The party's over: Why India doesn't need the Congress anymore

The grand old party was ideal for securing independence, but is unsuited to today’s competitive politics.

The leadership of the Indian National Congress has attempted to recast the party’s performance in the recent Assembly elections – sweeping defeats in all four states, with a consolation victory in Puducherry – in a positive light. They are adept at finding silver linings, having had plenty of practice in recent times.

But to most observers both inside and outside the Congress, the results only underline the extent of the party’s crisis. The Congress now remains in power in only six states, three of them small and in the North East. While Digvijaya Singh said his party needs surgery, Mani Shankar Aiyar, always more sanguine about the prospects of the Gandhis and the Congress, also admitted that a course of medication was required.

The most popular prescription is the natural one for a party with a chronic habit of losing elections: A change of leadership. Congressmen themselves, briefing the press off the record, generally confine their complaints to Rahul Gandhi’s ineptitude. This is true even of disaffected ex-Congressmen like Himanta Biswa Sarma, who helped mastermind the Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory in Assam. Sarma refuses to criticise the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi.

Political commentators unaffiliated with the party have been calling for the Gandhi family as a whole to be replaced. R Jagannathan of Swarajya – the most pro-government publication this side of the Organiser – in keeping with the medical theme, recommends a lobotomy for the Congress. It’s been some time since Jagannathan has been a well-wisher of the Congress but even Mukul Kesavan, a critic sympathetic to the Congress, hopes for a “daring usurper” who will “set the Grand Old Party walking upright again”.

The dynastic principle

Those who call for a Gandhi-mukt Congress make two assumptions – both of them flawed, if not wholly untenable. The first is that such a party would be a viable and coherent political proposition. The second is that India still needs the Congress, the party that led the Independence movement and, in some form, has governed the Centre for 55 of our 69 years as a nation-state.

There are at least two related problems with the first assumption. First, since Sanjay Gandhi’s entry into politics some four decades ago, the party has increasingly been organised and unified not by any discernible ideology or political programme but by the dynastic principle. Viewed as a whole, it is not quite right to say that the Gandhis lead the Congress; they are the Congress. It is less a party than a court, of a kingdom whose territory is in rapid contraction.

As one would expect of a court, dynasticism also infects the Congress at every level. Himanta Biswa Sarma joined the Bharatiya Janata Party out of frustration with a “blue-blood culture” that saw Tarun Gogoi’s son Gaurav promoted at Sarma’s expense. The next generation of Congress leadership, that is, the people typically mooted as successors or alternatives to the Gandhis, are almost exclusively dynasts too, like Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia.

One of the lessons of India’s post-Independence politics is that dynasticism in parties is an incurable disease. Once a party has traded ideology for family rule, there is no turning back. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Shiromani Akali Dal were once deeply ideological and broadly meritocratic. But they are now family firms, and politicians with ambition must look elsewhere. Similarly, the Shiv Sena, Samajwadi Party and Telangana Rashtra Samithi were not founded as family parties, but now are organised as such and will remain so.

The second problem with the idea of a Congress with new leaders is the matter of keeping such a party together. The years 1991-’98, when Sonia Gandhi largely stayed out of politics, offer a prophecy of the inevitable break-up of the Congress that would follow the departure of the Gandhis. During that period, senior leaders like Madhavrao Scindia, Arjun Singh and ND Tiwari left to form their own parties. Singh and Tiwari called their outfit the All India Indira Congress. Even Mani Shankar Aiyar, the model of the loyal Congressman, decamped for the Trinamool Congress, which was formed in 1998. When Sonia Gandhi returned to save the splintering Congress, all these leaders returned to the fold.

This indicated that to the party’s senior leaders, a Congress without the Gandhis was no Congress at all. There is no reason to expect things to be different in 2016. Without the Gandhis, what the Congress principally has to offer to its members is a universally known brand name and symbol – but a brand name that has aged about as well as Air India.

Pluralism or cynicism?

Then, what of the notion that India still needs the Congress, or a Congress? Kesavan reminds us of the importance of the “pluralist tradition” of this “non-sectarian umbrella party”. The Congress’ history as a big-tent pluralist party, rather than an ideological grouping, is a function of its origins as an anti-colonial nationalist organisation rather than a conventional political party. In Kesavan’s inspired coinage, the Congress was the Noah’s Ark of nationalism, allowing room for every species. Why should this model hold up after 65 years of multi-party electoral politics, and four decades of dynasticism? In practice, the Congress’ pluralism means a vision of the polity as a set of groups, rather than citizens (a vision shared by the BJP and most other parties), and the willingness to offer something to every one of these groups.

Thus we have an avowedly secular party capable of pandering to religious fundamentalists of all stripes, fair-weather friend to aam aadmi and crony capitalist, which led and directed an anti-Sikh pogrom and retained those responsible as Cabinet ministers and yet gave us our first Sikh prime minister.

The best that can be said about this version of the Congress is that, unlike most other Indian parties, it has never really regarded any group of Indians as enemies. Every one, in the right circumstances, is a potential Congress voter. But a party that can stand for anything is quite likely to stand for nothing, and this form of pluralism usually means grubby cynicism.

Rise of regional parties

India might still need even such a Congress if the rise of Modi and the BJP’s growth as a national party was going unchallenged. But two years’ worth of elections show that a Congress-mukt Bharat is not the same thing as unchallenged BJP dominance. State after state has reminded us of the resilience of competitive politics. Our current political era is less like the Congress monopoly of the 1950s and more like the 1970s and 1980s, with one powerful national party counterbalanced by a diverse opposition.

The Congress vote is less likely to go to the BJP than to go elsewhere, often going to parties that retain a form of the Congress’ big-tent pluralism, whether it is the Aam Aadmi Party, the Janata Dal (United), or regional Congress offshoots like the Trinamool or the Biju Janata Dal. Across the country, those who oppose Modi and the BJP have plenty of options, often better ones than the Congress has presented or is likely to present.

An enduring faith in the possibility of a revived Gandhi-free Congress is animated by nostalgia for a once truly great party and, at times, by the belief in the desirability of two-party politics. But political parties are no more permanent than other institutions, nor should they be. The 1885-1969 Congress increasingly looks like an organisation of its time, ideal for a national movement and the first phase of nation-building, but unsuited to the more conventional competitive politics that followed.

The Congress’ present-day importance is often exaggerated by a New Delhi-centric view of the country in which national politics hold primacy. Losing the Gandhis would mean losing the Congress. But if one views India as a collection of diverse states, and as a country in need of less and not more centralisation, the death of the Congress is not in itself something to be feared or mourned.

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