 lost. Some had never won an election. A few had contested elections in the 1980s. G Sanjiva Reddy takes the cake --- he last contested in 1967!

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The current CWC should be reconstituted with people who have won in 2014 and 2019 --- the Congress’ toughest ever elections. The winning leaders from Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and new faces from places where it has performed well such as from Tamil Nadu should be inducted---maybe also including a few from Gujarat and Karnataka.

One of the reasons for the woolly-headed ideas preached in the recent elections was that the current CWC is woefully out of touch with reality. They have perhaps hung on by playing parlour games in the corridors of power. The CWC has to have more leaders that grew from ground up.

More people who truly represent the aspirations of the common people --- than that of the elite voices of Delhi --- should find place in the higher echelons of the party. The liberal ecosystem that the Congress patronized has been among the biggest reasons for its downfall. The supercilious and deracinated bunch that used to enjoy the fruits of power was allowed to dictate the ideology of the party. Only a weak organisation will allow such a thing to happen.

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What manifests as “strong regional satraps” in states where the Congress has won, are places where the organisation is less influenced by the English-speaking elites. One has to listen to the interviews of Bhupesh Bagel to realize that the Congress cupboard is not bare. Taking a cue from Mao, it is perhaps the best time to “bombard the headquarters”.

Leadership

While the Delhi echo chamber is loud with calls for the Gandhis to get lost, the chances of the Congress holding-up without them are slim. It is a recipe for instability. The Trinamool (TMC) and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) examples quickly come to mind. In the absence of a strong ideology, the only glue that holds it together is tradition. The regional leaders have no incentive to pay their homage to anyone else.

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The Congress could address the problem by de-linking the role of the Congress president from the Gandhi family. For example, their constitution could be amended to have a small core group at the top of the CWC that will be under the control of the Gandhi family either through a majority or a veto. The incumbent president could be part of the group. Or, the Gandhis can stay outside and influence by “moral suasion”. But such a move has the inherent risks of their diktats being gradually overridden by the formal structure.

Once the Congress fixes its ideology, organisation and leadership it will be at least ready for the battle. Only after this comes finance, political strategy, campaign tactics etc. And they will have to confront the finest campaigners India has ever seen in Modi and Shah.

The Congress should take a lesson from Prime Minister Modi when he talks about “Niti (Policy)” and “Niyat (Intention)”. Without good Niyat, no Niti they propagate will be palatable to the people. It has to refurbish its image to become a no-nonsense, non-corrupt political party with a will to win. That is a tall task and will take time.

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The Congress still has a semblance of a cadre base and a vigilant ecosystem that it has assiduously built in the media and the academia. With clever use of technology and social media it can make up for the weakness in its cadre to take their message to the people. But before all these battles, the Congress has to first fix its body and mind. Readers of self-help books will testify that this is easier said than done.

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