“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
That famous quote erroneously attributed to renowned physicist Albert Einstein might well typify the state of the Indian National Congress over the last decade. Which is why the grand old party’s attempt at reviving itself with a ‘Chintan Shivir’ brainstorm meeting has been greeted with so much skepticism. After all, when a party lurches from one defeat to another without seemingly learning any lessons, then what can a three day retreat in a five star Udaipur hotel achieve that eight years in the political wilderness have failed to drive home?
Ahead of the meeting, a young Congress leader told this columnist that a ‘revolution’ was around the corner and it was no longer ‘business as usual’. Typically, the Congress’s ‘Udaipur declaration’ is replete with pious platitudes but no potentially game-changing idea. For example, it calls on Congress persons to imbibe the principles of ‘Bharatiyata’ and ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ as a counter to the BJP’s Hindutva ideology but doesn’t specify how it will make ‘Indian nationalism’ appealing to a ‘new’ India.
Take also for example the ‘revolutionary step’ of a ‘one family, one ticket’ formula. On the face of it, for a party with ‘family trees’ springing up from every nook and corner of the country, this would truly mark a break with a nepotistic past. But the formula comes with a rider: another family member seeking to contest elections should have worked for the party in an ‘exemplary manner’ for at least five years. This rule automatically keeps the door open for the presiding Gandhi triumvirate and many others to contest elections. End result? Status quo.
Take also the most ground-breaking recommendation that 50 per cent of party posts will be for those below 50 years at all levels, including the Congress Working Committee (CWC) and there would be a five year term limit for those holding posts at all levels. The party’s youth committee has even proposed a ‘retirement age’ for all ‘elected posts’, almost akin to the BJP’s successful ‘Marg-darshak mandal’ concept. But the final resolution doesn’t specify any age ceiling or whether term limits will also extend to those who have been perennial Rajya Sabha nominees. The ambiguity suggests a reluctance to bite the bullet just yet.
Recall the Congress is perceived as an ageing party where no elections have been held to the CWC since 1998, where the parliamentary board is dysfunctional, where organizational elections have been repeatedly deferred, where many individuals remain in the same assignment for years despite chronic failures and where Sonia Gandhi has been party chief for almost a quarter century. In effect, this is a party best defined by the French quotation: Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same).
Can such a party afford an incrementalist approach especially when it now faces an existential crisis? Perhaps the most candid acknowledgment of the Congress dilemma came from Rahul Gandhi when he turned the gaze inwards and admitted that the party’s connection with the people was broken, one major reason why the party’s vote share has remained static over the last decade.
The key question is: how is that mass connect to be restored? At the Chintan Shivir, the party announced a ‘Kanyakumari to Kashmir Bharat Jodo’ yatra from October 2nd, Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary. After all, nothing like a padyatra and a few well-worn soles to at least re-enter the public conversation and enthuse dispirited cadres.
However, a nationwide yatra designed to catapult a retreating political party back onto the centre-stage needs more than just invoking the symbolism of Mahatma. LK Advani’s 1990 Ram Janmabhoomi yatra worked because its messaging was clear: unalloyed Hindu revivalism. The Congress cant just hark back to the Mahatma’s values of peace and harmony in a ‘new’ India without an unapologetic articulation of how those core values would translate into an effective programme of action. A successful resurgence demands an eye-catching narrative, large scale cadre mobilization and a charismatic leadership that galvanizes people to a common cause beyond the familiar echo chambers. At the moment, the Congress lacks on all fronts: ideological confusion, demotivated cadres and an uninspiring leadership has meant that the party struggles to walk the talk. Recall how last October the Congress claimed it was launching a ‘continuous’ agitation against rising fuel prices, even promised padyatras on the issue. In the end, there was more noise on twitter than on the ground.
Which brings us back to the elephant in the room: leadership. At the Chintan Shivir, it was obvious that Rahul Gandhi is the de facto leader of the party. While the Gandhi scion describes the party as his ‘family’ and promises to wage a long political struggle against the RSS-BJP ideology, there is still uncertainty whether he can carry along the party’s well-entrenched interest groups with his reformist impulses. The Congress craves power and Rahul’s diffidence in practicing power politics means that the party is trapped in pause mode, almost waiting for a miraculous turn in electoral fortunes.
Equally uncertain is the role Priyanka Gandhi Vadra chooses to play in any future power arrangement. Her tryst with the minefield of Uttar Pradesh politics came badly unstuck but she remains an influential figure in decision making. Will she have a more frontal role or allow her brother to take all the major calls? And what of Sonia Gandhi herself: will she simply fade into semi-retirement or remain the mascot who holds a factionalised party together for now?
Truth is, if the BJP is guilty of the politics of ‘permanent polarisation’, the Congress’s ad-hoc leadership style has left the party in a state of perpetual inertia, bordering on paralysis. The Udaipur declaration at least recognizes the urgent need for a revamp at all levels but a creaking Ambassador can’t become a sleek BMW overnight without making some tough calls. Which is why before embarking on any padyatra, the Congress needs to end the self-delusional fantasy that one family alone can ‘save’ India: ‘new’ India has rejected the politics of entitlement embodied in the ‘old’ Congress. Forget about ‘saving’ India, the Congress first needs to save itself by ending the status quoism.
Post-script: In the last eight years, endless obituaries have been written of the Congress. “If we are dead, why does the media still keep obsessing about our future?” a senior Congressman asks pointedly. My immediate response: because Indian democracy needs a strong opposition where the Congress as a pan-India brand has a crucial role to play.