Congress Needs to Make a Comeback for Democracy to Sustain Itself

Congress’ revival is important, as its fall will not only be terrible for the party but also for democracy itself.

5 min read
Congress Needs to Make a Comeback for Democracy to Sustain Itself

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Indian politics for far too long has been dominated by pragmatists more interested in patronage than in ideology. Also, political leaders have long focused on political expansion and tokenism than on good governance. A few examples should suffice –

  • Prasenjit Bose heading the research unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI (M)) was expelled from the party for questioning its decision to support the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA’s) Presidential candidate Pranab Mukherjee. Support for Mukherjee, while opposing his neoliberal regime, left many in the party anguished and depressed.
  • Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee sought the removal of its railway minister Dinesh Trivedi hours after he proposed a hike in railway passenger fares. It was a strange situation in the country’s parliamentary history, as the discussion on the Railway Budget presented by the minister was still to take place. Trivedi resigned.
  • Congress leader Abhishek Singhvi, who won his Rajya Sabha seat from West Bengal with support from the TMC appeared in the Supreme Court for the Mamata government to oppose the demand for deployment of central forces in the state panchayat elections. It was at a time when state Congress President Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury moved the Calcutta High Court for stationing central paramilitary forces in the state to ensure a free-and-fair panchayat elections.
  • Naresh Agrawal, a habitual political grasshopper’s induction into the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) despite their resentful past.
  • And then Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking party MPs to spend at least "two nights in Dalit-dominated villages to 'restore' the faith of the community in BJP", and Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s newfound love for temples.

Too busy to read? Listen to it instead.

We live in a world gripped by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. And in this world, as political liberalism may seem to make political beliefs take a back seat to the practical imperatives of politics, 'photo-op' images and 'sound-bite' phrases become politicians' marketing ploys. All is fair in politics, and Indian democracy is robust enough to absorb all these grave political actions and provocations, acquiescently.

The 2019 general election is still a year away, and it’s too early to predict the outcome. However, it doesn’t take a political genius to gather that the wind is at the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance’s back, and in the Opposition’s face, that is, the Congress or Congress-led Opposition.

Congress as a Major Opposition Force

In the world’s largest democracy, the shrinking political space of a 133-year-old national party is as disconcerting for the party as it is for democracy itself. And therefore, the Congress’s revival is crucial for the nation and challenging for its party leadership. The task is made tougher as sub-optimal leadership faces the task of rebuilding the party and restructuring its shattered image and appeal.

The recently held All India Congress Committee’s 84th Plenary Session fell well short of providing a clear road map to deal with the country’s major problems, and charting out strategies to expose the NDA government’s failure assertively.

It stressed on strategic alliances with like-minded parties, espousing a pragmatic approach for cooperation with other parties to trounce the BJP-led government. The strategy, not new, not radical, is hardly to galvanise pan-India grassroots level workers and help stem the Congress’ rise organisationally. Thus, the party lost an opportunity to excite and engage the rank and file.

Despite all this, the Congress is hugely relevant even today and will remain so in the foreseeable future. The rise of regional parties has undeniably altered the very nature of electoral politics in India. However, the more such parties wrest control over the shape of governance in the capital, the less the opportunity for pan-India level progressive policy measures in the country.

It’s primarily because regional parties fractured by hyper-partisanship, regional issues and regional sentiment hardly overcome political myopia. Therefore, there is a need for a stronger national party at the Centre to ensure governance which is result-oriented, anticipatory, collaborative, and transparent.

It’s said that when opportunity comes, the opposition often follows. Also, more the opposition, the greater is the opportunity to dislodge the dispensation in power. Thus, the Congress-led Opposition stands a chance to their advantage, as the BJP’s identity as nationalistic, principled and invincible has started crumbling gradually. The central issues include –

  • The Modi government’s failure to address critical issues: from agrarian to unemployment
  • Lingering effects of demonetisation
  • Dissatisfaction among people, particularly the aspirational class, which is not restricted to the urban middle classes alone, but also poor
  • Discontent of allies
  • Modi’s failure to contain fringe elements that left people exasperated

The Way Forward for Congress

Lately though, in an effort to restructure the party, Gandhi has infused young blood in some important party positions, indicating a generational shift in party functioning. However, such measures remained restricted to appointment of some AICC in-charges for some states. If the party wants to move from a dwindling support base to that of a governing party, it needs to address the following:

  • Central leadership to greatly improve its accessibility to the state leadership and the state leadership to the districts and blocks
  • The party’s rank and file is not just looking for a major organisational overhaul, it is actually looking for an inspiring leadership, direction and innovative ideas
  • The mistakes the Congress party made in the past – ignoring or undermining important regional leaders – cost it dearly. Few times in the Congress history has there been a greater need for central leadership support, for leaders to build bridges, not walls. The party must not lose Mamata Banerjees and Himanta Biswa Sarmas any further
  • The central leadership of the party must abstain from imposing unilateral diktats on state leadership while dealing with regional issues
  • Attempt to identify the ways to improve accountability in the political process
  • Take up measures to proactively connect with people, set a stage to stimulate individual political participation to boost support base

To-Do List for the Congress

  • The stark reality is that the Congress has, for far too long, functioned as an autocrat, denying many deserving party functionaries their rightful place in the organisation. Loyalty towards individuals doesn’t necessarily imply loyalty towards the party. The party should take serious note of it
  • An internally-democratic political party is always good for democracy. And therefore, establishing intra-party democratic norms is no longer an option but a necessity. It’s likely to prevent disintegration of the party, make politicians accountable, and encourage meaningful deliberation
  • Get rid of self-seeking and corrupt old guards. There are capable young leaders who can flush out the party’s old, withered arteries
  • Short-term political advantages have always assured long-term political disadvantages. Compromising politics had Congress falling from 364 out of 489 Lok Sabha seats in the first-ever general election in 1952 to 44 out of 545 in 2014.
  • While people’s expectations from the Congress are really low, the need for the party’s rise has never been greater.

(The author is Former General Manager, International Centre Goa & Dy General Manager, India International Centre, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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