Building a New Congress

In Cover Story

By Prof. D.K. Giri, Secretary general of ADS, Political Analyst and Author

The Congress Party is moribund if not disintegrating. In the leader-based politics, the new normal across the democracies, the Congress is suffering from a leadership vacuum. The interim President, Smt Sonia Gandhi who led the party successfully including two terms in government from 2004-2014 is not in the best of health. She had demitted office and was succeeded by Rahul Gandhi who resigned owning moral responsibility for the defeat of 2019 general elections. Mrs. Gandhi had to take over the leadership again until a new president was elected. Interestingly, there is no strong contender inside for the top post of the party.

Indira Gandhi split the Congress in 1969 to counter the ‘syndicate’ that had expelled her for party indiscipline, and formed her faction of the party. Her group called Congress (R) secured a massive victory in 1971 elections and the other faction, Congress (O) did poorly. Congress (R) then became Congress (I) in 1978 when Indira and Sanjay split the party again; ( I )standing for Indira. Since then, Congress got identified with the Indira Gandhi family. Rajiv succeeded her as Prime Minister, and after the brief interregnum of five years under the premiership of Narasimha Rao, the leadership returned to the family as Sonia Gandhi became the President.

The perception among the party leaders and cadres perpetuates, “the party cannot hold together without a member of the Gandhi family at the helm”. So as the new leadership is being discussed there are at least three points of view. One, Rahul Gandhi should be brought back in keeping with the established perception of the party unity under Gandhi family; second, there should be an open election to let the most popular candidate emerge as the president; third, Priyanka Gandhi, who appears to be more ambitious and engaging should take over. However, the first option sounds more tangible as Sonia Gandhi would like it to happen.

Outside the Congress the perception is, “the Congress Party cannot stay united without the Gandhi family leading it, and the party cannot win power under the leadership of Gandhis”. So the Congress is caught in a catch -22 situation. But in reality, that is not the case. The Congress should resolve to take either of the options and make the best of it. The party is not on the defensive because of the weak leadership or the so-called burden of Gandhis.

It is struggling for want of a winnable platform. Despite the richer intellect of the party than even the ruling BJP, the Congress is unable to ideologically and intellectually transform itself in keeping with the changing times. The BJP has done better in evolving newer ideas even though they are controversial and often regressive.

The Leadership Question

After the short analysis of the problem besetting the party, let us proffer some ideas on revamping the organisation and renewing the policy platform. On rebooting the party organisation, certain new organising principles have to be adopted. The organisational elections should be skipped as they invariably divide the party or create conflict among contending leaders. The Party should nominate five wise (wo)men who should widely consult the party members and decide on a leader.

This is called an uncontested election practiced by parties in advanced democracies like Sweden. The Swedish Socialist Party (SAP) which is as old as Congress never had internal elections in the party. This principle could be used at central, state and local levels of the party. The President then constitutes his/her team to run the party.

The party President should be aided at least by four Vice Presidents, representing four geographical regions. The General secretaries and secretaries should report to the Vice Presidents. The President should be in regular touch with the Vice Presidents and personally meet them once a month. The President should also have dedicated and defined time to meet the party leaders, and should have open house once a month to meet party cadres without appointment. The number of people meeting could be decided by picking up a certain number of requests on first-come-first-serve basis.

Those who could not meet the president first time,  could be pushed to the waiting list for the next meeting. It will inspire and encourage the party cadres to meet the president in person. When the president is on tour, s(he) should mark some time out for the party workers reducing the crowd in Delhi wanting to meet. The direct connect with the national president will do a world of good to the morale of the party workers.

Let us dispel the myth of dynasty and nepotism in the parties. I was personally against the family domination of a party as it runs counter to democratic politics. Family rule is akin to ‘divine right to leadership’ simply by virtue of being born in a particular family. But if the party cadres and leaders choose a leader from the family, a son or a daughter, wife or husband, so be it. It is the choice and prerogative of the party to chose who they should be led by.

And for various sociological and cultural reasons, family is commonplace in many sectors of our lives- business, professional fields, and even cinema where physical features and talents sell. So why pick on politics alone? There are political families from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. It should now be taken as an established practice in politics. One thing also is to remember that, although family members can occupy party positions by nomination, they cannot enter the legislatures without getting elected by the people. So, they derive their political legitimacy from direct elections.

