Can Rahul Gandhi (RG) be the Prime Minister in 2024? Yes, he can. He represents the largest opposition party in the country with a national presence and character. However, he embodies and advocates a set of political values which are more maligned by the media than measured by masses. He needs an authentic articulation of his principles and personality with workable advice and effective support, which in management parlance is called branding. RG lacks both, and worse, is not seeking it seriously and systematically.
At the writing, RG is being briefed on 2024 election strategy by the ‘noted strategist’ Prasant Kishore (PK), who has been in sporadic courtship with Congress party since 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections. One can understand the desperation of the Congress which is catching at the proverbial last straw to return to power.
I am not sure of what PK brings to the table on Indian politics. We know what he does not. He has no ideology, as he has criss-crossed quite a few political parties and worked across the ideological spectrum. Just a few weeks ago, he was nibbling at Congress from the TMC platform and was seducing away leaders from INC to TMC. PK does not adhere to any organising principle of a political party. He relates to the Head of a party, and under his or her patronage, runs over the rest of the leadership, impinging on the intra-party process of consultation, conciliation and accommodation.
Third, he has no intellectual-political training. He worked mostly in the development sector. The only party he had joined is JD(U) in his home state, but managed to get expelled from it in months. Also, according to election observers, he works well on a winning side. Mamata Banerjee would have won the last Assembly elections with or without any consultant.
Be that as PK may, I do not grudge the Congress Party for falling back on him as he is the only one visible around. If INC does need consultants from outside the party, they could have advertised nationally, heard more presentations to choose from. One need not be shy of seeking professional consultancy from outside the party, in keeping with the famous advice of French strongman in 1970s, president Charles De Gaulle, “Politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians”.
Actually, the Congress does not need an election strategist, there are veterans in the party who have fought and won several elections. Besides, Congress has a vast mass support and sympathisers who need to be energised and enticed into the party by a radical transformation of the party in terms of principles, policies and perceptions, and of course the organisation. One of the oldest parties in the world needs to be reinvented and re-incarnated. An election strategy without the process of transformation is putting the cart before the horse.
Since our politics is leadership based, let us start with the leader of the party. RG is the indispensable leader of the party, without him at the helm, the party will split in weeks. RG should lead with courage and conviction, the former he is full of. He should be pushing, striving, and driving everyday in the week at this juncture. Politics does not require university degrees, but it does call for deep thinking. RG should think, analyse, dissect a problem from the first principle, deconstruct it and then construct solutions. That said, RG should do practical, common sense, progressive politics that is conducive to work for the people. RG should identify himself as a progressive.
Who is a progressive? Briefly, a progressive is one who is committed to social justice; believes in the power of the society to create opportunity, prosperity and hope for the people. Second, a progressive should transcend the left-right divide, position at the centre. The left -right divide corresponds to ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ positions. A progressive should champion the ‘open’ position. Barack Obama was known for reaching out and over to partisan divisions. RG should do similar to build consensus politics. This will be a perfect anti-dote to the pernicious politics of polarisation, experienced at present. Third, the Progressives should embrace a concept of the state, that actively empowers people to make their own choices, and does not try to do it for them.
These are appetisers for RG to go for more such radical review of the party’s ideological platform. Many of the principles Congress has been embedded with have become outdated, needing replacement. Congress is failing to do so, the BJP is filling the gaps effectively, but with wrong substitutes. Take one example, which has been a drag on the Congress while catapulting BJP to power. That is the principle of secularism.
Secularism has become controversial. Congress and other parties have been accused of minority-ism or pseudo-secularism, whereas BJP is said to be promoting Hindutva, or majoritarianism. Secularism in India is different from what the western countries understand it to be. That is where it seems to have got muddled and become nebulous. In the West, secularism, in French laicite, meant separation of state from the religion. Secular meant non-religious. But, in India, although we do not have a state religion, state gets involved in religious matters. In Indian constitution, secularism means, (i) equal respect for all religions; and (ii) and equal distance from all religions. Whether it was possible, even in principle, for the state to maintain those (equi-distance and respect) is a matter of debate, which we do not engage in here. Secularism as it has been explained, understood, and practiced, seems to be a failed concept. We need to substitute it with a more viable concept, pluralism.
Many countries in the world are diverse by nature, but they do not practice pluralism. They do not recognise multiple identities, suppress the weaker ones. Pluralism essentially means co-existence of multiple identities. Plurality or diversity is a fact, but pluralism is a value orientation, an attitude, and a principle. In order to build a pluralist society, there has to be recognition and celebration of identities, and an order of equality. In a plural society, identity groups are different but equal, not inferior or superior. For instance, religious majority does not treat a minority as inferior, or a bigger linguistic group does not suppress a smaller linguistic one. In India, the people from North call those from North-east as Chingi, or from South India as Madrasee. To be sure, discrimination is the enemy of pluralism, whereas practice of egalitarianism leads to pluralism.
On organisation, the party leadership should be dual in composition -the party Chairman, not president, and the leader of the Parliamentary party (Lok Sabha), who will be the PM candidate. Having a chairman, in lieu of President, will dilute the focus on the President as the sole leader, greater than the leader of the party in Lok Sabha.
The Congress should constitute collective leadership with the party chairman as the facilitator. That will give a clear alternative to a new organizing principle in the days of single leader-based politics, a presidential form, and counter the so-called charisma of Narendra Modi.
postscript: this article was written at the tine PK was presenting his ideas to the Congress for its revival. No one knows for sure, why the bargaining failed. Then Congress went into the Chintan Sibir, at Udaipur. Not much substantial change was initiated in the Udaipur conclave. Another article by the author will be carried on the Chintan Sibir and its aftermath. Watch out for this column.
Prof. D.K.Giri is an author and a political analyst
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