India is facing trying times. The Kashmir Valley and its seven million residents are under an unprecedented military lockdown, with communication severely restricted and thousands detained without charge. On Saturday, Assam will publish its final National Register of Citizens list, most probably rendering millions of people stateless. The country’s economy is slowing down, forcing the Union government to raid the coffers of the Reserve Bank of India to make up for the falling tax revenues.
Despite these momentous events, the country’s main opposition party, the Congress, has been strangely silent. In fact, matters are even worse: the party is in disarray, turning on itself rather than framing an effective critique of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s shambolic policies.
On August 22, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said that demonising Modi all the time was not productive and added that Modi’s governance model was “not a complete negative story”. Ramesh received support for this view from fellow Congressmen Shashi Tharoor and Mani Shankar Aiyer.
This could have been the opportunity for the Congress to start a debate about its political strategy, but it soon descended into schoolyard bickering. The Kerala state Congress chief criticised Tharoor for his position. Congress leader Veerappa Moily fanned the fire: he not only criticising Jairam Ramesh for this stand, he even reached back five years to blame him for the supposed policy paralysis during Congress Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s second term.
This episode comes after Rahul Gandhi resigned as Congress president ostensibly to allow new blood into the party’s upper echelons, only to have his mother be named interim Congress president earlier this month.
Being out of power affects all parties. Yet, the utter paralysis in the Congress points to a deeper affliction: a complete lack of ideology. There seems to be little than holds the party together, other than the Gandhis and the desire to hold public office.
Does the Congress have a future?
Or will its destruction help a new opposition to rise which will serve Indian democracy better?
The rot starts
This is not new. While both Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi offered ideology to the Congress, under Rajiv Gandhi – an airline pilot who entered politics reluctantly after his mother was assassinated in 1984 – the party thrashed about seeking direction. Rajiv Gandhi dabbled in both Hindu and Muslim identity politics and was unable to strike a unique economic line, unlike his mother who had sold left-wing populism quite successfully.
Since then, the Congress has ambled along, never quite functioning as an ideological grouping, but simply a coalition of leaders orbiting the Gandhis in the hope of capturing power.
In some ways, the Congress is not alone in this ideological vacuum. Parties such as the Trinamool Congress of West Bengal and the Biju Janata Dal of Odisha have scrambled to find ideological moorings such as state identity once the BJP tried to enter their states.
The past decade has seen incredible changes in Indian politics. With the entry of social media, ideology has become critical to mass politics. This has greatly helped the BJP, which has stuck to its position of Hindu nationalism ever since it was founded. This also means that the Congress’ older, managerial style of politics simply will not do. Its supporters need to be galvanised by political ideology. Till that happens – if it does at all – that Congress will be vastly ineffective on the political scene and India will be without its main opposition party.