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Does Rahul Gandhi Have It In Him To Heal Broken Congress Parivar?

Does Rahul have the patience, resolve, and a self-corrective democratic approach to bring Congress Parivar together?

Updated
Opinion
8 min read
If Modi can show flexibility, why should Rahul and his colleagues be rigid in their ideological outlook?
i

“Do se dobara”. That is how Prime Minister Narendra Modi has described the Bharatiya Janata Party’s political journey since 1984. Boastful? Yes. Untrue? No. Fact is, the BJP, which could win only two seats in 1984 has secured a decisive majority on its own for the second consecutive time in 2019.

On the other hand, the Congress has been decimated for the second time in a row.

There are many reasons behind the two parties’ contrasting performances. However, as the first part of this article showed, here is a major factor: the Sangh Parivar, of which the BJP is an integral part, has remained united, whereas the Congress Parivar has allowed itself to be fragmented and atrophied over the years. Its disintegration and resultant atrophy have contributed to the 2019 mandate in four ways.

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Congress’s Steady Shrivelling At Multiple Levels

One, organisationally, the Congress party’s support base has shrunk in many key states in India. The first wave of splits began after 1969. In the second wave, which started after 1998, the Congress party’s much reduced footprint shrank further with important leaders leaving the Congress Parivar and forming their own parties in Maharashtra, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh.

Two, as a consequence of the above, the Congress became a party bereft of mass leaders in states as well as at the national level. The belief that only members of the Nehru-Gandhi family can be nationally popular leaders acted as a self-limiting factor. It prevented even leaders who could potentially develop a national appeal from rising up through the ranks.

Contrast this with how the BJP has developed a system that gradually elevates capable grassroots workers to the top. Both in organisational expansion and in creation of a steady stream of leaders at the state and national levels, the BJP is greatly helped by the fact that it belongs to the Sangh Parivar, headed by the RSS.

The Congress has no equivalent system of cadre building and leadership development.

Three, politics, like nature, abhors vacuum. With the shrinking of the national presence of a divided Congress Parivar, and the disintegration of the Janata Parivar due to ego issues and the rise of regionalism, the resultant vacuum has been filled by the BJP.

Congress’s Inability To Develop or Communicate Its Distinctive Ideology

The fourth area of atrophy has been at the ideological level. The BJP has dutifully followed the ideological tenets of the RSS – Hindutva as the alternative Idea of India to influence those opposed to the Congress party’s secular ‘Idea of India’. Communal polarisation is used to achieve systematic consolidation and expansion of the Hindu votebank for electoral gains.

In contrast, the Congress has been unable to develop, or even effectively articulate, its own distinctive ideology to influence the minds and hearts of the people of India. Even though Congress president Rahul Gandhi has been rightly stating that his party would continue to fight the BJP and the RSS ideologically, it is so far unclear even to his own party workers and leaders what exactly the Congress ideology is on multiple issues.

What does the party even mean when it invokes secularism, economic justice, caste question, corruption-free and decentralised governance, deepening of democracy with people’s participation, national security, solution to the Kashmir issue, foreign policy approach to major global powers, etc?

Although even the BJP lacks a coherent view on all these questions, it has been able to create an illusion that Modi has all the answers to these questions. The illusion is bound to burst someday, but it has worked in 2019.

In contrast, the Congress leadership has been unable to come up with a new vision, fresh ideas and workable ideological formulations that appeal to broad masses of the people.

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Can the Rebels Be Brought Back to the Parivar?

Where, and how, should the Congress party go from here? Its leaders and workers must know and accept a few home truths. One, no party in a multi-party democracy can hope to dominate the national scene permanently. This truth is best captured by an instructive Chinese saying: “There is no plain in this world not followed by a slope; what goes around comes around.” The wheel of history has now brought the Congress down; if the party does all the right things, the same wheel will again take it to the top.

Among these “right things”, the Congress has to urgently begin work on one such task that brooks no delay: the inescapable need to reunite the Congress Parivar. Success in accomplishing this task itself depends on whether or not all the stakeholders realise their own responsibility to rise together in unity rather than die separately in disunity. These stakeholders are the much-diminished parent Congress party, the state-specific breakaway parties, and the loyal Congress workers and supporters scattered all over the country.

For example, does NCP and TMC have any long-term future in Maharashtra and West Bengal other than fading away and extinction after Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee depart from the scene?

And does the Congress have any near- or medium-term chance of rising again on its own in these crucial states?

Congress Family Always Greater than Nehru-Gandhi Family

The second undeniable imperative for bringing the Congress Parivar together is for all the stakeholders to accept that the party is much greater than any family or individual. True, the Congress cannot, for the time being, come of its dependence on the Nehru-Gandhi family, which provides the necessary glue for the party, even in its current shrunken state, to stay together.

But in the long-term it has to become what it was in the past for the longest period since its founding in 1885 – a broadbased organisation led by many capable leaders drawn from different families and backgrounds.

