By Amulya Ganguli
It is a good sign that the last meeting of the Congress bigwigs involved a sharp exchange of views. It showed that there is still life in the old warhorse. Perhaps the fact that it was a video conference helped in the airing of conflicting opinions.
Had the meeting been held in a closed room as before, the combativeness of some of the participants might have been tamed by Sonia Gandhi’s physical presence. The icy stare which is said to intimidate a dissenter into a fumbling silence would not have worked in a cyber conference.
It is also just as well that some of the participants brought up the issue of the non-performance of the Manmohan Singh government in the twilight years of its second term when corruption and policy paralysis paved the way for its resounding defeat.
The former prime minister is said to have kept his counsel during the stormy four-hour meeting, which is understandable since he has a lot to answer for with regard to his lapses in the 2012-14 period. That was when the meek, “accidental” prime minister and the imperious Congress president virtually handed the country’s fate on a platter to Narendra Modi by their egregious mistakes.
If Sonia Gandhi hadn’t scuttled the economic reforms on the advice of her left-leaning advisory council, and if Manmohan Singh had resisted her efforts to make the government take its foot off the accelerator of reforms, as P. Chidambaram later said, Modi wouldn’t have been able to present himself as the person who would take the country out of the morass of economic stagnation.
By stalling the economy just when millions were being lifted out of poverty, the Congress not only lost power, but also facilitated the entry of a government which has no time either for India’s pluralism or for upholding the integrity of autonomous institutions.
The baneful result is there for all to see with the country entering a phase when its democratic credentials are under a threat with an uninhibited recourse to the house arrests of political opponents and prolonged incarceration of prominent social activists while even its foreign policy is seeing a downturn with Nepal and Bangladesh joining China and Pakistan in the list of unfriendly countries in the neighbourhood.
The Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh duo cannot escape the blame for preparing the ground for this sorry state of affairs under their successor. It is time, therefore, for the Congress to first acknowledge and introspect on its errors of the past and then enter the battlefield armed with a new vision under a new leadership.
The party’s problem is that there are doubts on both counts. To remove them, it first has to decide on replacing the present “interim” president and then settle on its economic and political ideology. Arguably, as Sharad Pawar has said, there is currently no option for the 135-year-old party but to continue to rely on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which, according to the NCP leader, is the only “cementing” force in the organization. In its absence, there is every likelihood of the party falling apart.
Although there are persistent arguments against the dynastic principle as it is believed to alienate the ordinary people and stifle fresh talent, there is apparently no alternative for the Congress except to bank on its First Family for the foreseeable future for the sake of organizational unity.
The million dollar question is whether Rahul Gandhi will return to the helm. His latest interactions with luminaries who are both Indians and foreigners suggest that he is trying to present himself as a serious-minded person – and not a Pappu – with well-informed views and ready to test their veracity with experts.
To what extent this approach will enable him to convince the countless doubters that he is capable of taking charge is difficult to say. But, apart from displaying his intellectual mettle, what the former, and possibly the future, party president needs to do is to outline the Congress’s political philosophy.
In doing so, he has to take a diametrically opposite stance to that of the present dispensation. For a start, this turnaround has to demonstrate a dilution of draconian laws such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act or those relating to sedition which have been merrily used by the present government to keep its dissenters out of sight.
The Congress’s legal initiatives towards an open society have to be accompanied by the freeing of the police and the bureaucracy from political control. As a first step towards the restoration of their autonomy, the Congress has to implement the 2006 Supreme Court judgment on insulating the police from politics. The other official agencies like the CBI, the enforcement directorate and the income-tax department also have to be freed from their political bosses so that they can no longer be used to harass the ruling party’s opponents.
But, above all, the Congress has to reiterate its commitment to the economic reforms and not give the impression that it would like to return to the licence-permit-control raj of Nehruvian socialism. Manmohan Singh believes that history will be kinder to him. History as well as the immediate future will be kind to the Congress if it follows the path it chalked out for the nation in 1991. (IPA Service)