Shortly after the national election, I had written a piece called, “Congress Party -To be or Not to be”, published in these columns. Today, the results of the Delhi election have further reinforced some of the thoughts I had expressed. I had drawn a comparison of the Congress with the Liberal Party in the UK, which has virtually been squeezed out of existence by the Tories on the right, moving towards the Centre and adopting the Liberal agenda in many different areas, and Labour on the left, also adopting more centrist positions when political and economic interests so demanded. Examples were the adoption of Liberal free trade principles by the Tories and Tony Blair’s adoption and expansion of New Public Management principles developed and enunciated by Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
I had argued that the BJP had dispossessed the Congress of much of its political space. To quote,”The Congress was designed and has professed to remain as a left of centre party, which changed direction more towards the right in 1991. Today, the BJP straddles both the right and the left and also has further consolidated its majoritarian support base. The centrist space has shrunk for the Congress and it seems too lethargic, too uncaring, too traumatised at present to identify and appropriate new areas for growth.” The situation has changed now, with the BJP, in the recent months, having swung decisively to the right, both politically and in the economic field. This opens up centrist space and the question is whether the Congress and other Opposition parties can take advantage of this new development or whether the BJP itself will internally make policy changes to reoccupy the space it has vacated.
I had, in my earlier article, suggested a course correction for the Congress, based principally on its own background and experience in the freedom struggle and later. I had said, ”From the past, the lessons the Congress can learn are several. The most important one is obviously selflessness and fearlessness and willingness to suffer all consequences in pursuit of a cause, including jail terms and deportation. Second, the development of strong inner party democracy, which was a characteristic of the pre-Independence period; Gandhiji wanted such democracy to pervade all levels of the Party. Third, the Delhi centricity of the Party and the concept of a High Command that takes all decisions would have to be shed and local leadership has to grow. In the fifties, the Congress had a phalanx of powerful leaders willing to contradict and take on even the Prime Minister. Fourth, the presence of national level leadership has to be felt all over India and, for this the device of annual AICC meetings in smaller towns could be revived.”
Nothing seems to have really changed in the Congress. The leadership conundrum remains unresolved with an interim president in place supported by the same coterie of confidantes. There is no discernible move towards inner party democracy. The High Command culture remains intact. No policy direction is visible anywhere. State leadership has been more active, having broken into BJP strongholds in Jharkhand and Haryana and becoming part of a coalition government in Maharashtra. Even in the case of Maharashtra, the Congress gives the impression of a reluctant partner and has very clearly surrendered the credit for government formation to Sharad Pawar. In the aftermath of the Delhi election, Sudheendra Kulkarni said in a TV channel discussion that he was surprised that neither Sonia Gandhi nor Rahul had thought it fit to visit Mumbai after the Maharashtra election and after the formation of the new government. He said, too, that Aditya Thackeray had tweeted immediately after he had met Rahul in Delhi but there was no tweet in response from the latter. It is almost as though the High Command is apologetic about being part of the Maharashtra government. Another prominent speaker in the same TV programme said that if the present government in Maharashtra were to fall, it is more likely that the Congress leadership would have engineered it.
There are few who remember VK Krishna Menon today. In his day, he was one of Nehru’s favourite henchmen, a man who had a golden tongue, albeit acerbic on most occasions. TJS George’s book on Krishna Menon made great reading when I was still in my teens. Now, Jairam Ramesh has compiled another book on this little known intellectual, but I have not got round to reading it. I still recall some of Krishna Menon’s classic interventions in Parliament. Speaking of India’s foreign policy, long after he had fallen out of favour in the Congress, he once said (and I quote from memory), “People say that this is a policy of drift. I say, it is not even a policy of drift; it is just flotsam and jetsam.” The words “flotsam and jetsam” probably best describe the approach of the Congress central leadership today.
In the Delhi elections, the Congress drew a blank, with 63 of their 66 candidates losing their deposits. They lost a State which Sheila Dikshit had ruled for 15 years. During my days as Cabinet Secretary, I worked closely with Sheila Dikshit, particularly on resuscitating the Commonwealth Games, and I considered her to be an extraordinary leader, who changed the very look of Delhi, bringing the starved city new infrastructure, especially good, broad roads and eliminating, to a great extent, the culture of shortages that characterised the capital city for the first few decades. She also had this particular knack of winning the confidence of people and getting others to work with her. Her defeat in 2013 was a reflection not of her shortcomings, as PC Chacko is reported to have implicitly stated, but of the huge and, in my opinion, uninformed and undeserved decline in the popularity of the then Central Government in the last years of UPA 2.
The Congress did badly in the national elections in 2019 too. The difference between then and now, as I see it, is that there is a great deal of churn within the Congress today. There is increasing awareness within the Congress that the time to sit back and endlessly reflect is long past. “As far as the Congress is concerned, we sorely miss Sheila Dikshit’s persona,” said Abhishek Manu Singhvi, “We lost a tall leader and we could not pitch anyone else effectively.” Another leader, Sanjay Jha, said, “Today we should not use the word ‘introspection’. ‘Action’ sounds much better.” He said that the party needs “complete reinvention and needed to look different.” In response to Chidambaram’s tweet expressing satisfaction at the defeat of “bluff and bluster”, Sharmistha Mukherjee, Congress national spokesperson and daughter of the redoubtable Pranab Mukherjee, wrote, “With due respect, Sir, just wanted to know has (Congress) outsourced the task of defeating BJP to state parties?” Jairam Ramesh, who had, in 2019, emphasised the need to learn from Modi, called the Delhi defeat an “unmitigated disaster like coronavirus. Congress leaders have to reinvent themselves, The Congress party has to reinvent itself if it has to be relevant.” M. Veerappa Moily called for a “surgical strike” to revive the grand old party.
The moot question is, will there really be a surgery? Or, as happened after the debacle in 2019, will the old guard bide its time and strike back to reassert its power? Will the BJP, instead, re-examine its position and recapture lost political territory? The immediate signs are that the BJP may be more nimble footed in aligning its political sights to the new situation. Recognising that excessive aggressiveness had backfired, Amit Shah admitted that statements like shooting the protesters at Shaheen Bagh or calling the election an India-Pakistan cricket match should never have been made. RSS general secretary Suresh Bhayyaji Joshi sought to draw a clear distinction between the Hindu community and the BJP. Opposing BJP, he said, is not tantamount to opposing the Hindu community. Significantly, he said that Hindus are not communal or antagonistic to others, that nobody should be reluctant to work for the Hindu community. If this signifies rethinking, it may augur well for the ruling party.
At the end of the day, the election victory was a resounding endorsement of good governance by the Kejriwal government. It is an indication also of the growing political maturity of the Indian voters, particularly the young among them, and their capacity to discern what is best for them among the alternatives on offer. It is evident also that a cocktail of jingoism, sabre rattling and tilting at manufactured windmills will not unfailingly yield electoral dividends. It would also be puerile to imagine that anything can be done in this country by virtue of a brute majority in Parliament. In a Westminster type of political democracy as in India, political astuteness demands greater efforts to build consensus.
At the same time, it must be said that performance by a Kejriwal or a Mamata or an Amarinder Singh or a Kamal Nath at the State level will not automatically translate into a victory for the Congress or for Opposition parties at the national level. As yet, no leader has emerged to challenge Modi and his perceived qualities of hard work, performance, integrity and decisiveness or the capacity of the BJP to draw upon its mass base. A real challenge at the national level can be posed not by taking sporadic potshots at Modi but by creating credible leadership by common consent and a strong base at the grassroots.
Easier said than done?
The facts and views expressed in the article are those of the writer.