A matter of faith
Mahatma Gandhi famously advised the Congress to disband itself after independence since by then it would have achieved its principal objective. Its continued presence would suffocate the healthy development of politics in post-colonial India, he said.
Like many great men, Gandhi was often wrong. But his (quixotic) advice gathers salience with each passing decade. Today, in 2003, Congress is no longer the same party that rallied Indians of all shapes and sizes under the banner of freedom. Nor is it the same party that held a potentially fissiparous country together in the 1950s and 1960s and which gave India its federal and democratic character. Congress is no longer even the party that belatedly set India on the road to economic reform in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Most of these attributes are part of history – India’s history – and the rest have either been appropriated, bettered or sidelined by other parties. Congress, in other words, badly needs to reinvent itself, even to the extent of relaunching itself under a new identity. But more of that later.
What, then, does Congress have in its favour? There are three qualities that remain unique to Asia’s oldest political party. First, despite its weakness in some of the larger states, Congress remains India’s only truly national party. Over the last decade the BJP has been able to capture a roughly equal share of the national vote but for the time being its support remains concentrated in the north and the west. Second, Congress is the only party for which secularism is a core principal. There are plenty of other parties that remain faithful to India’s secular Constitution but this is hardly central to their identity. Most are either regional, casteist or, like the CPI (M), gradually folding themselves into the sectarian dustbin of history.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, Congress remains a dynasty. Of course, there are plenty of other dynasties – with the BJP, interestingly, the least un-meritocratic of the lot. But a quick glance at the Telugu Desam Party, the DMK, the various Janatas and the Samajwadis suggests that nepotism is not a unique practice. But only Congress can boast the Nehru-Gandhi family. And it is only Congress that appears explicitly to predicate its future on dynasty.
Yet on all three counts Sonia Gandhi’s Congress is experiencing difficulties, possibly terminal. Its claims to being a national party are gradually being eroded both from below – the challenge from lower caste and linguistic parties – and from above – the continued, and profoundly troubling, rise of upper-caste Hindutva. In his recent book, India’s Silent Revolution, Christophe Jaffrelot chronicles with merciless detail the impact on Congress of the rise of lower caste politicians over the last 25 years. Congress, in spite of its social philosophy, remained almost wholly controlled by Brahmin or Kshatriya politicians in the big north Indian states for most of its post-colonial existence. And now it is paying the price.
With no hope of winning more than a quarter of the seats in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal or Tamil Nadu, Congress will find it impossible to come to power in New Delhi on its own. Instead it would have to rely on the likes of Laloo Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh to bring it to national office – politicians who have made an art form out of extracting high prices for very little.
Furthermore, the fragmentation of Congress’s traditional social coalition is not necessarily at an end. In states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, tribal and lower caste voters still tend to identify with the hand of Congress. But there is no guarantee that the elephant and the bicycle will not add to the graffiti over the next few years. Such trends – or social ‘churning’, as Indian political scientists call it – might well have been unstoppable, even if, when it had the chance, Congress had proved more diligent at serving the interests of its lower caste supporters. In contrast, the alienation of the Muslim vote in large parts of India, most notably in Uttar Pradesh, was wholly avoidable.
Similarly, a large part of the party’s upper caste support base has also drifted away, especially in the urban areas where the BJP is strong. This process appears to be complete. The real battle now is for the loyalty of the other backward castes and India’s emerging lower middle class. Here again, though, Congress’s catch-all fuzziness could prove a poor match both for the better targeted social politics of OBC parties and the organisational brilliance of the Sangh Parivar. In short, Congress remains a national party. But its strengths are in pockets – and there is no guarantee that what happened to it in UP will not recur in other Congress strongholds over the next 20 years.
Then there is the party’s attachment to secularism. Much fuss has been made about the fact that Congress played a ‘B-team’ strategy in the Gujarat elections last December, appointing a former RSS pracharak as its leader and purging all but five Muslims from its electoral ticket. Sonia’s temple visitations seemed to confirm such suspicions. Much has also been made of Digvijay Singh’s apparent pursuit of ‘soft Hindutva’, whether it was his criticisms of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s beef eating record or his own patronage of Vedic studies at various state institutions of learning.
