Congress has become irrelevant. It should die for the birth of a new liberal narrative

The endless debate on the future of the Congress Party reminds me of the breathless arguments over the prospects of the Indian Left in the 1...

The endless debate on the future of the Congress Party reminds me of the breathless arguments over the prospects of the Indian Left in the 1990s which ultimately ended in tears for it and its supporters. Nobody even talks about the Left anymore. In some ways, the Congress today is worse off than the Left was at the time, and if I were a betting man I would hesitate to take a punt on its revival.

Yet, many of my fellow liberals are scrambling to reform and revive it, or whatever is left of it. I have no doubt that they are prompted by genuine concerns, not least the glaring absence of anything resembling a viable national opposition that could challenge the government and offer an alternative vision to the country.

But the idea that a party that is barely breathing and appears to have effectively lost the will to live can be suddenly revived and readied to take on the BJP’s well-oiled election machine at the next general election—less than three years away—is a fantasy devoid of any relation to reality.

What they are attempting to do in effect is trying to save the Congress from itself whereas all evidence suggests that it has no interest in being saved. The dozy body language of its top brass — Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka et al — says it all. Looking at them, one struggles to find the slightest hint that they have any fight left in them. Instead, there’s an odour of decay — an overwhelming sense of world-weariness, despair and ennui — wafting out from 10, Janpath. One can almost hear them say: we’re done,  leave us alone.

And the mood is reflected in the policy paralysis at the top of the party with crucial decisions, including the key issue of leadership, being constantly kicked down the road on one pretext or the other. Here’s a party that doesn’t even have a properly designated leader at a time when it is in dire need of strong leadership.

Demoralised, leaderless, and riven with factionalism and divisions, the Grand Old Party of yore is now a pale shadow of its former self. Not quite dead yet, but life is ebbing away little by little with nobody seemingly in a hurry to call for help. Trying to save an organisation driven by death wish is almost Quixotic, an act of futile heroism.

The point is: “save”  it from whom? There are no enemy dragons to rescue it from. The Congress party is its own biggest enemy—bogged down by organisational dysfunction, an insular leadership, a pathological aversion to change, and a culture of sycophancy and chumocracy. It’s not for nothing that it has ended up alienating even its most loyal voters, notably Muslims and other socially and economically weaker sections of the electorate, to whom it owed its successive victories for well more than half a century.

But all that’s history now. The proverbial 100- million dollar question is: where does it go from here? And, on present showing, the simple answer is: nowhere, except backwards. To be honest, even this bleak assessment may be too kind to a party that has been effectively rendered pointless by the country’s changing landscape, and its wilful failure to sense the mood and adjust to the changes. With much of its traditional support base heavily eroded and nobody new coming on board, Congress is playing to an empty house.

But instead of making any effort to woo back audiences, it continues to behave as though nothing has changed. Too much nostalgia for the old (long gone) glory days compounded by a mix of complacency and arrogance has blinded the party to the fact that over the past decade  India has seen tremendous changes politically, demographically, and culturally. Politics has not only become more competitive but also more polarised along religious, caste and cultural lines.

Plus there’s a new generation of mostly apolitical and more ideologically promiscuous voters who are willing to back anyone who appears to speak to them and who they believe can deliver what they want. Not being hung up on ideology they don’t care about the colour of the cat so long as it can catch the mouse. But the Congress is still trapped in 1970s-style  politics with its captive vote banks and patrician attitude towards voters.

The truth is that the party is absurdly out of touch with the new political landscape and, worse, it’s not even trying to get its head around it seriously -- hoping that a bit of tinkering around the edges will do the trick. It hasn’t worked so far, and it is not likely to work in future. What’s often forgotten is that no party, however magnificent its ancestry and history, has a divine right to exist forever, let alone continue to reign supreme and remain unchallenged without making any effort to change.

