Lead gently, kind of prince...
The accession of Rahul Gandhi to the post of Congress president may finally be upon us; the nature of his political inheritance and what he makes of it is the point of interest
Congress president Sonia Gandhi seemed to set speculation around her son and party vice-president taking over the reins of the Congress at rest in the Capital on Friday evening when she told a television channel: "You have been asking about this… now it is happening," pointing to Rahul Gandhi who was also present at function his mother was attending. The faux regal manner of the hint was perfectly in sync and in keeping with the Indian version of The Firm's communication modus operandi on matters of great pith and moment. But, to be self-critical without having to be locked up in a room at PHQ (party headquarters,for the uninitiated) Communist-style, that is perhaps only the aesthetic bias of an instinctive republican against the quasi royal pretensions of India's power elite across the political spectrum.
The substantive issues that the incoming Congress president will have to deal with were, ironically, encapsulated by party grandee and former President Pranab Mukherjee in two pithy political comments suitably dressed up as anecdotes on the same evening in another part of Lutyen's Delhi and at a different function to mark the release of the third volume of his autobiography. "I always believed that the Congress is a coalition… it brings on one platform various ideas, personalities and groups of interests… therefore to provide leadership for a multi-party coalition by Congress is difficult as it would involve managing one coalition within and another coalition outside (inner-party and inter-party respectively)." He went on to share a politically cute but loaded with significance example of an incident that "best exemplifies my (short) temper": "In November 2014 the Kanchi Shankaracharya was arrested by Tamil Nadu police in connection with the murder of a temple manager when the entire country was celebrating Diwali. During a Cabinet meeting, I was extremely critical of the timing of the arrest and questioned if the basic tenets of secularism of the Indian state were confined to only Hindu monks and seers. Would the state machinery dare arrest a Muslim cleric during Eid?"
Rahul Gandhi may or may not recognize the import of what Mukherjee was banging on about but even a cursory reading of Congress history would tell him that the Congress, both as a movement and later as a political party, always had a place for traditionalists and arch Constitutionalists, who would in the semi-literate fashion of contemporary discourse probably be described as "right wing".From Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya to Sardar Patel, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, C Rajagopalachari and Purshottam Das Tandon, not to mention those of more recent vintage such as PV Narasimha Rao and apparently a post-retirement Pranab Mukherjee, the list of those who contributed to the evolution of the Congress as a coalition of interests and proponents of a nation-building agenda premised on an Indic civilizational heritage and idiom with a commitment to liberal, secular values is long. But the list of those who survived the ruthless purge of the Congress "left wing" is very short indeed.
Gandhi would do well to understand, to speak the language of that ersatz mix of jholawallahs, corporate types and UN-circuit regulars who are apparently ensconced as his advisers, that Jawaharlal Nehru's outreach to the "right wing" (i.e. Indic ethos) of the Communist Party of India led by PC Joshi and the "left wing" (i.e. Hindu reformist) of the traditionalists of whom SP Mukherjee is a towering example were stymied by the progenitors of the same deracinated, derivate and shallow discourse that brought the Congress to its current low and India almost to its knees.
So, Rahul Gandhi's obeisance at temples in Gujarat where the Assembly poll has been announced will not cut it because of the clearly utilitarian strategic impulse that drives such a campaign, just as Rajiv Gandhi's unlocking of the gates to the Ram Lalla idols in Ayodhyadid not for him. The BJP has understood this, which is why Yogi Adityanath and Amit Shah are upping the ante on the issue. Similarly, the Congress' dependence on the Muslim community as a voting bloc has been marked historically by a utilitarian policy of "non-interference" in the community's affairs formulated by successive Congress think-tanks, even when it meant the core liberal value of the supremacy of individual rights never being trumped by group rights was constantly negated. It is this approach that has played a significant role in making members of that community susceptible to radicalisation efforts. Some in the Congress may take solace from the part-palliative on offer in this respect because the narrative of intimidation and violence by the Indic/Hindu fringe dutifully amplified by the usual suspects is playing a role in keeping the Muslim community close to their party, but this too is subject to the law of diminishing returns especially if the BJP counter-narrative of cracking down on the fringe accompanied by calling out the amplifiers gains traction.
A new face at the head of India oldest political party is welcome and there is always an element of expectation when such changes occur. The role of individual agency, however, should never be under-theorised or under-estimated if irrelevance is to be staved off, which the Indian Left, for example,failed to do.
Congress strategists have also convinced themselves, not entirely without basis, that the Modi government is showing incipient signs of tiredness, the economy and especially job creation is a major issue of concern and the concentration of power at the top in the BJP is leading to an, as yet faint but present nonetheless, element of disillusionment within the party.
All these factors put together combined with the goodwill a Gandhi face would presumably generate within existing or lapsed Congress supporters and an effort to build an Opposition coalition may give the Congress under Rahul Gandhi's forthcoming presidency an outside chance to take on the still very popular Narendra Modi-led government.
But unless the existentialist issue for the Congress ~ what its view is on India's past and how it proposes to maintain that continuum in building a modern, prosperous, vibrant nation-state that accepts the notion of Indian exceptionalism ~ is addressed conceptually, the party is unlikely to move beyond cliché, platitude and middling to poor electoral results. Sane, sober and thinking minds in the Congress would know that conceptual clarity is a prerequisite for a regeneration of any political organisation because only then does it have a chance to translate it into a sustainable, successful electoral template.
(The writer is Consulting Editor, The Pioneer)
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