To judge the ideology and emerging contours of a newly resurgent Congress party – and as it attempts to refashion itself in the age of a waning Narendra Modi – you could consider the fate of Shiv Ram Prasad Kalluri, Indian Police Service.

Earlier this week, the new Congress government in Chhattisgarh rehabilitated Kalluri, an officer accused of widespread human-rights violations – including extrajudicial killing, rape and assault – in the tribal heartland of Bastar, where the state and Maoists are locked in deadly battle. Chhattisgarh’s BJP government protected Kalluri at his post as Bastar police chief for as long as possible. When the National Human Rights Commission summoned him to New Delhi in 2016 to explain the allegations against him, Kalluri did not show up. When a lawyer, Piyoli Satija, sent Kalluri a WhatsApp message in 2017 reminding him that he was bound to protect Bela Bhatia, an activist whose house in Bastar was invaded by unknown men and whose complaint the police refused to register, the officer’s response was “F U”. When it was clear that Kalluri believed he was above the law, the BJP government forced him to go on “medical leave” (although the officer himself said he had been asked to step down).

The Congress government has now appointed Kalluri as the chief of the state’s anti-corruption bureau and economic offences wing. The signal is clear: The party is willing to overlook multiple, serious violations of the law by a police officer if he is deemed to have been of service to the state or could be of service in future to the state or party. That is a position uncomfortably close to what is now the BJP’s stock response to official excess: Protect officers useful to the party and government, blur distinctions between the two and punish those who embarrass the party and uphold the law.

Congress vs BJP

In the past, when the Congress ran India with large parliamentary majorities, it did not hesitate from manipulating administrators and the laws they were meant to uphold. This is how the Central Bureau of Investigation was converted from an independent agency to – what the Supreme Court in 2013 called – a “caged parrot” and “his master’s voice”.

Narendra Modi’s BJP has, perhaps, been a more demanding master than the 21st century Congress of Sonia Gandhi. It deliberately and famously ruined the careers of a string of Indian Police Service officers who deposed against Modi’s government in Gujarat in the aftermath of the 2002 riots or who acted against mobs. Similarly, Modi’s BJP stood by loyal officers arrested and imprisoned for extrajudicial killings that once implicated party chief Amit Shah; most have been reinstated and many promoted after more than 50 witnesses turned hostile.

The rehabilitation of Kalluri is the most egregious case, but there are other signs that the Congress may not change past behaviour. Take, for instance, the appointment of Kamal Nath, – a party loyalist associated with the mobs that slaughtered Sikhs after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 – as chief minister of Madhya Pradesh; and its old habit of selective secularism as is evident in its support of the prohibition on menstruating women from the Hindu shrine of Sabrimala.

Perception battle

Missteps of this nature in the days leading up to the 2014 General Elections allowed the BJP to change India’s political narrative and present Modi as a harbinger of change. Now, using Modi’s blunders, Rahul Gandhi is attempting to change the narrative – and succeeding on many counts – to portray himself as the change India needs from Modi.

But his cycle of bluster and backing the wrong ideals does not portend well for either the Congress, Gandhi or India. While Gandhi has led a remarkable turnaround in his party’s fortunes over the last six months, there is no evidence that he has a vision for or plan to address India’s deepest problems. He talks of love and compassion, which is well and good, and correctly identifies unemployment and farm distress as the leading electoral issues for 2019. But what are his specific plans for rural India besides largely useless loan waivers? How does he intend to create more than a million jobs a month? And while he may be winning the battle of perception, what is his perspective on issues that are as important – healthcare, air and water pollution, education? How about an indication that the party is willing to be on the right side of history?

Political musical chairs

What we do know is that the Congress’ past failings on these basic issues contributed to the perception that the party had done nothing over “70 years” – a favourite phrase of Modi’s – even though it presided, this century, over a period of the fastest economic growth India has ever seen. Gandhi now counters Modi with his popular chant, “Chowkidar chor hai [The watchman is the thief],” but that is not enough for the Congress party’s long-term prospects in a country that is no longer content with incrementalism and symbolism.

Modi has proved to be a tinkerer rather than the reformer he once claimed to be, apart from becoming a bitter, divisive figure. Giving Indians more toilets, bank accounts and gas cylinders are certainly welcome, but there is little evidence these programmes – or the hype around them – lead to electoral success or are substitutes for the kind of structural change Modi once discussed and the wild promises (Rs 15 lakh in each bank account) he made. Empowering lynch mobs does not help.

If India’s politics are to be reduced to the lowest common denominator, with the winner to be decided primarily by perception, marginal change and no attempt to tell the country how its deep-rooted and deepening problems are to be addressed, it can only expect a future of political musical chairs.

As Kalluri is rehabilitated, it is worth noting what Bhupesh Baghel said in 2017 when he was the state president of the Congress. He said: “Mr Kalluri has openly flouted the All India Service rules and the government should take action against him,” said Baghel. “Sending him on leave is not enough as he faces allegations of empowering and protecting anti-social elements, spreading terror, rape, and murders.”

Now Baghel is the chief minister and the man who cleared Kalluri’s new posting.