Is Rahul ready? Is the Congress party dying? Indians interested in politics — which means most of us — are divided by these two questions. For some, the first is the only one that matters because it also answers the second. And for others, the second question is crucial because it subsumes the first.
If you are asking the first question, you are likely to be a supporter of the Congress. Interestingly, opponents of the Congress and especially supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are also likely to think that this is the important question. These divergent groups have in common the assumption that the Congress is basically a “dynastic” party. It is this assumption that makes Rahul’s readiness the decisive issue. For if the yuvaraj is prepared for battle, then everything is possible; and if he is not, then all is lost since the party is nothing without him.
However, there are at least two reasons why this assumption needs to be re-examined. First, while there is indeed a specific form of “dynasty” associated with the Congress, it is actually shallower and less damaging than it is generally believed to be. Whether considered a blessing or a curse, “dynasty” for the Congress effectively began only with Rajiv Gandhi. Given the transformed conditions of the late 1960s and early 1970s within which she built her political career, Indira Gandhi owed very little to her father.
There is no doubt that Rajiv Gandhi owed his political position to his family connections, as do Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. But in a political context where democratic party structures are the exception and sole supremos the norm, authoritarianism and arbitrary rule are routine. While family-based authoritarianism may be somewhat different from authoritarianism of other kinds, the differences are unlikely to be large or decisive. It is a mistake to think that the absence of “dynasty” necessarily implies the presence of meritocracy, or conversely, that merit counts for nothing in a dynastic organisation.
The second reason to discount “dynasty” is that the Congress is not a party in the usual sense — it is more a political modality or mechanism. Political scientist Rajni Kothari had called the Congress a “system” — a mechanism that reconciled divergent interests and identities under a thin but expansive umbrella. The Nehru-era Congress was a microcosm of the nation, containing all political tendencies — leftist, centrist, rightist, secularist, communalist or casteist — within its capacious pragmatic embrace. For a brief period in the early 1970s, Indira Gandhi moulded the Congress into a genuine political party with a positive (though diffuse) ideological identity and enormous energy. The Emergency and the metamorphosis of the political scene after its lifting in 1977 put an end to all that. Since the 1980s, the Congress has reverted to its default setting of a modality for facilitating political coalitions, a platform rather than a party.
But this default setting may no longer work in the post-2014 political scene, which brings us back to the second question. Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of the Congress? For those who think of the Congress as something more than merely a dynastic vehicle, this has been the key question since the 2010s that has gained urgency after 2014. In its worst ever electoral performance, the Congress got almost 20 per cent of the votes polled in 2014; in the five previous general elections, it had consistently received more than 25 per cent of the vote; in the 1980s, its scores were even higher, with the record 49 per cent of the 1984 election being the highest. How can a party with such a huge and relatively stable base become so politically inept as to look suicidal?
Actually, what appears as the ineptness of the Congress is really a mismatch between what it is and what it needs to become after the advent of an aggressive Hindutva. The lack of a core ideology did not matter as long as the Congress was by far the biggest fish in the pond, and could function as an umbrella organisation. Today, it needs to become a party once more and acquire a distinctive agenda, stir up its own brand of political passion, and sharpen its tactical edge. The party obviously realises the need for a makeover, but judging by the latest conclave and recent statements by top leaders, it looks ready to risk mimicking its enemy. A party that once conferred identity on its rivals via the label “non-Congress” seems to be gravitating towards a vicarious identity as the “other-BJP”.
This is presumably prompted by the belief that there is no real alternative to seeking refuge in a kinder, gentler Hindu-ness as the new credo of the party. The inevitable implication is that the Congress has given up looking for new or different issues with popular resonance that could shape a distinctive agenda. Federalism and employment come to mind as possible examples of low-hanging fruit. Both poorer states like West Bengal and Bihar and richer ones like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have expressed concern about centre-state relations — could this be the site for political innovation?
Similarly, the economy cannot be treated as though it were an act of god — could employment generation options be designed without waiting for FDI or worrying excessively about fiscal deficits? There are also more difficult but viable potential political projects relating to subaltern groups (Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims), or issues with strong regional resonances (water, agriculture, environment). Perhaps the larger problem is that elections have been eclipsing politics, which should worry us all as citizens. We ought to ask our political