New Congress, New Politics

The Congress being the oldest party in the country, it seems naturally exhausted of ideas and strategies. It has hardly renewed itself in terms of ideology and policies. Rajiv Gandhi did introduce quite a few new policies- harnessing new technologies like expanding the use of telephones to remote areas, anti-defection law, reviving the local governments, bringing professionals into politics and so on. But there was no renewal of the ideology.

For instance, redefining or replacing the nebulous concept of Secularism, a concrete, unambiguous attitude to Business in order to build our economy, a more engaging foreign policy. In fact, on secularism, Rajiv Gandhi, owing to wrong advice, tried to muddle through. In order to pander to the Muslim clergy after the Supreme Court judgement in favour of Shah Bano, he nullified the judgement by a new legislation. And then to reach out to Hindus in order to balance the perception of being pro-Muslim fundamentalist, he opened the gates of Babri Masjid for Hindus to worship. Rest is history.

If Congress wants to return to power, it must rebuild its ideological platform in response to the changing times and social and economic realities. The Congress occasionally seems to come under the Communist influence which is worrying. This has been the tendency of the leadership since the days of Nehru who was often labelled as a crypto-Communist for following the Soviet model of centralised planning etc. Communism is dead, buried deep, any attempt to revive it will be futile. One is surprised that Congress has been in formal alliance with the Communists in Bengal. Congress has to retrieve and occupy the Centre-Left Space which is vacant but is a winner.

The country is split between the Right represented by BJP and the Left lead by Communists and Congress, supported unknowingly perhaps by some erstwhile Socialists. This points to electoral tragedy that is visiting the Non-BJP forces time and again. A new platform anchored on a centre-left ideology (social democracy) merits a larger discussion. The key to rebuilding the platform will be to drop the concept of Secularism and replace it by pluralism. I know this proposition will ruffle the feathers of many leaders, which is precisely the idea to make them rethink radically,.

Congress and the non-BJP Alliance

There are suggestions that a Non-BJP alliance should be built by Non-Congress initiatives and parties. This is because the perceived state of affairs in the Congress party.  Let us do a reality check. The Congress is the largest party in opposition in the Parliament. It rules in a greater number of states than any other non-BJP party, six states in alliance or alone, was manoeuvred out of governments in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. Some states are run by ex-Congress leaders like Jagan Mohan Reddy and Mamata Banerjee. So, Congress is still the biggest opposition party. Yes, for the time being, Congress is perhaps  not able to command the goodwill of the other opposition parties, and UPA is in limbo, for the precise reasons mentioned here, the organisational entropy at the centre, and the failure to renew itself ideologically. But both could change with right inputs into the leadership and a shift in the intra-party culture.

It will be a tall order to build a non-BJP alliance without Congress as some observes suggest (Harish Khare, the Hindu, 4th January 2021). Khare contends that BJP and the Congress are parts of the same coin and urges a popular front to challenge both. The third force in India has dismembered itself long time ago, and attempts to put it back into one body have failed. Congress could still be the fulcrum of the non-BJP alliance including the activation of UPA. Admittedly, if the Congress is taking time to resolve its leadership issue, or even after it is settled, another leader from a smaller party could be its convener, as George Fernandes and then Sharad Yadav were the conveners of NDA. Congress should still retain its pre-eminence being the biggest party of the block

The need of the hour however is to rebuild the Congress party organisationally and ideologically. Do hope, the leaders of Congress respond to this historic call and take  momentous decisions.

1. Femme au miroir II (Woman in the Mirror). Julio González (Barcelona, 1876-Paris, 1942). Gender and the body. Gender stereotypes.

2. Spanish Sketches. Pilar Viviente. Gender Stereotypes.

3. She Didn’t Call It Home, But It’s All She Had. Natividad Navalón. Gender and attire, Gender and the body, Gender identity.

4. Poster by Valentina Kulagina (Moscow, 1902-1987). Gender roles, Gender and social class, Gender and history.

5. Ways of Washing. Olga Olivera Tabeni. Gender Roles.

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