The idea of Congress “exceptionalism” is absurd. Its grand old age and historic pre-eminence in national politics don’t give it a pass to escape normal laws of political survival which demand a coherent sense of what a political organisation stands for; who it represents; and an ability to keep up with the needs and concerns of those it presumes to represent. Given the level of its lack of self-awareness, I’m not sure if it has even realised how poorly it fares on each of these counts. The truth is that it doesn’t stand for anything, isn’t quite sure who it represents, and doesn’t care how it is perceived—choosing instead to be seen as everybody’s party while in fact being nobody’s party.

Many Congressmen and women are serious, even progressive, figures but they are part of an enterprise that has run out of steam and is dragging them down with it. It’s a party without a credible organisation, without a sufficiently strong base, and without a survival plan. And it’s led by a shrinking cabal of Gandhi loyalists unwilling or incapable of rising to the challenge. Indeed, listening to them one begins to doubt if they’re even aware of the scale of the challenge. A standard line is that the Congress has been through crises before and has always bounced back—and it will bounce back again, Inshallah.

Well, not this time, I'm afraid. First, the “bounce back” narrative is slightly exaggerated. There has been really only one big jaw-dropping bounce back—in 1980 after the post-emergency rout of 1977. But it happened against a background of exceptional circumstances that don’t repeat themselves too often. (Those too young to remember should look up the dramatic history of 1977-1980 developments.) Two other revivals — 1991, 2004 — were part of the usual cycle of highs and lows in a party's life.

Things are significantly different this time. The gravity of the crisis facing the Congress today is unprecedented in its post-independence history. Even after its 1977 rout, it still had a strong and visionary leader in Indira Gandhi and an organisational and voter base more or less intact. And it had nearly three times more MPs (154) than its present tally of 52—not even enough to claim the post of the Leader of Opposition.

It's important to remember that the party's previous revivals came from a much lower threshold than is the case now. Then there's a little matter of the strength of the ruling party which, polls suggest, continues to enjoy considerable popularity despite the flak it took over its handling of the second Covid wave. Previous Congress comebacks were made easier by chinks in its rivals' armour. In other words, the odds against it this time on all fronts are very nearly insurmountable, and given its current state, it will need a miracle to stage a comeback.

But here’s a small irony often overlooked in the debate on the Congress crisis: those leading the liberal push for its revival were many of the same people who triggered its slide when they started to desert it seduced by other newly-minted “secular centrist”  parties accusing the Congress of neo-liberalism etc. Many switched to the BJP on the back of Narendra Modi’s seductive “sab ka saath, sab ka vikas” slogan.

Disillusioned by their respective choices (the cynical identity politics and political opportunism of “secular” regional outfits on the one hand, and aggressive Hindu nationalist majoritarianism of the BJP on the other), they are back cheering for it -- seeing it as the best of bad options. The biggest twist of course is the "ghar wapsi" of Muslims. It was their mass desertion of the Congress in the wake of Babri Masjid demolition accusing it of betrayal that really triggered its decline. So, first they dumped it for seemingly smarter allies, and when that didn’t work out they’re back—except that meanwhile their refuge of last resort has lost its shine and gone into a terminal existential crisis.

As a liberal (and a Muslim and a one-time Congress well-wisher to boot) my advice to them is to give up the ghost. I’ve already explained at some length why — barring a miracle — attempts to save the Congress look futile, but what should really worry liberals is the damage they are doing to progressive politics by trying to keep it alive in its present state. Its continued presence is splitting the centrist vote and sucking progressive energy indirectly benefiting the Right. Mind you, it is occupying a lot of precious liberal space which is in danger of becoming a wasteland if it is not reclaimed soon.

For all these reasons, not least Congress’ own lack of will to save itself, time has come to give it a decent burial and start focusing on building a new liberal alternative. As Sahir Ludhianvi wrote: “Woh afsana jise anjaam tak laana na ho mumkin, us e ek khoobsoorat mor dekar chhorna achha” (when it is not possible to take a story to its logical conclusion, it’s better to wind it up).

The author is a London-based commentator.

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India World News: Congress has become irrelevant. It should die for the birth of a new liberal narrative
Congress has become irrelevant. It should die for the birth of a new liberal narrative
India World News
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