A new kind of politics by the civil society was registered in the North-West of the globe in the 1960s. Fondly remembered by monikers, such as the “Swinging Sixties” in England, the decade witnessed students and youths forcefully enunciate what has been called “post-materialist politics” by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas and “nomadic politics” by Alberto Melucci.

Their campaigns voiced cultural concerns such as animal rights, anti-racism, anti-war, civil rights, gender rights and the rights of sexual minorities. This phenomenon has been identified as New Social Movements in the social sciences.

The prefix “new” underlines a definite shift from the economic-only concerns of traditional Marxism, which had largely hegemonised social movements. New Social Movements are the precursors of identity politics in the North-West, which is exemplified by extreme wokeness in the contemporary.

They have the following characteristics besides being cultural: (1) New Social Movements have a loose organisation without fixed leaders; (2) participants in New Social Movements are not required to be committed. In fact, they are allowed to be nomadic and undertake action on a short-term basis; (3) New Social Movements do not necessarily vie for state power but are satisfied to act as pressure groups; (4) New Social Movements depend much on new methods of communication for the purpose of discourse expansion and political mobilisation.

A careful analysis will reveal that the Indian National Congress unwillingly shares the first two characteristics. Though Sonia Gandhi has been restored as the working president after the poll debacle, Rahul Gandhi remains the authority without responsibility.

The arrangement is likely to continue till the prince finds a favourable political climate, if at all, ie, to officially take over the reins. The state presidents of the Congress, including in Uttar Pradesh, were asked to resign after election losses but Priyanka Gandhi escaped unscathed.

Rahul Gandhi's tweet on March 10, after the Assembly election results for five states were declared.

Regional leaders such as [former Punjab chief ministers] Amarinder Singh, Charanjit Channi, [Gujarat Congress leader] Hardik Patel, [Rajasthan deputy Chief Minister] Sachin Pilot and others find favour and disfavour without regard to their political weight on the ground.

Upon an unstable infrastructure, a superstructure of celebrity leaders is being cultivated and inducted. Bhim Army chief Chandra Shekhar Aazad and student activist-turned politician Kanhaiya Kumar exemplify these trends. They are elevated to media heights for loud-speaking but have little following to win elections. Organisationally therefore, the Congress leadership is in turmoil at all levels.

The youthful adventurism that marks New Social Movements allows participants to flirt with causes. This enables them to be non-committal and even be cause-hoppers. But when the Congress exhibits similar symptoms it means that “the grand old party”, which developed as a social movement, is now being unmade.

Loyalists will argue that it simultaneously means that the Congress is a New Social Movement in the making. But New Social Movements neither can nor want to win elections. The Congress has reportedly lost 39 of the 49 elections that it has fought since Narendra Modi first became prime minister in 2014. The same report says that since 2014, 222 candidates left the Congress to join other parties and 177 legislators and parliamentarians have quit the organisation.

Unlike the first two aspects of New Social Movements, the Congress has willingly embraced the last two characteristics. Political pundits, even the durbari ones, are unanimous that the Congress has not been able to exhibit the grit that is required to win elections in India today.

It seems that “the grand old party” has resigned itself to be a distant runner-up in poll after poll. The Congress merely aims at victory in a handful of seats and a complementary vote share across the country so as to offer itself as the cement that can bind regional parties against the Bharatiya Janata Party behemoth. It attempts to make up for this acute lack of ambition by a moral grandstanding.

An activist with masks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, during the April 2019 general elections in Chennai. Credit: Reuters

This is borrowed learning from the knowledge machine in the North-West which has been repeatedly rejected by a subaltern electorate in India since 2014. The BJP has successfully fashioned an electoral strategy based on two “isms” – civilisationalism and welfarism. The Congress attacks the former only to earn public ire, and it appears sporadic and therefore insincere when it makes an offer on the latter.

Sociologist Manuel Castells has pointed out that new methods of communication for the purpose of mobilisation are a key feature of New Social Movements. This includes social media of course. Since 2014, the BJP has added social media to its campaign arsenal. The Congress was late to invest in it. But now that it finally has, the Congress has made a dangerous mistake to assume that social media can replace door-to-door mobilisation.

It is true that “the grand old party” simply does not have the popular support to establish face-to-face relationships with its voters. But the Aam Aadmi Party has shown that it is not impossible and that the electorate is willing to invest in serious contenders for power.

The Congress, unfortunately, appears least interested in sweating it out on the ground. In lieu, its moves on the chessboard of politics are driven by the attraction of noise in Twitter-space and the likes. The stellar defeats of Azad and Channi in the just concluded state Assembly elections must demonstrate to the Congress that identity politics may earn it support from the Left-liberal parivar in the North-West and their university wards in India but it is hardly enough to win elections.

The Congress must not only reorganise and fix its leadership crises at all levels, but relearn how to develop connectivity till the last electoral mile in order to revive the party.

Most importantly, the Congress must avoid the temptation of instant gratification on legacy media and social media from orientalist-modernist forces. They want to dismiss the glory of India as a civilisation and produce it as a child that arrived in 1947 thanks to the British Raj. If “the grand old party” does not cure itself of its colonial hangover it risks being reduced to a New Social Movement. Politics in the largest democracy of the world will be a lot less animated as a result.

The author is Assistant Professor of Sociology at NMIMS, Bengaluru, and also a doctoral candidate at JNU.