In other words, Congress president Rahul Gandhi today faces twin, seemingly contradictory, tasks. He has to provide strong and effective leadership that can infuse new life and hope into the party in the short term. There is reason to believe he can do so because, notwithstanding the party’s disastrous performance in 2019, a lot of people both within and outside the Congress have acknowledged that he is not only a good human being but is also evolving into a good leader. Of course, he still has to learn and unlearn a lot of things.

For the medium- and long-term resurgence of the Congress, Rahul has to consciously pave a path of transition enabling the party’s leadership to move into a broadbased, collective, participative and consultative framework outside the narrow limits of the Nehru-Gandhi family. If he sends out unmistakable signals about his firm readiness to do so, he can lay the foundation for a reunification of the Congress Parivar.

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Reaching Out Beyond Parivar

Who all can re-join the Congress Family? Apart from NCP, TMC and TSR CP, the conditions are ripe for several units of even the Janata Parivar to come closer to the Grand Old Party. Because, as mentioned earlier, their roots are also in the Congress itself. Moreover, there are no fundamental ideological differences between them and the Congress.

To illustrate, the ideological mascot of the Samajwadi Party is Dr Rammanohar Lohia, the legendary socialist leader whose formative years were in the Congress. Similarly, both Nitish Kumar of JD(U) and Laloo Prasad Yadav of RJD were products of the movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan, another socialist leader who was a respected figure in the Congress-led freedom movement.

Now that SP in UP, JD(U) and RJD in Bihar, and JD(S) in Karnataka are facing an existential crisis, why should Rahul and his colleagues hesitate to reach out to them? (Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s relations with the BJP are under strain, making the future trajectory of his politics uncertain.)

They should reach out even to BJD in Odisha, because Biju Patnaik was, after all, one of the tallest and most adventurous Congress leaders for the longest period of his political life.

What Rahul Should Learn From Modi

Is this outreach impossible? No. Here Rahul should learn a lesson from Narendra Modi, who is now trying to appropriate many parts of the legacies of both the Congress and Janata Parivars, and include them in the legacy of the BJP. It began with Sardar Patel. In his speech at the meeting of the newly elected MPs of the National Democratic Alliance on May 25, Modi praised the triumvirate of Mahatma Gandhi, Deendayal Upadhyaya and Dr Lohia, and said the BJP and NDA should be guided by their teachings.

Barring Upadhyaya (an RSS pracharak, who became the ideologue of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh), the other two – Gandhiji and Dr Lohia – belong to the Congress Parivar. If Modi can show this flexibility, why should Rahul and his colleagues be rigid in their ideological outlook?

The coming together of the Congress Parivar need not – and simply cannot – happen in one spectacular event. It requires a multi-stage, step-by-step approach. To begin with, Rahul should respectfully rope in Sharad Pawar, the seniormost active leader in the Congress Family, and make him the head of a reunification mission. This can lead to an early merger of the Congress and NCP in Maharashtra, hopefully in 2019 itself.

Talks should begin simultaneously towards the same end with leaders of TMC, JD(U), RJD, JD(S) and other like-minded parties such as those on the Left, whose very survival is now in peril.

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Provide Platform To Launch Sustained Agitations

On a parallel track, and as a contributory step towards merger, Congress leaders should think of an intermediate stage of all like-minded parties forming a common platform to launch sustained mass agitations on an agreed set of important people’s issues, both national and state-specific. This will help leaders and workers of these parties to heal the wounds of the past, fill the cracks that have developed in their ties over the years, build mutual trust, and bring in large numbers of new people (especially young blood) into this movement.

In short, the pressure for re-unification has to come both from the top and the bottom.

Of course, this process is not going to be easy, nor can yield quick results. There are many formidable hurdles along the way. Like the Congress itself, several of its offshoots have also become dependent one family or one leader. Vested interests and sycophantic yes-men have entrenched themselves in all these parties.

Therefore, it is going to be difficult for their leaders to overcome the sense of entitlement, and realise that serving the people with commitment, consistency and a fair degree of selflessness and incorruptibility is the only way to remain relevant in politics in the long term. The Congress and other units of its Parivar will also have to evolve a new system of democratic and disciplined functioning, combined with ideological loyalty and firmness of centralised control, which alone can prevent splits in the future.

Can Common Goal Triumph Over Ego and Impatience?

History has placed a very heavy responsibility on the shoulders of Rahul Gandhi and leaders of the other units of the Congress Family. The two most important questions are these: Does Rahul have the patience, unshakeable resolve, readiness for tireless struggle, and a self-corrective democratic approach to bring the Congress Parivar together?

And are the leaders of all like-minded parties willing to leave aside ego issues, learn the culture of working together, and contribute their sweat and blood to a new people’s movement capable of providing a superior alternative to the Modi-Shah duo in 2024? If the answers to these two questions is in the affirmative, we are surely going to see a Better India.

(The author was an aide to former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He has recently founded ‘Forum for a New South Asia’, which advocates India-Pakistan-China cooperation. He welcomes comments at sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com. He tweets@SudheenKulkarni. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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