By Pushparaj Deshpande
Almost everyone has something to say about the Indian National Congress (INC) today, either as a lament for what it should have done, or constructively for what it still could do or sadistically for what it has become. The laments will lambast the INC for being unable to pose a credible alternative to the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), for failing to live up its legacy, and hence for failing to protect the constitutional idea of India. To strengthen it, constructive suggestions will urge it to hold various intra-party authorities accountable, professionalise the party’s machinery/strategy and effect an organisational revamp. Fuelled by the bloodlust of the schadenfreude syndrome, the sadistic will take delight in the INC’s misfortune and even herald its demise. Nevertheless, it is important to keep aside the euphoria of the electoral and objectively reflect on what’s happened.
Firstly, all of us liberal, secular and republican minded citizens (both within and outside the INC; hereafter “progressive forces”) have come together in a somewhat fragile alliance, because of the last five years. Even though they’re suspicious of each other’s motives, they are united in their earnestness to safeguard the constitutional idea of India. But to do so, they will simply have to unlearn old animosities and work together. They need to understand that they are stronger together, and because of each other. They will have to re-create the Congress Movement of yore. Unless they do so tactically, at every booth and assembly in every election hence, they will not be a beacon of hope in the gathering darkness.
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Secondly, these progressive forces need to carefully listen, and not just hear what they want to hear. It’s time we recognise that India’s youth is deeply conservative (socially), very religious and driven by caste norms, as a 2017 study highlighted. Divided by caste, religion, language, gender and aspirations, this section of society is united in their anger at the social and cultural elite. They’re angry at being left out (because of poor access to English education, to opportunities of employment, to power and most of all, the kind of life they see in popular culture and everyday life). They’re angry at being held behind (because of nepotism and supposedly unfair state patronage towards minorities and historically marginalised communities). While the last notion is undoubtedly fuelled by atavistic prejudices that has no place in a civilised society, the bitter reality is that the youth hold the “naamdaars” responsible for their plight, largely because of BJP’s propaganda.
Thirdly, Indians are thirsty for leadership that understands them and addresses their individual needs and aspirations. Progressive forces will simply have to re-articulate their vision for India in a manner in which it appeals to different sections of society. They need to learn that exhortations to protect the Constitution or the nation, which are extremely important, do not enthuse people with extremely individualistic aspirations. What they want is vikaas, which means different things to different people. For example, to a non-dominant Dalit sub-caste, vikaas means both social and economic mobility, since the dominant Dalit caste has received the lion’s share of benefits and acquired cultural capital. Similarly, vikaas in a village means a road and cheap public transport since they represent an opportunity. In a metro, a road represents a non-negotiable public good. Most of all, vikaas to the youth mean a muscular, aggressive India that demands respect from the world.
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Fourthly, the Congress has to radically re-invent its political strategy and operational methodology. To do this successfully, they and other progressive forces will simply have to move beyond the “spectacle politics” that we have all got used to. Dharnas, petitions, legislative obstruction and high decibel mobilisations on the media (social, electronic and print) may ensure accountability, but they cannot organically move people to associate with a party or leader or cause. These can only temporarily enthral. These forces will, therefore, have to methodically form relationships with individual households at the booth level. As the BJP has done, they need to leverage all mediums (personal interactions, Facebook, WhatsApp, SMS etc.) to constantly engage in a dialogue on things that matter to the people.
Fifthly, despite the rising cacophony, INC President Rahul Gandhi can be counted upon to do what’s right, no matter what the personal cost. Because of this, Mr. Gandhi needs to continue as the chief conscience keeper of the party’s, indeed the country’s core values. On one hand, he has spoken in favour of allowing women inside Sabarimala, and LGBT rights. On the other hand, he has steadfastly stood by the victims of atrocities, lynchings and attacks, whether they were Dalits, or minorities (both religious and ideological). Inspite of today’s results, his politics of morality will gradually re-position the INC as a party with a heart, and thereby generate substantive political capital. The Congress has found its Mahatma Gandhi for the 21st century. Who will its Jawaharlal
Nehru, Sardar Patel and Babasaheb Ambedkar be?
As the dusk fades into the night, we now stand together at the front-lines in the penultimate battle for India’s soul. History will judge us for what we do next. As Pt. Nehru once said, “the future is not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving…we have to labour and to work, and work hard, to give reality to our dreams. Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world”.
(Author is the Managing Trustee & Director of Samruddha Bharat Foundation.)