My remark on a TV show, that the “Congress must die”, has triggered a debate, perhaps somewhat prematurely, on the role of the country’s principal Opposition party in the times to come. Some of the early reactions have been virulent. Perhaps the timing of the remark made it look like an attempt to kick someone when he is down. And the metaphor of death invited strong emotional reaction.
Let me, therefore, spell out the rationale in the hope that it would generate a more serious and constructive debate. Let me begin by clarifying what this remark was not. One, it was not a knee-jerk emotional outburst in reaction to an exit poll. I had expressed a similar opinion earlier too. The broad judgment is not dependent on the exit polls, unless, of course, the Congress manages to defeat the BJP in the states where it is a direct Congress-BJP contest. Two, I harbour no animus or khundak against Congress leaders. I have said publicly that Rahul Gandhi is more sincere than most political leaders that I have met and far more intelligent than everyone thinks.
Three, this is not a forecast. I know big political parties don’t die easily, and not just because they lose two elections. I don’t have Pragya Thakur’s powers to give shrapa (curse), so you may call it my wish. Finally, this wish is not born out of a congenital anti-Congressism. I have always maintained that Ram Manohar Lohia’s anti-Congressism was a short-term political tactic and must not be turned into an ideology. Unlike most Lohiaites, I have come to admire the role of Nehru and the Congress party in nation-building in the first two decades after Independence.
To my mind, the core issue is assessing the Congress’ potential in acting as a bulwark against the onslaught on the foundations of our republic. There are two assumptions here. One, the rise of the Narendra Modi-led BJP presents a threat to the core constitutional values of democracy and diversity. Two, as the principal national Opposition party, the Congress carries the first charge of protecting the republic against this onslaught.
Once we agree on these, and I think most of my critics would share these assumptions, then we can enter into a meaningful debate and disagreement on the following questions: Has the Congress done justice to this historical responsibility in the last five years? Or, can it be trusted to perform this responsibility in the foreseeable future? My answer is a clear no. The Congress is not just not up to this task, it is a hurdle for those who wish to do so.
Let us look at what the Congress did, or rather didn’t, in the last five years. The Modi regime’s economic performance was below average. Did the Congress organise any nation-wide mass movement to articulate and mobilise the farmers’ distress, or the rising unemployment among the youth, or the small traders’ anger against the way the GST was being implemented, not to speak of the disaster of demonetisation? These five years were marked by a spate of lynching of Muslims and rising atrocities against Dalits. Did the Congress even articulate it coherently in a way that would make sense to non-Muslims and non-Dalits as well?
Or take this election, after the Congress got a dream launch-pad with victory in three assembly elections. Did the Congress do something in these three states that could be presented as an alternative to the Modi regime? Did the Congress have a message for the voters of this country? No doubt, it finally came out with a decent manifesto, but that is hardly a political message for the last person. Nor did it have a credible messenger. Pitted against Modi’s communicative onslaught, Rahul Gandhi carried little appeal. The Congress did not appear to have a strategy to handle the post-Pulwama “nationalist” blitz by the BJP. And it certainly had no roadmap for building a Mahagathbandhan: Just compare how the BJP brought back the Shiv Sena and the AGP with how the Congress dealt with alliances in UP, Bihar and Delhi.
I don’t overlook the odds the Congress was up against: The Modi government’s brazen misuse of state power, its mind-boggling money power and the near complete control over mainstream media. But did the Congress do what could be done under these constraints? Besides, the only reason why mainstream parties exist and flourish is their viability and reach. The Congress cannot say everyone must come to it because this is the only party that can take on the BJP and then give reasons why it couldn’t.
Let’s focus on the future. The prospects of a second Modi regime bring with it two deeper challenges to our republic. On the one hand, we are walking towards electoral authoritarianism where the electoral mandate will replace any constitutional constraints. On the other hand, there is a slide towards non-theocratic majoritarianism, where minorities are reduced to the status of second-rate citizens. Do we expect the Congress to be the principal force to combat these two dangers? To my mind, the Congress does not seem to possess the vision, the strategy or the ground strength to take on this historic responsibility. If so, the Congress is not the instrument needed to save the republic
Worse, the Congress is an obstacle to those who want to build an alternative. A large mainstream party acts like a magnet that catches a lot of energy around it. So, even when the Congress is unable to defeat the BJP, it ends up diverting and diffusing a lot of the energy that gets drawn to it. It won’t do the job and won’t let anyone else do it. Alternative politics cannot take off until it calls the bluff of “Vote for Congress or else…”, unless it begins to carry on its work as if the Congress did not exist. This is how the metaphor of death should be understood.
Of course, parties don’t wither away or die an instant death. There are two ways in which the Congress can “die”. There is death by attrition, where a big party keeps getting marginalised and gradually loses traction with the voters. This process takes many elections, perhaps many decades. This is exactly what the BJP would wish for the Congress. But there is also death by submergence, where the remaining energy of the party gets subsumed in a new, larger coalition. There is still a lot of energy in the country to take on the challenge to our republic. The ideal “death” for the Congress would be for this energy, inside and outside the Congress, to merge into a new alternative.