Dear Congress, Spell out Clearly Who You Are

No organisational rejuvenation is possible without ideological clarity

Rahul Gandhi addresses the Congress party’s 84th plenary session at Indira Gandhi Stadium in New Delhi, March 2018
Rahul Gandhi addresses the Congress party’s 84th plenary session at Indira Gandhi Stadium in New Delhi, March 2018

Purushottam Agrawal

The Congress plenary at Raipur is being held inside a month of the conclusion of a very successful Bharat Jodo Yatra,which seems to have lifted the morale of both party workers and supporters of the Congress. It has also stopped, at least for now, the malicious propaganda against Rahul Gandhi. More than 200,000 people (presumably not bots) responded to a Twitter poll initiated by a notorious hate peddler—but more than 55 per cent of even that cohort would like to see Rahul as the next prime minister. Another poll by a well-known admirer of Narendra Modi showed that Rahul’s memorable speech in Parliament on cronyism, monopolism and more was liked by 67 per cent and the combative antics of PM Modi by 33 per cent. Even on the ground, more and more people have begun to see that Rahul is no fumbling political amateur—he means business. This, then, is a moment for some of those “bigger steps” he told me about on December 24 when the Yatra had entered Delhi.

The Raipur plenary is the occasion to take some of those bigger steps insofar as the Congress party organisation is concerned. The Yatra, besides giving Rahul a much-needed image makeover and moral authority, has also given the Congress a chance to recapture the political imagination of the people. At this historic moment, the party might look back at its own history— not with sentimental nostalgia but with the intention to draw the right lessons for the future. The party’s 1931 Karachi session is such a watershed. Recall the backdrop of this session: seething rage among the people and leaders, their political frustration given a bleeding edge by the hanging of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev; recall also the noncommittal stance of the British on constitutional development and the withdrawal of civil disobedience. That anguish found poignant expression in the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, who “that March night” felt “a great emptiness as of something precious gone almost beyond recall”. Nehru recalls T.S. Eliot’s words: ‘This is the way the world ends/ not with a bang, but a whimper.’

And yet, in a matter of weeks, the world of the Congress came alive again at the Karachi session—with a bang. What does the Congress today need to learn from this? That the party’s rejuvenation at that pivotal moment in history was neither a result of a leader’s personal charisma nor only an organisational shakeup. You cannot rejuvenate a political organisation and enthuse its members without a clear political vision, well-crafted tactics and an unhesitant will to seize power.

A demolition drive outside a mosque in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri area, April 2022
A demolition drive outside a mosque in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri area, April 2022

The Congress had been giving voice to the democratic aspirations of the Indian people for some years preceding Karachi; only the year before, at Lahore, on the insistence of Nehru and other young leaders, it had categorically rejected dominion statusand adopted ‘Poorna Swaraj’ as the political goal of the Indian nation. At Karachi, in order ‘to enable the masses to appreciate Swaraj, as conceived by the Congress’, it put forward its economic and political vision of an independent India. The resolution underlined the equality of all citizens and their freedom from all kinds of discrimination—on the basis of caste, creed, race or gender; it underlined labour and peasant rights, and the freedom of expression and civil liberties; the protection of cultural traditions within the framework of universal human values and the removal of poverty through industrialisation. Besides articulating the Congress vision of a future India, the adoption of this resolution also indirectly made a point relevant to contemporary politics—the signalling of a consensus among top leaders. It was jointly drafted by Nehru and Bose, and moved by Gandhi, while Patel presided over the session.

This resolution foretold the basic orientation of the Indian Constitution, adopted in 1949. Interestingly, this point is hardly highlighted by the Congress itself, which is also an indicator of organisational apathy to the core of its own politics.

Recalling all this does not mean mindless repetition, but to get a similar sense of the present moment; it is to realise the urgency to articulate a clear economic and political programme once again, and the urgency to bring it to the centre of the conversation within and outside the party. To be fair, Rahul Gandhi has been trying to do this for some time, but no political battle can be even fought (forget winning it) alone, however heroic the solo effort.

Rahul Gandhi seems to be slowly realising this. It is on his insistence that the Congress now has a non-Gandhi president. The political messaging of the Yatra—in any case a result of his own initiative—was just right, it seems to have struck the right emotional notes. But it seems he still has more faith than perhaps warranted in ‘civil society’. This culture of allowing the Congress to be used as a tool, sometimes by the left and sometimes by the right, has grown out of the party’s amnesia about its ideological moorings. A very prominent Congress leader once told me: “We have not tried to stamp our ideas on the media, because we are not an ideological party, we are a liberal party.”

True, the Indian National Congress is not, and never was, an ideological, cadre-based party in the manner of a Communist party, but nor was it a ‘liberal’ party in the sense of focusing only on ‘development and governance’. The uniqueness of the Indian National Congress, like Indian tradition itself, lies in the endeavour to find the golden middle path of samyak, discarding the lure of extremes. This endeavour was conditioned by historical challenges, and it resulted in policy choices and formulations such as a ‘mixed economy’ and ‘non-alignment’, and also in the commitment to a ‘scientific temper’ even while respecting faith-based traditions. The Karachi resolution is a beautiful expression of these thought processes, later articulated with varying degrees of success.

The point, once again, is not a replay of history, but to learn from it, recalling the Congress party’s own methods of articulating its core ideas; its strategies to put those ideas into practice; its ways of responding to the challenges of the day. To do this, the new Congress president will have to crack the whip to ensure organisational discipline, while Rahul will have to invest the moral capital of his ‘tapasya’ to clarify the party’s ideological moorings.

Political Hindutva’s nexus with crony capitalism is now an open secret. If anything, it was further corroborated in the way Rahul Gandhi’s barbed questions directed at the Prime Minister were simply expunged from the records of Parliament. We are back in the Dark Ages, it seems, and it’s time to shine a harsh light to see these goings-on for what they are. Adani is equated with the nation, not only by the BJP but also the media. Bulldozers are paraded as a symbol of zero-tolerance law enforcement. The caste or creed of a victim decides whether we celebrate or lament his brutalisation. Charlatans are venerated as gurus. In this context, the Congress needs to spell out once more, with clarity and purpose, what it stands for. It certainly does not need its own leaders bowing and prostrating to upstarts demanding Hindu Rashtra or badmouthing entire communities. If that is not beyond the party’s ideological pale, then it certainly needs a hard rethink.

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