Dividing Lines: In exile, programme a sleek Congress 2.0

I often think of political parties as a different species, as forms of life which add to the diversity of the cultural landscape. In fact, I feel diversity in politics is as important as diversity in language or nature. To watch the decline of a party can be a tragic experience. This was the real moment of history of this election — the Indian National Congress, a rainbow coalition, microcosm, family, heritage, depository of conflicting ideologies, confronting the poorest performance of its career. India as a society rejected the Congress, particularly in its current incarnation as a dynasty.

This essay is not about the defeat. It is an attempt to think of how parties can respond to defeat and reconstruct or reinvent themselves. One has to ask what are the rituals of post-mortems, of analysis, of breast-beating and spring cleaning. This much is clear — the Congress is too important a party for India to disintegrate. It has to be rebuilt as a part of the new democracy, it needs changes of various kinds.
One has to begin with the family. Rahul and Priyanka have a deep sense of entitlement, a feeling that the party and the nation owe the family. Election time becomes a moment when the Gandhi children virtually cash promissory notes demanding a return for all those martyred in the family. Secondly, as a power group, they have been isolated and sanitised. Rahul, in particular, has no strategic sense of his mistakes and has accumulated a collection of whipping boys who take the blame.

The family has to confront the fact that it messed up and then create the possibilities of a more pluralistic leadership. But first, a ritual of self-critique is essential. Congress has to go beyond its cocoon of sycophancy and build a culture of robust critique and debate. Rahul Gandhi has always talked of internal reforms. In a strategic way, this is reform one.

The Congress has also become a nesting ground for old party bosses who are sometimes out of sync with the demands of change. One watches in horror as Veerappa Moily says that the decisions on biotechnology have waited long enough and passes them. Such a minister has no sense of biotechnology. One can cite A.K. Antony in the list. His sense of the requirements of defence suggests he has no sense of the dynamics of military technology. Whatever their political skills, these ministers are not Sam Pitrodas. What I am suggesting is not modernisation of technology but a new openness where the Congress can harvest a new set of ideas. One hopes it returns to politics and policy as new imaginations.

As a party, the Congress must exorcise itself and create a new ecology of perceptions. It needs to initiate a new generation, not just a breed of young talent from old families. It needs to go beyond the mentality of a club and create a network of young Turks. A coterie of Scindias, Deoras, Pilots is not enough. It needs new names, new surprises to ambush itself. As a party, it has to stop appearing like an attic of leftovers. The party has to create a new order welcoming people and ideas.

One must emphasise that one is not asking for erasure. The Congress had a very creative relationship with outstanding civil society activists both in creating RTI and NREGA. Unfortunately, it lacked the stomach to pursue this imagination. This reciprocity with civil society as a source of ideas has to be revised.

One thinks of other examples which were tragically abbreviated. Jairam Ramesh, as minister of environment, created a wonderful panchayat of debates among the variety of stakeholders in the biotech process. The experiment was abandoned but needs revival.

For the party, the years of “exile” from power can be creative. Exile can be a time of reflection and experimentation. It can be a period where the family can renounce power to reclaim it in a different way. It has to earn power by contributing to the party.

The party needs to rework its organisational imagination. The experiment of introducing primaries though basically ineffective needs to be reintroduced so that party loyalists get a chance. The party has to also rid itself of corrupt elements. The scams created around the Congress were like cuticles, a second skin which thickened its sensitivities. It was no longer the party which responded to protest and absorbed it. The party has to acquire a hearing aid and go back and listen to marginal groups and moments, ask its younger MPs to discover what Aruna Roy, a Medha Patkar or an Ela Bhatt achieved.

The old Congress thrived because it absorbed the wisdom of these voices. Unfort-unately, as it became technically savvy, it also became politically in-sensitive. This link between marginality and justice has to be elaborated regionally and nationally.

Political scientist Rajni Kothari once observed that the Congress as a party was a miniature India, a quarrelsome coalition which forged creative unity. I realise one cannot replicate the old idea of Congress but one can forge a new set of diversities around gender, margins and minorities.

The Congress has to help democratise India democratically. For this it has to democratise itself. The social legislations it initiated so ineptly have to be reworked again. Crony partyism has to yield to a more open-ended structure.

What would be interesting is if Congress were to try a new experiment. The party should act as if it is a new constituent assembly and a new planning commission and recreate a future, a vision of a desired society for India. A party which has till now lived off its past has to help create a set of desired futures incorporating the best ideas of a new future.

In reviving the future, it might review its sense of the past, create the therapeutic rituals that make transitions less painful. This has to be a transparent, transformative exercise, a display kit of experiments, mistakes and insights. Such a performance will create a sense of authenticity Congress needs.

Mine is a tentative set of proposals. It is time for the Congress to initiate the rituals of rethinking. It is too precious an organisation to drown itself in the inanity of its current leadership.



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