Equally, significance has been attached to the Congress party’s sweeping victory in Himachal Pradesh and the fact that neither Pravin Togadia nor Narendra Modi were able to ignite passions in a predominantly upper caste state. Many have also made play of Ashok Gehlot’s actions in Rajasthan where for a brief – but nevertheless enjoyable – week Pravin Togadia was put behind bars. Gehlot has also attempted to put a halt to the VHP’s trishul distribution campaign in contrast to the more equivocal stance of chief ministers elsewhere.
There is thus plenty of material to furnish two very contrasting views of where Congress is headed: that Congress has lost its nerve and is becoming the party of soft Hindutva, or that Congress is finally standing up to the forces of Indian fascism. Neither reading is wholly right nor wholly wrong. And that is a problem.
In fact, the problem is nothing new. Throughout its history Congress has suffered from internal divisions on whether it should oppose or co-opt Hindu communalism. Few doubt that had Sardar Patel lived longer, Jawaharlal Nehru would not have had such a free hand to imprint his vision of secularism on India. After all, it was partly the Sardar’s idea to build the temple in Somnath – a project that had broadly similar aims to the one in Ayodhya, even if it was conducted in a more civilized fashion. But even without the Patel wing, it was a Congress prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, who gave the VHP the keys to the Babri Masjid complex in 1987. And it was a Congress prime minister, Narasimha Rao, who stood by and watched its destruction in December 1992.
Congress, like many great parties, is no stranger to short-term expediency. But such expediency has longer-term consequences – such as the erosion of its Muslim support base in UP. And it often fails even to achieve its short-term purpose, as Shankersinh Vaghela would doubtless testify. Wherever there is an argument about religion, the BJP will win it nine times out of ten. Yet, as the contrasting electoral strategies in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan demonstrate, Congress is yet to conclude its debate on how to deal with the politics of religion.
Most probably, Congress will continue to shift restlessly from one strategy to another depending on its reading of the local mood. But such variations at the local level undermine the party’s ability to project a coherent and credible message at the national level – particularly damaging when general elections come around. Such opportunism also represents a strategic failure to understand the Sangh Parivar for what it is: a very determined group of organisations that are working towards a common goal, even if recalcitrant members sometimes diverge on short-term tactics.
As a foreigner based in India, it is often hard to grasp the real meaning that underlies surface events. But there is little that cannot be better understood by talking and travelling as widely as possible. Yet no amount of travelling or talking can help me understand why – after all the gains the Sangh Parivar has made in the last 15 years – so many senior members of Congress appear so complacent about the challenge of Hindutva. Let me quote one or two remarks: ‘India is a very diverse and tolerant country. This thing will burn itself out,’ said one member of the AICC. ‘There is too much panic about the Sangh Parivar. There are so many other important things to focus on,’ said another. ‘We’ve seen this kind of thing before at Partition and in the late 1960s. It comes and goes.’
Such views are widespread among senior Congress apparatchiks. Of course, there are many who are deeply alarmed by Hindutva and who recognise it as a challenge to everything they hold dear. But they seem to be outnumbered or at least evenly matched by those who believe that the past is always the best guide to the future. In fact, the past is usually a terrible guide to the future. But that is another debate.
The third waning Congress selling point is its royal family. What exactly does Sonia Gandhi believe? For many awestruck voters in the villagers, it does not really matter what Sonia believes as long as they can get a glimpse of her at a campaign rally. There is no doubt that Sonia Gandhi’s name has a drawing power that few other politicians can match. But does crowd appeal translate into votes? Does Amitabh Bachchan really influence political loyalties in UP? There seems to be room for doubt. Didn’t the BSP recently win an MLA seat in the heart of Gandhi’s Amethi constituency?
Yet the question is not as important as whether Sonia has the qualities to lead Congress to victory and beyond. Again, there are grounds for polite scepticism. First, she is relatively uneducated on the complexities of politics, economics and all the other subjects that gives an effective leader the confidence to formulate – and elucidate – clear policies. Supporters say that Sonia is highly diligent, works late into the night and reads frenetically. They also say that she consults widely, yet is decisive once she has chosen her course of action. Moreover, her decisions often reflect a native common sense. ‘Sonia has no kitchen cabinet,’ says one senior Congress MP. ‘She is also aware of the dangers of flattery.’
All of which reflects well on her undoubted integrity. But her supporters protest too much. More than five years after becoming leader of Congress, Sonia is still afraid to talk to the media except on rare occasions and then only on intricately pre-arranged terms. Sonia also remains reluctant to accept speaking engagements where she is not sure of the composition of the audience. Such timidity is understandable given the ruthlessness of Indian politics. But Sonia Gandhi is presenting herself as the next prime minister of India, a deeply complex society of a billion people with nuclear weapons and a hostile neighbour that has them too. And yet she still won’t subject herself to unscripted interrogation. Is this really the person to take on Hindutva and defeat it?
