The Congress’s decision on Monday to invite members of civil society to participate in its leader Rahul Gandhi’s proposed marathon 3,600-km long “Bharat Jodo” walkathon across the country should not be seen as the party using representatives of social movements as a crutch in its political battle against the Bharatiya Janata Party.

There are several reasons why this ccould be seen as not only a sagacious move but also as an indispensable one in the current socio-political context.

Firstly, it must be acknowledged that the Congress party’s fight against the BJP is not just political or electoral but essentially an ideological one. Never before has the Congress been confronted with the kind of ideological challenge that the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has posed to it.

This is not a challenge for only the Congress: all those who believe in democracy and rule of law are today faced with a kind of “do-or-die” predicament over the need to salvage the idea of India being sucked into the vortex of communal polarisation created by the BJP under Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.

Historical responsibility

Since the idea of an inclusive India was painstakingly crafted and Constitutionally bequeathed to the country by freedom fighters who were overwhelmingly aligned with the Congress, the party has the historical responsibility to protect it.

Rahul Gandhi, on his part, has frequently stated that his fight is to save the idea of India. We can grant him the honesty in this statement of resolve because no one who understands Indian politics even minimally would see Gandhi as a power-hungry politician. If he was, he would not work at it in fits and starts, without any consistency and the lust for power required to pursue politics in India.

As a consequence, his long march should be not be viewed as a mere political campaign but an attempt to re-establish the vision of the country his party has long espoused.

It is true that the Congress has degenerated, corrupted by its unchallenged monopoly over power for at least five decades and was itself responsible for the rise of communal forces several ways. That is all the more reason for the grand old party to restore sanity to the vitiated socio-political atmosphere and atone for its sins.

Of course, the Congress knows all too well that it does not have the material resources to take on the mighty BJP so it needs all the allies it can get.

NAC precedent

This is not the first time that the Congress has turned to civil society for help. During the United Progressive Alliance years in the early 2000s, the Congress appointed civil society experts to the National Advisory Council to advise it on issues of governance and state programmes. Some argued that council was an extra-Constitutional body. While that is a valid criticism, the idea was much more transparent than the BJP’s stealthy infusion of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh cadres into positions of strategic importance in government institutions.

It should be recalled that long before becoming a party of power, the Congress itself was as much a social movement as it was a political one. It has the NGO instinct in its genes. There is nothing terribly wrong in seeking the aid of civil society along as long as civil society’s leading lights are not engaged in anything harmful to the country’s social, political and economic fundamentals.

Ironically, the Congress’s attempt to involve civil society in its campaign is an echo of the campaign to unseat the party in the 1970s. In the charged-up days of Jayaprakash Narayan movement against Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, a coalition of forces acting at variance with each other united to form the Janata Party, which eventually defeated Gandhi at the poll box. Despite being aware of the majoritarian ideology it was pursuing, Socialists, Lohiaites and Gandhians had joined hands with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to fight Indira Gandhi.

Narayan, who himself was a Gandhian, did not hesitate to take the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on board in this all-out battle with Congress because he thought unity was the need of the hour.

As it happened, this proved to be a much-needed shot in the arm for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose political untouchability was removed in a stroke. The Hindutva organisation slowly gathered strength to become the most formidable force in the country.

An asymmetric war

Though some have reservations about organisations led by Aruna Roy, Yogendra Yadav and others, they are in no way opposed to the fundamental ideas of India like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is. They have, in fact, worked to bring to fruition pathbreaking ideas like the Forest Rights Act, the Right to Information and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

This is not the occasion for the civil society to be fastidious about its independence from political parties. This is an asymmetric war and needs to be fought in an unconventional way, by casting off straitjackets. These relationships can be reset if and when this war is won.

To be sure, it is essential to recognise that today’s Congress is certainly not the ideal political party that can be consulted for the answers to all the important questions before India. The Congress has its own set of flaws. One could describe it as the lesser evil. Nonetheless, strengthening its hands for the moment seems to be the only way out of the mess that India has been reduced to by the BJP’s dangerous communal politics.

Vivek Deshpande worked with The Indian Express and is now a freelance journalist in Nagpur.