Can Rahul be reborn?

Harish Khare is a senior journalist and commentator
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There is no hope unless he learns to love the Congress
Ninteen sixty three was a bad year for the Indian National Congress. Indeed, it was the first bad year for the ruling party after it assumed power in 1947.

In the summer of that year, three Lok Sabha by-elections saw the triumphal return to Parliament of three of Jawaharlal Nehru’s most bitter critics: JB Kriplani (who trounced Hafiz Mohammed Ibrahim in Amroha), Ram Manohar Lohia (who bested KV Keskar in Farrukabad) and Minoo Masani (who got the better of Jethalal Joshi in Rajkot). Cumulatively, these three by-elections constituted a resounding political slap across Nehru’s face, and the rebuff was administered within six months of an embarrassing encounter with the Chinese troops on the eastern border—followed by the very austere economic measures (including the supremely unpopular Gold Control Act of 1968) put in place by an unimaginative Finance Minister, Morarji Desai. For the first time since 1947, the Congress had courted public disenchantment and discontent.

After the Chinese debacle, Nehru was a broken man— but he had not lost any of his political instincts. With his five-decade-old insights into the Indian people and their moods, he got the message of the three by-elections and understood that something had to be done; otherwise his own leadership would come under the very close and unfriendly scrutiny of an increasingly restive Congress parliamentary party.

Nehru immediately got the Congress Working Committee to appoint a probe panel to “find out organizational deficiencies and… whether the recent by-elections were fought on political and party issues”. The constitution of this panel itself was recognition that the Kriplani-Lohia-Masani triumph had created a new political situation which required a coherent and imaginative response from the leadership.

The public at large had to be reassured that Nehru was neither deaf nor dumb; the party workers had to be assuaged, to be satisfied that the leadership was ready to learn a lesson or two and to undertake the necessary course correction. Above all, there were hard realpolitik considerations. Nehru knew that if he did nothing, he would probably not have died as Prime Minister. And, so he did something quite unimaginable. He initiated what came to be called the Kamaraj Plan. Under this plan, six senior central ministers and six Chief Ministers ‘volunteered’ to resign and work to strengthen the party organisation.

And within a short while, the Congress party had recaptured the initiative; it was sufficiently galvanised internally, and by the time of Nehru’s death it was in reasonably good shape to perform that most demanding of democratic rites—an orderly succession. There was a sufficient sense of internal unity, coherence and discipline, and the Congress did not falter, quietly electing a quiet man as Nehru’s successor; and belying all those who had prophesied disorder and collapse.

If this somewhat longish and tedious history is being recalled, it is only because the Congress today finds itself having to come to terms with its worst ever electoral disaster— as also , to suggest, both to the party’s friends and foes alike, that the situation is not beyond redemption. The prospect may look somewhat hopeless, but there are enough lessons and precedents for the Congress to draw upon as it gropes its way forward.

The Congress has warded off immediate bloodbath and internal turmoil, for now. Its leadership has decided to dig its heels in. But while Mrs Sonia Gandhi still enjoys enormous respect from the rank and file, there are massive doubts about the capability and willingness of her son to provide a hands-on leadership to the party.

Some stunned Congressmen are talking among themselves as if the Narendra Modi victory has heralded the dawn of a new republic. Some of them even go to the extent of pronouncing the death of the Nehruvian consensus. Clearly, however, the Congress leadership, particularly Mrs Gandhi, is not prepared to interpret the 2014 Lok Sabha elections as a rejection of Nehruvian values and ideas. Indeed, the very next day after Modi took over as Prime Minister, the Congress party had organised an internal conclave to reiterate the continued relevance of Nehruvian ‘Ideas’—the occasion being the fiftieth death anniversary of the great man.

In her opening remarks Mrs Gandhi made it a point to underline, in some detail, what she called the four pillars of Nehruvian consensus—the democratic transformation, secular order, equity and non-alignment. The merits of her arguments apart, it was a brave show of unity, political poise and purpose.

Nor are the Congressmen unmindful of the fact that even though the party ended up with a paltry harvest of 44 Lok Sabha seats, it still had polled over ten crore votes across the length and breadth of the country. This is not an inconsequential support base, anytime, anywhere. In fact, it has been pointed out that the Congress vote share in 2014 is still higher than what the BJP managed to get in 2009—and the saffron outfit lived another day to fight and win another battle. The bottom line: if the BJP could revive itself after the 2009 debacle, so can the Congress.

Some thoughtful Congress leaders are already talking about a new Congress, just as Tony Blair reinvented a New Labour party to dislodge the entrenched Conservatives after the dominant Thatcherite years.

