We Know the BJP’s Ideology. Does the Congress Have One?
Rahul Gandhi’s role in India’s democracy
The media are filled with earnest calls for the removal of Rahul Gandhi and/or the disbanding of the Congress party. Often these include celebrations anticipating its replacement by the TMC and AAP. The proponents of these views are not just opponents of liberalism or the Congress, but experts of various kinds and often supporters of a democratic India. Unfortunately in their eagerness they harm their own cause due to a misunderstanding of ideology in politics, and the role of the Congress in India’s democracy.
The political scientists Pradeep Chibber, Rahul Verma, Suhas Palshikar and others have shown a rightward and Hindu majoritarian shift in the preferences of the Indian voter, which is why even north Indian regional parties which are successful in state elections often lose out to the BJP nationally. Often when they do fight the BJP, like the AAP they fight on the BJP’s ideological turf.
This is a process long in the making, as is the organizational and ideological decline of the Congress, and both of these have very little to do with Rahul Gandhi. In fact most of it has happened under the watch of the Congress old guard, for whose honour and dignity copious tears have been shed by critics. The old guard oversaw the third factor contributing to the decline - the taint of severe corruption, which stuck on under the watch of these venerable elders.
What is worse is they have blocked and sabotaged all attempts at organisational change in the Congress, starting from the grassroots election in the Youth Congress organized by Rahul Gandhi over a decade ago to bring in capable young blood. Here they flooded the membership and voting rolls with their supporters and got their sons, daughters and cronies elected. This has extended to the Congress proper, as well as the apex decision-making bodies of the AICC and the CWC.
Despite this stranglehold they have had no effective answer to the rise of the BJP or Prime Minister Modi. They did little organizational work while enjoying the fruits of power. Unable to strengthen even the grassroots organization of their own constituencies or even visit them regularly, they are now in a position where they can’t win even a municipal seat.
Since Rahul Gandhi stepped down over two years ago the old guard has been unable to choose a successor from among themselves because the truth is that there is no sellable charismatic leader among them and their inability to unite the party.
There are of course some within the old guard who are still effective and popular, like Gehlot in Rajasthan or Baghel in Chattisgarh, but these are leaders who have risen from the grassroots and are still in touch with the masses and local politics.
This brings us back to the nature of politics - is it about ideology, interests, oratory, image, cash or social coalitions? The short answer is that it’s about all of them - just look at the strategy of the BJP. But ideology and interests are front and centre. Without ideology the BJP wouldn’t have the 20% plus core vote that has stood by them even in their defeats of 2004 and 2009.
Those who say the Congress never had an ideology and thus it is wrong to emphasise that are dead wrong on several counts. Firstly they ignore the defining ideological work done by Gandhi, Nehru and Indira Gandhi who carved out a secular, socialist, pan-India civic nationalist ideology. In fact post 1980 the refusal to stand by and reiterate that ideology forcefully is what led to the Congress’s decline.
Even the organizational decline is due to that, as most politicians know political rallies are as much about voters as they are about enthusing party workers - similarly ideology is what provides motivated party workers, as the BJP and the RSS understand well.
Leaders have to be pragmatic and pay attention to interests and social coalitions but an absence of any ideology will lead to immediate and constant party hopping - this is why the BJP has never suffered a split despite being in power for 13 of the past 23 years. As the AAP is finding out, people don’t vote only for cheaper electricity and water in national elections.
Of course an excess of inflexible ideology can also lead to problems as the Communist parties have found out, but the Congress veterans who spent most of their careers in power during the post ideological period of the Congress since the 1980s give ideology short shrift.
Rahul Gandhi on the other hand is emphasizing this secret sauce, which is why he has brought in people like Kanhaiya Kumar and Jignesh Mevani who can explain constitutional and democratic rights in everyday, layman language. If the Congress could get such articulate young blood in every state who can educate us in the manner that Gandhi and Nehru did, this severe weakness of the Congress can be mitigated.
Young Indians from the north Indian heartland no longer respect elites, and want leaders who are like them and speak in their idiom. Thus an equally important task of Rahul Gandhi is to use his political capital to bring forth young men and women from the grassroots who the north Indian voter can connect with and who take up issues that matter to them, such as unemployment.
Similarly the move to make someone from a Dalit caste the Chief Minister of Punjab - shockingly the first Dalit CM since Independence in a state that is one third Dalit but has a Jat Sikh stranglehold on government - would not have been possible without Rahul Gandhi’s support.
This movement towards equality, even at the cost of losing a few Jat votes, is necessary for creating new social coalitions. It has greatly improved the Congress’ chances of returning to power rather than sticking with an aging, unpopular, lethargic and compromised incumbent. It also shows the ability to learn from mistakes when it comes to letting go of opportunistic, entitled and ideologically uncommitted young dynasts.
Where the Congress has been wanting is in mobilization on the ground, but this cannot be done by Rahul Gandhi alone and requires a cadre as well as a large number of leaders. The tasks of nurturing new leaders, organisation and cadre building, fair internal elections and ideological education are long term ones and require patience and cash.
The prevailing resource imbalance, which has been created by India’s oligarchic capitalism and the negligence of party organizational work in comparison with the Sangh Parivar’s century of educational and organizational work, cannot be put at the doorstep of Rahul Gandhi alone. The old guard must take responsibility for it and do their fair share, at least by undoing the damage done by agreeing to anonymous, tax free electoral bonds that can be purchased by unknown domestic and foreign entities.
Politicians typically are like entrepreneurs, they take positions which they either believe in or think will be successful, but can never be sure prior to elections. This explains President Trumps own surprise at winning the election in 2016. This inherent risk arises due to the difficulty of divining the mood of the voting public.
Machiavelli understood this when he said that in order to be successful the nature of the prince must accord with the spirit of the times, else the prince must change his nature to accord with Fortuna. This may be good advice for monarchs but in democracies an ever changing leader loses credibility, and this charge harmed Hillary Clinton in the same election of 2016.
In fact as former professor and political advisor Steve Jarding says, credibility is indispensable in politicians possibly because as Machiavelli says “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few know what you really are, and those few dare not take a stand against the general opinion.”
Rahul Gandhi’s sincerity and credibility inspires loyalty among the young leaders and workers of his party. As witnessed by me, the Congress still has workers in the villages of even a state like UP where it has not been in power for over three decades.
As far as politicians are the embodiment or carriers of ideas, the hasty axing of Rahul Gandhi from the Congress will prematurely abort these processes of reconstruction, and consign India indefinitely to a competitive medievalism rather than a modern progressive liberalism.
Mohsin Raza Khan teaches at the Jindal Global University School of International Affairs