Congress still a relevant force in the realm of political forceby OPINIONEXPRESS.IN April 7, 2019 0 comments
Many people dismiss Congress president Rahul Gandhi as a complete Pappu who is incapable of leading the country. While the perception may be grounded in the perceptions of his personality, it has no place in serious political analysis. Rahul, as an individual, may not be what people would expect the Congress president to be, but what is relevant is that he happens to be the head, some would say owner, of a political party that, despite its diminishing popularity over the years, is still a notable social and political force. The party has a huge network and regardless of the leadership attributes of its President, must be assessed in terms of its larger relevance as the principal-but by no means the only-Opposition to the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
That the importance of the Congress extends well beyond the 44 Lok Sabha seats it won in 2014 is obvious. A few months ago the Congress won three important State Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Additionally, it controls the State Government in Punjab and is the mainstay of the coalition Government in Karnataka. More important, however, is the influence the Congress exercises over an important and influential section of the Establishment in India. There is, for example, a section of the bureaucracy that is inherently comfortable with the Congress. Likewise, a significant section of the intelligentsia, particularly those that have links with the State, are more at ease with the Congress than with, say, the BJP. This is also true for that section of Indian business that values the use of discretionary powers of the Government to advance its prospects. Patronage politics is central to the Congress, and the influence its exercises as a consequence of this hasn’t died out with its electoral misfortune.
This election has witnessed a momentary revival of the Congress ecosystem. This didn’t happen because Rahul took over the mantle of the party from his mother. The leadership change was incidental to the process. It happened because the outcome of the three Assembly elections and the electoral alliance of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party conveyed an impression, at least at the beginning of 2019, that the BJP and Modi would find it very difficult to repeat its 2014 performance in 2019. Regardless of whether or not such an assessment was accurate, it was very real and was reflected in the chatter that another UPA-style Government was imminent. It was also felt that circumstances would propel Rahul to the Prime Minister’s post.
This may explain two developments. First, the exodus of politicians whose main motivation for being in politics is to exercise power away from the Congress was temporarily halted. Many Congress leaders, intensely disheartened by the loss of power, felt that maybe the party was headed for better days and that it was preferable to remain in the party rather than forge new relationships. Within the Congress there is a feeling, based on the experiences with Indira Gandhi, that the first family has enormous resilience and is capable of leading the party back to relevance, overcoming setbacks.
Secondly, many notables who were dissatisfied with Modi’s style of functioning and who were anxious to regain their lost prominence felt that some association with the Congress would be beneficial. This included individuals who, while alarmed by Modi’s ‘idea of India’, always stopped shy of actually endorsing the Congress. By early-2019 more and more individuals emerged from hibernation to discover the virtues of Rahul’s leadership. These included economists who found fault with demonetisation, former diplomats who were opposed to facets of foreign policy and public intellectuals that rued their own loss of relevance in the Modi dispensation.
This is not to imply that the Congress was merely reverting to its original role as a pillar of the Old Establishment. Of course, to some extent it was. But there was an additional dimension. One of the big changes brought about by Sonia Gandhi was the injection of the NGOs into the Congress ecosystem. To this was added the extraordinary cosiness that developed between the Left and the Congress, particularly after Sitaram Yechuri became General Secretary of the CPI(M). Under Rahul, this NAC-isation of the Congress has continued without interruption.
The Congress manifesto reveals the sharp Left turn of a party that was once associated with the Establishment. It has combined profligate welfarism and fiscal recklessness with a socio-political orientation that includes accommodation of the ultra-Left. The demand for the dilution of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, an open door policy on asylum seekers that will transform the demographic balance in the North-East and the scrapping of sedition laws are aimed at ingratiating the Congress with the political fringe and even using it politically. This is combined with an enthusiastic endorsement of minority communities. Rahul’s decision to contest from Wayanad in Kerala is an example of this, not least of which was the ostentatious presence of the Muslim League at his nomination rally.
At the same time, the Congress appears to be anxious to keep an arm’s length distance from the middle class values that are at the heart of the BJP. Despite feeble assertions by the likes of P Chidambaram and even Rahul himself, there are indications that any Congress-led Government would lead to income tax hike and higher inflation. The Congress appears to have concluded that the middle classes have been too ensnared by the BJP to be worth wooing and that it is preferable to focus on other sections particularly its traditional vote bank of the poor and minorities. The only difference is that this is coupled with a strong Left-liberal roofing.
Rahul’s own understanding of politics may well be wanting but this does not mean the Congress isn’t working to a plan — the restoration of dynastic hegemony at all costs.
Writer: Swapan Dasgupta
Courtesy: The Pioneer