At the same time, these leaders are also embarrassingly unambiguous about one thing: it is clear there is no escape from the Nehru-Gandhi family paradigm. Some of them are candid enough to acknowledge that if they occupy the position of power and influence within the party, it was entirely because of indulgence from Sonia Gandhi. And they are also candid enough to say that in this hour of crisis, they are not going to be ungrateful and would not turn their back on her or her son.

Though the son is deemed a political oddity and a personal enigma, the Congress leaders are not yet ready to demand his head. What they expect is that the young Gandhi will listen to the voices within the party and change his ways of doing things.

In private conversations, the Congress leaders acknowledge that Rahul Gandhi single-handedly introduced incoherence and disarray into the organisation. In the last four or five years, the young Gandhi demonstratively voiced his preference for reorienting the party into a ‘democratic’ organisation. This carries with it a suggestion of rejection of his mother’s working style. On the face of it, Rahul Gandhi’s ideas have the meretricious appeal of being politically correct—but eminently impractical. Mr Gandhi’s efforts to introduce ‘direct elections’ into the Indian Youth Congress and National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), its youth and student wings, have been seen as a mixed blessing. Whatever be the intrinsic merits of the experiment, its immediate impact has been an organisational rupture; rather than produce organisational synergy, the two frontal organisations came to be viewed as Mr Gandhi’s personal and rival instruments of power play, rather like the Sanjay Gandhi gang of the mid-1970s.

Mr Gandhi’s experiment itself was not a total disaster. What proved debilitating was a barely concealed hostility between the All India Congress Committee (AICC) at 24 Akbar Road and Mr Gandhi’s establishment at Tughlak Lane—and this style of estrangement persisted even after the party had anointed him as its Vice President, in Jaipur last January.

Mr Gandhi was seen to be operating independently and unilaterally from the main organisation; and the Congress hierarchy throughout the country was baffled. For example, he would make visits to the state capitals and Pradesh Congress Committees would have no idea, or at best they would discover his impending visit in the newspapers. Once Mr Gandhi arrived in the state capital, there was no effort made to contact, connect and befriend the local Congress leadership; instead, Mr Gandhi often preferred to remonstratively interact with a group of NGOs, as if these civil society formations were the sole source and repository of authentic political instincts and ideas. Implicit in this approach was a rejection of the traditional Congressman, who was viewed as somewhat compromised and corrupt, out to slow down a young leader on the march.

And it was this divorce between Mr Gandhi’s establishment and the Congress party that ultimately proved to be the undoing of the Congress’ 2014 election campaign. Over the last three or four years, the Congress leaders, especially of the older variety, were made to feel that their presence was a burdensome encumbrance, that their contribution was minimal. Yet, when the election day came, the NGOs had vanished into thin air; these self-serving ‘civil society leaders’ were unwilling to stand up and be counted in the Rahul or Congress column; it was the much derided old Congressman and the old district Congress committee who became the instruments for providing the nuts and bolts of election time mobilisation.

The painful dilemma is that in order to spare Mrs Gandhi and her son the odium of a shameful defeat, the Congress leaders are not prepared to say what is not working for Mr Gandhi, and by an extension for the party.

So, the Congress now faces a twin task: firstly, how to reorient itself for its role as an opposition party at the national level, and secondly, how to make its ruling family become a source of joyful synergy rather than remaining a cause of mutual sullenness.

As it finds itself having to come to terms with a new political adversary and a prolonged spell of powerlessness, the party can profit from the basic mantra enunciated by the 1963 review committee: ‘It should be constantly borne in mind that the political scene in India is changing and the situation is becoming more and more complex. Political consciousness of the people is being enlarged both in extent and depth as result of economic and social changes which are occurring. With the passage of time, the rate of change is becoming more rapid. The general election itself is a kind of a crucible through which the electorate passes and becomes transformed every time. Any estimation of the needs of the situation, based on the facts of a decade or even five years ago, will prove to be misleading. New forces emerge and there are fresh alignments. The demands of the electorate are becoming more exacting. The responses of the voters are not set in the moulds of the past. The Congress must possess the insight and the capacity for readjustment which the changing situation demands.’

If the Nehru-Gandhi family’s leadership is not to be questioned, the least the Congress can insist on is that it does not remain ‘set in the moulds of the past’. The Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi family together will have to re-learn what Bill Clinton goaded the Democratic Party to learn before it could dislodge the Republicans from the White House, after 12 years of the Reagan-Bush dominance. Clinton talked, argued and debated with his fellow Democrats: the American voter had to be convinced that the Democratic Party had “a deep desire to affirm the good and virtuous in politics”.

Easier said than done, though. If Rahul Gandhi is serious about a public role for himself, he has an obligation to help himself and his party debate the basic questions: what is the purpose of politics, what are the basic values of public life and how can the Congress as a political party win popular support in defense of its ideas, programs and values?

