The “grand old party” needs to deeply introspect and look beyond the “first family” for revival as a national party of political relevance
The Indian National Congress (INC) has been in an abyss since its defeat in the 2014 parliamentary elections. The party’s vote share dropped to a record low of 19 percent in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, 1 percent lower than in the previous outing.
A year later, there is neither a roadmap for rebuilding the party nor is there an iota of change in the party’s approach to addressing infighting, the exit of young leaders, and uncertainty at the helm.
Its State government in Madhya Pradesh collapsed after the exit of Jyotiraditya Scindia, scion of the Scindia dynasty, who was once considered part of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi’s inner circle. It faces instability in Rajasthan after a rebellion by Sachin Pilot, who was also considered close to the Gandhi family and was Deputy Chief Minister and State unit chief till his rebellion.
These are a symptom that, at its core, the Congress is rudderless both in terms of leadership and purpose. The immediate need is for the party to redefine its fundamental ideology and purpose in politics, answer crucial leadership questions, and reinvent itself before the electorate.
THE IDEA OF A NATIONAL OPPOSITION
In a democracy, a credible national opposition is invaluable to governance thorough debate and consultations. Strong western democracies like the U.S. and UK exemplify how robust opposition political thoughts not only strengthens the political narrative dominating the electoral scene but during the incumbency of one party, acts as a strong interlocutor for the voters with the ruling dispensation.
To grow as a strong and thriving democracy, India must have a political culture which outlives individual personalities and is kept alive through strong ideological beliefs and moral practices rather than personal charisma and electoral expediencies.
In case the INC or any other National party wishes to don this onerous mantle, it has to redefine itself not merely as the challenger to the incumbent Prime Minister but as a nationwide platform to give voice to credible issues and concerns which contribute to nation-building and good governance.
Political parties are like living organisms: without a reiteration of their basic ideal for political existence, they are devoid of the nucleus to derive strength for any socio-political exercise.
In a federal system, if there is a political vacuum in the central political system, there will be centrifugal tendencies on the part of powerful regional political forces to gain strength and fill the vacuum. This may not be the ideal situation in the long run, as each region has conflicting aspirations and demands.
DEFINING CORE IDEOLOGY
To get there, a national political party must demonstrate a commitment that is beyond its self-interest and electoral gains. In fact, it may sacrifice short-term electoral objectives to gain stature in the long run.
This is exemplified by the Maharashtra elections. INC buckled on the ideological front when it agreed to be a minor partner in a three-party alliance led by right-wing Shiv Sena. It was a compromise the Congress made under pressure from its Maharashtra ally, the Nationalist Congress Party, which has the potential to dilute its core principles and will hurt it in the long term.
Smaller, regional level political parties can risk compromises in ideological issues while forging political alliances as their strength lies in safeguarding linguistic or narrow parochial interests unique to that geographical area. On the other hand, a party with aspirations of a national role cannot compromise on its ideological position for myopic electoral dividends.
On the other hand, the Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideological base, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, even at their weakest, remained committed to their core ideals. It is that ideological bedrock which has given the strength and clarity to their rise.
Today the INC is faced with the dilemma whether to continue to navigate the political waters with the Nehru-Gandhi leadership at the helm or to allow younger, competent, middle-ranking political workers to rise into leadership positions at all levels. Is the “first family” still able to ignite the spark of a new political revival or does the party need “young Turks” to reform and revitalise the grand old party for its new challenges?
The two key leadership questions before the Congress are: does the party’s obsession with one family – the Nehru-Gandhi parivaar – mean that no outsider can ever be the leader of the party; and does the family not want to let go, or is it that they cannot?
The answer is two-fold. While the “family” may fear to be without any protection once the protective shield of the INC is gone, the party itself runs the risk of being torn asunder into different regional factions, like the Janata movement, without the family to hold it together.
Rahul Gandhi accepted moral responsibility and resigned as president of the Congress after the 2019 election defeat. A year down the line, he remains the Congress’s frontline face in questioning the government in Parliament and outside, while Sonia Gandhi took charge as Congress president. However, within its ranks, especially amongst the senior ranks, there is a sense of waiting for him to return.
The old guard in the party is an extremely powerful lobby, and it wants the status quo. A change could mean that they would lose their hold over what is left.
It is imperative to accept the dire need for effective leadership at the top for the survival of the party. With consensus within the party hierarchy, capable and effervescent young people, even if they do not belong to the inner circle must be groomed and left to lead the charge. There could be a role for the family by genuinely nurturing collective leadership of equals and during elections, project credible alternatives for national leadership.
Even under Jawaharlal Nehru, who towered in stature over the rest in his time, the INC had a spirit of accommodation. Despite differences with some stellar leaders, factional differences were not allowed to break the party.
The young do not see a future in the party, and if they must work to create it, then the party needs to embrace their ambitions. It is important to accept and embrace the dreams, even arrogance, of rebellious young leaders and ensure they remain with the party.
REIMAGINING ITS APPEAL
Globally, political parties during their lows have returned to their core base and beliefs and reinvented or redefined themselves.
A well-known example from the 1990s was when the Labour Party in the UK, under the leadership of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, rebranded itself as ‘New Labour’, and embraced market economics by amending its Constitution.
These revivals are not permanent in nature, and political parties must go to the drawing board periodically to reinvent themselves. It is time for the INC to define why it exists and the purpose it serves to the democratic framework of India.
The solution must come from within the party, but unfortunately, it does not seem to have even started looking.