The question of Ms Gandhi’s nationality is of course wholly insurmountable. Again, supporters insist that to the average voter it does not matter. Leaving aside whether that is true, her national origins clearly matter to the BJP, to which it comes as a pleasant bonus. For that reason it also matters to Ms Gandhi, whose shyness must partly be a consequence of her fear of appearing un-Indian or making a basic mistake in Hindi that her opponents would mercilessly exploit.
But these are secondary considerations against whether Ms Gandhi’s Italian and Christian background handicap her ability to present a credible case against the forces of Hindu communalism. Nationalist movements – especially of the communal variety – are fuelled by deep-seated insecurities about social identity and are particularly immune to reasoned argument.
Ms Gandhi has argued many reasonable things, sometimes very eloquently, especially in the aftermath of pogroms in Gujarat. But her words did not appear to have any effect on the voters of Gujarat. Nor, given who she is and what the argument is about, are her words likely to do so in the future, however felicitously they may be phrased.
Sonia also faces a number of other challenges – such as how best to project the argument for economic reform without alienating those who feel left behind or threatened; or how to galvanise the grassroots of a party that, unlike its chief rival, is not cadre-based; and whether or not to deploy Rahul or Priyanka in the forthcoming elections. All of these are important issues. Sonia has had more than her fair share of misfortune in the loss of so many leading Congress figures, including Madhavrao Scindia and Rajesh Pilot. Their advice on these and other questions would have been invaluable. But they pale against the overriding objective of defeating Hindutva.
As a foreigner, I am ill-qualified to advise any Indian political party on its strategy. But for what its worth, this is my advice. Sonia Gandhi should announce that she will not become prime minister if Congress wins the next election. She should state clearly that she believes the goal of preserving and strengthening India’s secular constitution is more important than her personal duty of preserving the Nehru-Gandhi political line.
Such an announcement would not preclude her from retaining a symbolic presence on the hustings and at big Congress events. But she must make it clear that in the interests of her party and her adopted country that the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty no longer calls the shots. It would obviously still play a role but more in the form of a constitutional monarchy. Congress should then relaunch itself under a Hindu leader who would adopt a clear strategy to combat the Sangh Parivar. This would involve broadcasting clearly and credibly at every opportunity and without deviation that Hindutva represents a gross distortion of Hindu values. And that it also represents a very damaging and corrosive distraction from the real problems that India faces.
Such a leader should also pursue vigorous internal reform of Congress to re-shape it as a modern party that is consistent about upholding its core philosophy. This would mean putting an end to the cynical and opportunistic practice of wooing the conservative wing of Sunni Islam and adopting the sort of candidates who would meet with the approval of the mullahs.
It would be ruthless in rejecting the incitement of religious loyalty – to whichever constituency – as a basis of winning votes. It would declare religious affiliation irrelevant to the task of providing sanitation, jobs, eliminating corruption, building infrastructure and spreading economic growth to the masses.
As a matter of principle it would also support a uniform civil code for India, that is neither Hindu nor Muslim (although, given its incendiary potential, it would have to be explained carefully and totally disattached from the BJP’s motivation).
This message would be repeated up and down India at every opportunity and in a consistent and disciplined manner. It would need to be taken to the villages where most of India still lives. The link between renewing secularism and the urgency of providing economic security to ordinary Indians would need to be stressed repeatedly. These twin goals would come to be seen as two sides of the same coin – as indeed they are.
Of course, all this is hopelessly idealistic and naďve. And it would be optimistic to expect Sonia Gandhi to do the statesmanlike thing when all those who surround her would be counselling the opposite. But it is not half as naďve as the belief that Hindutva will somehow burn itself out in the natural course of events. That view is dangerously flawed.
Congress is too weak to defeat Hindutva but still strong enough to block the emergence of a force that could. Only an organisation that is as single-minded and dedicated in pursuit of its goals as the Sangh Parivar can hope to counter the seemingly inexorable spread of Hindutva.
Sonia is in the position to provide an incalculable service to her adopted country. Her decision to forego any prime ministerial ambitions would signal clearly that Congress is hungry for power and for the right reasons. It would amount to precisely the type of gesture that could begin to reverse the tide.