For decades, the Congress has internalised its role as the party of the government. It is perhaps natural that most Congress leaders think that they know what is best for the country and what is best for the citizens. This mindset has to give way to a new humility and a new willingness to listen and learn from the citizens. To begin with, the Congress will need to reconnect with the masses. The simplest directive Mrs Gandhi can send out is to insist that all District Congress Committee offices be reactivated, and that they should become the hub of local political exchanges.

Not an easy option, though. After all, the Congress as an organisation has practiced and finessed the politics of patronage. The relationship between the Congress President and its vast array of senior leaders is based on a simple arrangement: they profess an allegiance to her and she, in turn, extends her indulgence and patronage to them, including their personal ambitions and waywardness.

To be fair to Sonia Gandhi, this model has paid off for 10 years. She has enabled the Congress to enjoy power at the national level for a decade. This is not a mean achievement. No other non-Congress leader, thus far, has led his or her party to such an uninterrupted stint. And therefore, she is entitled to think and assume that her command and control model is an effective arrangement; she is also entitled to think that the reason the people of India vote for the Congress is because it is led by a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

Now, the BJP under Narendra Modi has aggressively questioned this myth and its attendant assumptions. Very many people outside the Congress and quite a few of them inside the party are inclined to believe that twenty first century India is too democratic a place to countenance any traditional source of allegiance and obedience— and certainly not to honor or acknowledge a claim which is not backed by personal merit and proven professional achievements.

Rahul Gandhi, unfortunately, has very little to show for himself by way of personal or professional achievement. His advisors and minders discouraged him from accepting a ministerial assignment over the years, an experience which could have given him not only a sense of achievement but also a record of some performance, which in turn could have been marketed into a leadership asset. The voters in 2014 have certainly sent out a message: that they are not going to be impressed with someone merely on account of his particular DNA.

The Congress Vice President’s track record as a vote catcher for the Congress party is, at best, somewhat dismal. Nor has he associated himself with any policy or idea which would have captured voters’ imaginations.

On top of it all, there is an appearance of reluctance and part-time leadership. Many senior leaders were personally deeply disappointed that he chose not to accept the leadership role in the Lok Sabha. This is seen as running away from a difficult duty.

There is a Catch-22 situation in the Congress party. Mr Gandhi and his close aides have concluded that 2014 is not the end of the road; in their view, the outcome was inevitable and inescapable, after the 10 years of the UPA government’s incumbency. Therefore, Mr Gandhi was entirely, perspicuously correct in his understanding that something was not right with the Congress and that it needed to be radically overhauled; the sub-text of this sycophantic formulation is that the only way the party can be remulched is as per Mr Gandhi’s ideas. There is a certain internal but foolish, Alice in Wonderland-type consistency to the argument. But if he is so keen to overhaul the organisation, he can easily begin by dismantling the structure of control and command set up by his mother. And, while he is at it, he can promote two dozen strong, authentic regional leaders across the country, empowering them, encouraging them to embody the best political impulses and instincts.

Since 1950, when India opted for a democratic constitution, promising an egalitarian order, the primary purpose of our politics has been to help sort out unsettled equations; like what the terms of existence between the Centre and the Periphery are; how the Union and the State Governments will perform their constitutionally defined duties; what will be the flavour of the relationship between the majority and the minorities; and, how the citizens will hold—or be allowed to hold—the State accountable and answerable. Of late, new issues have erupted about the nature of the relationship between the political authority and the private sector. All these are easy but not so easily-tractable equations; violence is just barely beneath the surface and disorder is lurking round the corner. Those voted with a mandate to rule have an obligation to produce the requisite wisdom in sorting out these equations, and political parties are enjoined to ensure that fairness is practiced and justice is done.

It is possible to argue that the Congress was disfavored by the electorate because it was not able to perform its traditional role of a pan Indian political party, carefully and craftily mediating through conflicting societal claims. The Congress will need to understand why its government at the Centre failed to perform optimally.

Now that the voters have divested the Congressmen of the excuse and the burden of office, they have the challenge of changing with the times. Sonia Gandhi has been the party president since 1998, the longest serving stint in the history of this party. While her stewardship has produced stability, it has also made everybody comfortable with the status quo and all its cascading infirmities. India had changed and the Congress will have to reinvent itself to be able to answer its new anxieties and aspirations, without abandoning its own values. Certainly there is no case for moving away from the Nehruvian consensus; if anything, the polity needs to be re-introduced to Nehruvian ideas and good practices.

The New Congress can only be a Family Plus. But there will be no Congress, old or new, unless Rahul Gandhi learns—or is made to learn—to love the Congress. He cannot hope to rebuild the party by ignoring, humiliating, and sidelining Congressmen, especially those who choose to call themselves Congressmen. The onus is on him to create working conditions for a new relationship of mutual trust and respect. Once a joyful mutuality is created, a New Congress will effortlessly emerge.