Bharat Jodo Yatra: Reinventing the Grand Old Party

Go to any village in India, Congress leader V.N. Gadgil once said, and you will find three permanent fixtures— the postman, the policeman and the Congress party

Bharat Jodo Yatra: Reinventing the Grand Old Party

Jagdish Rattanani

Go to any village in India, Congress leader V.N. Gadgil once said, and you will find three permanent fixtures— the postman, the policeman and the Congress party. That rhetorical flourish to explain how finely the Congress was woven into the fabric of national life was not even an exaggeration at that point in time.

That was of course a long, long time ago. But as long as some kind of connection with the grassroots was alive, the party had a system to read, connect and build its base and ground its agenda in the people. That connection was eroded over time.

Under Manmohan Singh, a career bureaucrat, there could be no connection with the last mile. The economic crisis meant that the reforms he had launched as the Union finance minister in the early 90s had to be placed on an even keel. In the process, the language and the emphasis of the government– and of the Congress party willy-nilly– changed from talking about the people at the grassroots to the language of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation—all of which had nothing to do with the vast mass of India.

Singh often visited Mumbai but never could hold a mass rally to meet with everyday party workers. More common was a lunch meeting at the Cricket Club of India, arranged by the then Mumbai party chief and businessman Murli Deora. It is important to recall some of this narrative as the Congress seeks to open up, hold elections and have a democratically elected leader take charge of the party. This is an important milestone in the history of India’s Grand Old Party. The party needs change, internal democracy will do a world of good to a party, that is seen to have turned away from the needs and aspirations of the ordinary people and the toiling classes.

The Congress did do many course corrections. It went aggressive, for example, on the right to work with MNREGA, the school mid-day meal schemes, but the tone and tenor could not be changed. The narrative stayed of a party turning away from the poor and the downtrodden, enmeshed in corruption and engaged in pursuits of powerbrokers rather than peasants.

The significance given by the media now to the so-called ‘rebel’ Congress leaders, who were called the ‘G-23’ and challenged the top brass of the party for bringing on the mess, missed the central point that many–if not all–of those leaders were themselves cut off from the people. They grew in a party that had turned away from the people, or was at least seen as such.

Any party tuned to a different audience would have little or no use for most of the G-23 lot. They will win no votes. They were committed only up to a point, as seen in the manner in which members of the G-23 have quit. They believed as long as the going for them was good. The G-23 need not be completely dismissed but they were mostly the suave, well connected, well-heeled lot, not the grassroots variety politician who can pick the pulse of the people. The Congress today needs a head who can make some fundamental changes and offer a clear alternative to the current dispensation.

First, of course, it must reunite the nation, a theme akin to the Bharat Jodo Yatra of Rahul Gandhi, but it also needs a new narrative on the economy, a new narrative on peace, non-violence and sustainable growth. All of this has to be taken as a well packaged message to the people of India, notably in the northern states where the party has taken a beating and ceded all ground to the BJP.

Shashi Tharoor is suave, well-meaning and well spoken. But he represents the G-23, which is not to be opposed because they spoke up against the Congress leadership, but must be recognised and named as a subset of the same failed group whose members acquired power because of the party and contributed very little to its growth.

Curiously, the person doing good work just at this time is Rahul Gandhi with the nationwide walkathon that is underway. He has called it a ‘tapasya’, or penance, as he tries to reconnect with the masses, read the mood and discover how he and the party can explain the steep decline of the nation into a climate of hate and division.

Rahul Gandhi’s language is looking good, his statements carry meaning and while the real test will come as he enters the north of the country, right now it appears that a rather strong narrative is taking shape.

Quite simply, it says, an attack on fellow Indians is an attack on India; the flag must be respected but also the values that the national tricolour stands for. Some of these are clean and simple themes that can go far in helping re-build the party and the nation.

The party must, of course, go through the internal election, find an elected president and make the organisation truly and thoroughly democratic. In the end, the party will gravitate towards those who are connected with the people and can bring in the votes.

If the Bharat Jodo Yatra continues to earn the goodwill it has thus far, that leader down the line and over the years may well be Rahul Gandhi, but then he can rightfully claim to have earned the position and not got it as a birth right.

(Jagdish Rattanani is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR. Syndicated by The Billion Press)

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