By Harihar Swarup
“I am a full-time and hands-on Congress president,” snapped Sonia Gandhi at October 16 CWC meeting and sent out an unambiguous message: On the question of Congress leadership there is no challenging the Gandhi family. Sonia has always been the keeper of the Nehru-Gandhi family flame, but as party chief she mostly played a listening, reconciling role. This time though her words were unexpectedly sharp, clearly intended to stave off any putative threats from the G23, a group of dissenters who have publicly questioned the party’s leadership vacuum.
That one of the G23 leading lights Ghulam Nabi Azad was sitting close to Sonia when she made her statements only reflects the limitations of that group. Unlike Morarji Desai or Devaraj Urs or VP Singh, none of the G23 possesses an independent support base or clout or stomach for an extended fight against the Gandhi-led Congress or to initiate a proper split in the party. In that sense, the G23 battle has been put on hold for now; the Gandhis remain in charge, party identity clinging to the ruling bloodline.
The inability of Congress persons to mount a serious challenge to the Gandhis despite two crippling electoral debacles and continuing evaporation at the polls, confirms that Congress workers cannot look beyond the Gandhi’s. The idea of them as the de facto leaders of Congress through good times and bad seems to have .become institutionalised in the party rank. Despite Rahul Gandhi’s ‘na banunga na bananedunga’ attitude towards the presidency, the question of who will get the top job seems to be settled.
What is unsettled though is what does Congress today represents beyond the family, what is its raison d’être? In the past decade the Modi-led BJP has constantly targeted Congress with its naamdar vs kaamdar pitch, underlining that in the saffron party, presidentships and PM posts do not go to the same familybut are open to all.
Already the political space available to Congress has drastically shrunk, In the aftermath of the Shah Bano case when BJP was led by LK Advani, Congress, Congress secularism was assailed as pandering to minority vote-banks.. Indira Gandhi was once the uber patriot, but today’s BJP is forever drawing a contrast between elitist’ Congress and its own ‘nationalist’ majoritarian image, Congress’s claim to social and economic justice, and its charge of ‘suit boot ki sarkar’ or government of crony capitalists, is being met by the Modi-led government unveiling a slew of welfare schemes from to PM Kisan Samman Nidhi to Ujjwala Yojana.
Whenever Congress hits the streets, such as when Priyanka Gandhi, led protests against the terrible incidents in Lakhimpur Kheri. a shrill ‘whataboutery’ charge is levelled, Intellectual and political whataboutery is a strategic tactic to disorient the moral compass, of citizens and normalise tit-for-tat violence. In the your-crime-is-greater-than-my-crime slugfests on primetime TV between rival blocs, all notions of right and wrong are obscured. Because of its baggage of past mistakes whatever cause Congress takes up then peters out into a welter of accusation. such as what-about-violence in Congress-ruled states. So is a hemmed-in Congress a write-off? Not really. . It is in power orin power-sharing arrangements in five states and the main opposition party is half a dozen, It also has a wider all-India brand than region-specific specific opposition parties, But it lacks both a charismatic leader and a big new idea, Whenever opposition forces have dislodged a governing party, there’s always been a big idea, whether it was the Janata Party opposing Indira’s authoritarizian, or VP Singh calling for a cleansing of public life after corruption call against Rajiv Gandhi or the Vajpayee-led BJP vowing to bring stability after years of rickety coalitions.
Congress’s most exciting big idea in the past seven years has been the Nyay scheme, a minimum-income support guarantee for the poorest. But it was launched too late in the 2019 campaign and was overwhelmed by Balakot triumphalism. Additionally, Rahul’s leftward lurch sits uneasily with his own identity as a political inheritor. He is inducting youthful radicals like Kanhaiya Kumar and Jignesh Mavani but meanwhile Mamata Banerjee for example comes across as instinctively fiery radicalism from Rahul doesn’t quite ring true. If Congress craves a progressive ‘democratic’ identity, shouldn’t that ‘revolution’ first devour its feudal birth-based rulers.
The party does not lack talent. Why doesn’t it establish a a Shadow Cabinet to put out its agenda on the economy, national security and democratic values in times of growing Authoritarianism, or implement the Nyay scheme as a flagship programme in its States?
Nyay could become a peoples’ agitation, dovetailed with the other public campaigns and a systematic plan of action on the ground, rather than remain an academic paper A Shadow Cabinet boasting credible, experienced and forceful ministers could also show that Congress can be more than just a family. (IPA Service)