One must not forget that the recent defeat of the Congress, along with organisational and other issues is also a reflection of the challenge to the political values that the Congress stood by all these years. Further, this is a crisis that not just the Congress alone but almost all parties with a social democratic character are facing across the globe.
We are going through a rather ironical phase of political history where people are resenting increasing inequality but are voting for parties that are aggressively pursuing policies that are creating social strife and street violence. This is a context to pause and forge extensive solidarities, across board, and it is not desirable to condemn and dismiss.
One must not forget that the BJP and the RSS continue to see the Congress as its primary political and ideological rival. Mr. Modi in particular has been singularly obsessed to discredit the legacy Congress stood for, from Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru to Rajiv Gandhi. This should tell us something about the historical contribution of the Congress, notwithstanding the need for a critical introspection that is necessary.
The world is changing fast, and what is needed is catching up with the times and not abandoning history. The Congress continues to have a historical role to play in arresting India from becoming a theocratic-majoritarian state. The Congress still is the only national party with an organisational presence across India which is important to counter the pervasive spread of the RSS across India. Minus the Congress, it will be a fight between various regional parties restricted to their respective states, and the pan-India presence of the BJP and social mobilisation of the RSS.
One must not forget that the same kind of exuberant anti-Congressism in the past is what led to the mainstreaming of the RSS. It began with the proximity between the Jan Sangh and the Janata party in their protest against Emergency. Jay Prakash Narayan promoted the RSS and is widely believed to have said, “If the RSS is communal then I am also communal”.
During the VP Singh days, again the BJP was part of the coalition. Regional parties that are facing near extinction, like the BSP, were the ones in coalition with the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, in order to erode the social base of the Congress. More recently, it was Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal of AAP, who were the flag bearers of the RSS during the India against Corruption movement.
The BJP and the RSS grew by replacing the Congress. Non-Congress secular history in India is a chequered one. The Congress alone cannot be blamed for the rise of the BJP-RSS combine. In fact, it is clear from BJP’s campaign of Congress-mukt Bharat who they perceive as primary stumbling block against formalisation of the Hindu Rashtra.
What we need today is to forge solidarity between the Congress, regional parties and the Left. This solidarity can no longer be that of mere political alliances. Their work together cannot afford to begin just before the election for seat-sharing and end with electoral arithmetic. There is a clear and a pressing need to reformulate a political vision that carries out social work as much as a political programme.
It was clear from the recent elections how weakening of the Congress led to vulnerability of the regional parties, where Chandrababu Naidu and Mamata Banerjee were complaining about the role of the RSS in blocking free and a fair elections and stoking violence.
The challenge before non-NDA political parties today is a formidable one. I would in fact go to the extent of arguing for looking at the possibility of various regional, Left parties and the Congress to work towards a merger. Merger alone will help them to avoid squabbles about possible loss of their independent social base. As long as we do not evolve political strategies that can pose strong alternative social ethics and model of development, mere alliances will not materialise into electoral results.
Political alliances and possible mergers between secular-minded political parties have to be backed by what Gandhi referred to as ‘constructive work’ of bridging the gap between religious communities and castes. The BJP and the RSS, while talking of national unity, have grown by making the weaker social groups vulnerable.
We witnessed unprecedented street violence from 2014 onwards playing up the available social conflicts and prejudices, they need to be rolled back by organising regular dialogue on composite values that India stood and was globally known for. This needs a strong organisational structure to match the strength of the RSS.
The RSS today has five million swayamsevaks working on the ground round the year and not merely during the election season. Left parties continue to have cadre, and regional parties have a strong following in local areas. It is in bringing this strength together that alternatives will look more credible.
From 2004 to 2014, the alliance between the Congress, Left and regional parties was moving towards this direction, before Mr Modi managed to capture the imagination of new aspirational groups that were set in motion because of the development made possible under the leadership of the Congress party.
During the recent General Election too, Rahul Gandhi attempted to set the pitch with NYAY scheme and talk about love as against hatred and frontally attacked the role of the RSS. It would be self-defeatist not to further consolidate and mobilise along these lines.
The Congress party itself needs to go back to becoming a movement from being merely a political party. This initial momentum needs to take a viable shape if India is to remain inclusive, secular and progressive. A hasty reading of history with ad hoc exigencies making us myopic will only further consolidate a theocratic state where anybody opposed to that vision will be brought to submit before the powers that be.
(The author is Associate Professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He recently published India after Modi: Populism and the Right)