Congress: Wake up, own up, take charge

A party in doldrums is always an invitation for analysis. The eerie aspect of the Congress’ decline is the reaction to it. Its spokesmen tend to be echolalic, repeating “Sonia Gandhi is our leader” like a mad litany. Sadly, those who have shown some autonomy or even intelligence have been sidelined as spokesmen. It is almost impossible to get Congressmen to speak on TV.
The silence of the Congress is part of its pathology — silence echoes either submission or sycophancy. Given this, it is the outsider who must take the role of analyst and strategist. One thing is clear: while its current leadership might be irrelevant, the Congress as a party must be revived. It has to play a critical role as Opposition.The Congress, or at least its leadership, seems to be suffering from abbreviation of memory. The Gandhis seems to think that the nation and party are hypothecated to them. What one needs is a basic reworking of memory, a revival of the myths and the wonderful folklore that kept the Congress alive as an institution.
Recently I was at a fascinating seminar on Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, which was followed by a play. It focused on Azad’s role in fighting the Partition, in working as an antidote to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, but what it showed, above all, is the inside of a Congress leadership — Nehru, Patel, Pattabhi Sitaramayya and others discussing the question of freedom and the role of the Congress. There was an authenticity and sincerity to the discussion. This might sound like a utopia, but it is precisely such conversation that the Congress needs to have.
I would like to suggest that if this is not possible at the national level because of the procrustean hold of the family, it could begin at the regional levels. G.K. Vasan, while breaking away, suggested that the Congress in Tamil Nadu was a regional party with its own history of leadership. A Congress going back to Rajaji and Kamraj echoes a pluralism  an alternative history that’s different from Rahul Gandhi’s history of the Congress. It becomes an alternative way of looking at the party where national, regional and local combine in constructive ways.
In looking at memory and history of the Congress, even the United Progressive Alliance deserves close scrutiny. It did have a more imaginative idea of civil society than the Modi regime. Its role in the making of Right to Information, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and biotechnology debates are worthy of appreciation. Just think of the different attitudes to the biotechnology debates. The Bharatiya Janata Party stopped the introduction of Bt brinjal at the behest of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). UPA environment minister Jairam Ramesh had declared a moratorium on it after summoning various reports and inviting stakeholders for a debate.
A problem was examined from many angles and the debates were transparent. While I am against Bt brinjal, I feel the Modi regime should have allowed debate. There is a pedagogy to politics which the regime is missing. The Congress needs to exploit its civil society linkages and set the stage for more serious debates in politics. Of late, the voice of social movements seems to be on decline, while Delhi is being deluged with think tanks. The Congress must be moved for more open policy debates.
A party which was in power for almost 10 listless years should own up to its mistakes. It has to recognise that there is a ritual dignity to owning up to a mistake. Admitting to corruption is one thing, but the need to apologise for its behaviour on 1984 and its aftermath is something more significant. What one needs is a sincere attempt and not to foist the Tytlers, Bhagats and Sajjan Kumars on Delhi. This, in fact, should be an almost non-negotiable step where the Congress exorcises its own past.
It is not the 150-year-old history that is problematic; it is the history of the last few decades that’s the issue. As a party that confronts 1984, the Congress will ethically and politically be on a better footing than the BJP, which is too arrogant to apologise for the 2002 riots. Policy wise, the Congress should focus on two-three issues and build a societal consensus on it. First, it needs to redeem the damage it did to education, create the equivalent of a new Kothari Commission Report on education. Kapil Sibal did inaugurate such an idea, but then abbreviated it.
It is time for the Congress to float an education report that looks at the future of knowledge and offers a credible alternative to the RSS’ attempts to “tinker” with education.
The other major issue is environment. Despite the Ganga project, the BJP’s efforts on democratising environmentalism are questionable. It has discarded the recommendations of the Gadgil Report on Western Ghats. The Congress on the other hand needs to go beyond the growth obsessions of its past and read environment as a part of livelihood and sustainability without which development in any serious way is not possible.
The Congress has to quietly challenge development models, not out of spite because the Planning Commission was shut down but because the reciprocity between environmental and development needs to be worked out. I am afraid this also demands a small change in attitude on TV. Some of the Congress spokesmen have been valiant. But a soldier dying meaninglessly for his party is not what we want. We want the Congress to tap into its availability of intelligence, take the conversation beyond
Mr Gandhi into the institutional future of party and nation. The Congress needs a new cadre on TV — the way BJP marshalled its TV campaign before election. From Ravi Shankar Prasad to Nirmala Sitharaman, the BJP had all their stalwarts debating every day. There are other issues one can emphasise. The Congress has to examine its complicity in corruption and violence and realise that history cannot be an antidote to current ailments. With a touch of modesty, a sense of its mistakes, the party can rework itself. It owes this much to the Indian people.
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