While the Congress Working Committee, on Tuesday, discussed the crisis in Jammu and Kashmir (among other things), the author discusses a crisis that the party must address.
It was 1998 and the Vajpayee government had just come to power. I spotted my usually cheerful grandfather sipping his morning tea looking rather dismayed. Upon enquiry, I learnt that the reason behind his sombre mood was the ‘political upheaval’ in the country. He was disappointed that his fellow citizens had rejected the very party that had liberated the nation from foreign rule. He and many others like him, who had actively participated in the freedom struggle, were lifelong Congress voters, thus it was difficult for him to imagine why his fellow countrymen would elect an alternate party.
Understanding this sentiment is important to understand Nehru’s and Indian National Congress’ (INC) brand and goodwill. Gandhi always felt that the mission of the INC was to liberate India from foreign rule; once that goal was accomplished, he wanted the INC to be dissolved. But later he proposed that leaders who wanted to serve the public should form their own political parties and contest elections. Indeed, this would have been democracy in the real sense.
It is interesting to consider possible outcomes of such an idea. Perhaps Nehru would have been rejected by the people and none of the Gandhi’s—Indira, Rajiv, Sonia or Rahul—would have climbed the INC ladder. Perhaps Patel would have been our Prime Minister or a newer relatively unknown face would have emerged as the nation’s leader following a fractured mandate.
Nehru and others in the INC knew that they could ride the wave of goodwill earned by the party during the freedom struggle. Any challengers to the INC could implicitly (or explicitly) be branded as a traitor for challenging the ideas of free India’s founding fathers. Hence, Gandhi’s advice was conveniently ignored and the Nehru-led INC formed the interim government (even though Sardar Patel won the popular vote). Patel passed away in 1950. A few years later, the party secured a massive majority in free India’s very first election and Nehru remained India’s prime minister. The baton of leading the party was subsequently passed on to three consecutive generations.
Many such as my grandfather, voted for the party and the person at its helm out of sheer gratitude rather than on merit. The government-controlled media established that this benevolent first family was doing their best for the nation and that on occasions tough measures had to be taken. The one thing that the leaders understood was that in politics it is not always about facts rather about public perception. And this is what worked for the INC in those days, who were a champion in the contest of perception. For example, Nehru was chacha, Indira was Mother India while Rajiv Gandhi was the great moderniser.
But today’s INC isn’t as formidable as it once was. When UPA-II was in office, the party was reeling under several setbacks over scams and controversies. An inability to control inflation, inability to counter terrorism and a lack of economic growth among other factors with Manmohan Singh as the prime minister, the public’s trust in the party had weakened. More importantly, INC was losing the battle of perception.
Snobbery can play a decisive role in this battle, ask Hillary Clinton. Back in 2014, Mani Shanker Aiyer called Narendra Modi a tea seller, only worthy of selling tea outside an INC conference. He claimed with certitude that Modi would never become India’s PM. More derision and mockery followed with P Chidambaram claiming on the BBC’s Hard Talk that Modi’s knowledge of economics could be written on the backside of a postal stamp, while Kapil Sibal claimed that Modi could never be India’s PM. All these statements showed disdain not only for Modi but also for the working class. Meanwhile, instead of tough rebuke, there was silence (implicit support) from party’s senior leadership.
This worked out in Modi’s favour, who used this to highlight his background as a man of the people who had worked his way up the ladder. He also used remarks by members of the INC to contrast himself from the arrogant and the powerful who had to be brought down. The people clearly sided with Modi.
In a hurried bid to counter BJP’s strengthening perception, the weakened INC made several errors. This included Rahul Gandhi’s claim to the US envoy that India was more vulnerable to Hindu terror than Islamic terror, the implication here being that this was driven by the BJP. Then, there was Digvijaya Singh who attended the launch of a book which claimed that RSS was behind the 26-11 attacks, followed by his baseless comments about RSS being a terror group. INC also faced backlash for its policies like the opposition to Uniform Civil Code.
Several leaders, especially among the representatives of the minorities like Owaisi, aggressively questioned the INC’s commitment to Muslims. In the bid to serve two masters, INC ended up creating a perception that it was anti-Hindu, though not necessarily pro-Muslim. It is important to note that Nehru, Indira and even Rajiv spoke about equality and the need to fight communalism, yet they were careful about calling out particular religious groups.
Einstein’s definition of insanity is a repetition of action while expecting a different outcome. After losing 2014 national poll, one would have presumed that the INC would have learned its’ lesson and changed course. However, that isn’t the case.
One such example of was last December, when demonetisation had pushed people to the edge of their savings. All that the INC had to do was be with the people and question the government. Instead, Rahul Gandhi queued outside the ATM, while calling the exercise ‘the biggest scam in the history of India,’ without a smidgen of evidence. Not only Rahul Gandhi but Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge repeated the mistakes made by other party members. He made personal and scornful remarks against Modi.
Again, this worked in Modi’s favour. Instead of being on the defensive for a poorly implemented demonetisation, he pounded Kharge and the INC. Once again, the INC fell on its face in the battle of public perception.
There are several other examples to illustrate INC insanity including Mani Shankar Aiyer’s remark where he urged the anchor of Duniya TV, a Pakistani news channel, to “remove Modi” for Indo-Pak talks to resume. Once again, senior leaders failed to keep their people in check. With surgical strikes, INC inched closer to its defeat as it questioned the veracity of the strikes providing ammunition to the Pakistanis to dispute that it even occurred. There is more than enough evidence to prove that repeated mistakes and INC’s failure to learn from them, has made it a lost cause.
And in the process, the perception that has continued is that the INC is anti-Hindu, anti-national, pro-separatist, deeply arrogant, incompetent and conceited. The history of corruption still remains strongly etched in memory. It is this perception that is hard to get over.
So where does the party go from here? Firstly, they need a strong leader who can steer them in the right direction. Somebody who can discipline the party members—prevent them from attacking Modi, get party members to stick to the issues at hand, accept all religions and present a vision for the future—and herein lies the bigger problem. Rahul Gandhi’s incompetence and incoherent babbling may be rejected by the public but it is the Gandhi’s who have kept party members together, preventing anarchy. For some reason, if the Gandhis were done away with, every other leader would lay claim to the throne and chaos would ensue. We saw this during Sitaram Kesri’s phase. But if the Gandhis hold on, the future has nothing but darkness. Thus, the party finds itself between slipping down a rabbit hole.
The way things currently are, it is hard to imagine how the party can resurrect their fortunes. What is more disappointing is a lack of a strong opposition in a vibrant democracy. With Congress losing the battle of perception and credibility, it clearly appears that Narendra Damodardas Modi could as well remain in power for as long as he desires.