Congress must rejuvenate itself, bringing in fresh faces and young blood into its leadership at all levels. It would help if the party took steps to promote inner-party democracy and a more consultative decision-making style: Open up the party to internal elections for its key positions. Seek the views of a wide cross-section of party stalwarts, not just a favoured few. Allow and encourage the emergence of local, state and regional leaders, ratified by periodic votes of party members
Sonia and Rahul Gandhi at the Congress Working Committee meeting in New Delhi on March 13, 2022 (Photo: AP)
THE RESULTS OF the five state elections have brought the knives out in and around the Congress party—as well as the pens, to write the obituaries of the GOP. The news was certainly the worst it could have been—not just absolute defeat, but no redeeming consolation to offer as even those states where the party was expected to do well tumbled by the wayside. We lost power in Punjab, which we had ruled for five years and where just nine months ago re-election had seemed assured—and we lost it humiliatingly. Two states where the election campaigns had seemed to be going well, Uttarakhand and Goa, handed Congress resounding defeats. Manipur re-elected a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government that had seemed to be in trouble. And in Uttar Pradesh (UP), of course, the state that had once produced five Congress prime ministers rejected the party so utterly that it wasn’t even a player this time.
If all this wasn’t bad enough, the numbers told a sorrier tale of lack of support for the party across the board. In the 2019 elections, Congress, whose vote share had never dropped below 30 per cent till the 21st century breached that threshold, scored only 19.49 per cent to BJP’s 37.36 per cent. The party’s shrinking voter base has been revealed nowhere more dramatically than in the nation’s capital, where despite 15 years of largely effective rule at the turn of the century, the party dropped from 40.31 per cent in 2008 to 4.36 per cent in 2020. In a number of states—a number that seems to increase with every election—Congress has ceased to be a contender for power at all: Tamil Nadu, UP, West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha being the most prominent examples of states where the party has been out of power so long that it is no longer regarded seriously.
The picture is grim, and the poison-quills are being sharpened daily in the editorial chambers of the nation’s media. But even without denying any of this, it is important to underscore one vital truth: India cannot do without Congress. What it stands for, and the space it occupies, are essential for the nation to survive and thrive.
A party is principally defined by its values, principles and convictions, and the policies it devises to execute them. But a party is also an organisational vehicle for those ideas, and this is where Congress has faltered. Some have claimed ideological confusion is to blame for failures that clearly have more to do with organisational deficiencies. As disillusionment mounts across the nation with the party’s colossal electoral setbacks, the one strain of argument I find myself exasperated by is that of those pundits who claim Congress doesn’t know what it stands for. They are just attacking Narendra Modi and BJP, these savants declare; they have no narrative of their own. What is the Congress ideology? What beliefs and policies are they offering the nation? To me, the answers are crystal clear.
One key value entwined in Congress’ DNA goes back to before the founding of the Republic. Congress strived to prevent Partition before finally surrendering to the inevitable, but when it occurred, the party never accepted the logic that since Pakistan had ostensibly been created for India’s Muslims, what remained was a state for Hindus. Its pre-eminent leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, his colleagues and successors lived up to his lifelong conviction that India belonged to all who had contributed to its history and civilisation, and that the majority community had a special obligation to protect the rights, and promote the well-being, of India’s minorities. In both governmental policy and personal practice, Congress stood for an idea of India that embraced those of every religion, caste, ethnicity and language.
Nehru saw our country as an “ancient palimpsest” on which successive rulers and subjects had inscribed their visions without erasing what had been asserted previously—we not only coexist, but thrive in our diversity which is our strength. He was followed in Congress by a generation of secular nationalists who echoed this tradition, making “unity in diversity” the most hallowed of independent India’s self-defining slogans. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, whom the current government has tried to appropriate, exemplified this by his actions to protect Muslims during the Partition riots in Delhi in 1947. Congress is the political embodiment of India’s pluralism and a strong, committed voice for the preservation of secularism as its fundamental reflection. We need to reaffirm our belief in these values and keep reiterating them at every opportunity. BJP’s abandonment of Indian pluralism in pursuit of the folly of a Hindu Rashtra has made minorities insecure and foreign friends anxious.
Congress’ answer to BJP’s brazen majoritarianism is derided by some commentators as “soft Hindutva”. As I have explained at length in my book Why I Am a Hindu (2018), our Hinduism (for those of us in Congress who are Hindu) is not Hindutva (which is a purely political ideology). When we speak of our Hinduism it is not in pale imitation of their bigotry and chauvinism, which we reject; it is to neutralise their communal appeal by pointing out that we too share Hinduism, albeit an inclusive version of the faith, rather than a bigoted one.
Our differences from BJP are stark. We seek to empower Muslims, not marginalise them in ghettoes. We give election tickets to Muslim candidates; BJP’s is the first government in independent India’s history to have no elected Muslim MP in Lok Sabha. It failed to remedy this dubious distinction in its second term. BJP’s supporters engineer anti-minority violence to promote polarisation; we seek to douse the flames, not justify the rage. We work to improve the economic status of minorities, instead of pretending that’s irrelevant.
It is this approach, perhaps debatably labelled as “secularism”, that is being questioned today in an effort to redefine nationalism in more sectarian terms. The ruling party’s architects are limited by a lack of vision and an absence of great-heartedness that prevents them from seeing the larger principle that India has always defined for the world. But most passionately proud citizens of the country would resist any attempts to reduce India to a Hindu version of Pakistan. That would be a betrayal of the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, who gave his life for Hindu-Muslim unity, as well as of the very essence of what it means to be Indian. Congress must be a bastion of that vision of India that it helped forge in the crucible of the Republic’s founding.
The party should not merely be seen as an instrument for fighting elections every few years. There is a great deal that it can and must do between elections. We have to return to the ethos of politics as social work for those who cannot help themselves
Turning to economics, there is no doubt that the country has moved forward significantly since the heyday of Nehruvian socialism. We have witnessed convulsive changes, beginning with the Congress government’s reform Budget of 1991 that ushered in the era of liberalisation and transformation. It is fashionable today to decry Nehruvian socialism as a corrupt and inefficient system that condemned India to many years of modest growth levels. We do not deny, as Nehru’s own grandson said three-and-a-half decades ago, that over time the socialist model as practised in India developed many flaws. But at the core of Nehru’s socialism lay his conviction that in a land of extreme poverty and inequality, the objective of government policy must be the welfare of the poorest, most deprived and most marginalised of our people. In his day, the best way to accomplish that was by building up structures of public ownership and state control of national resources, as well as enhancing the nation’s economic capacity through government intervention.
Today, the Indian National Congress welcomes, indeed encourages, the involvement of the private sector in the generation and distribution of wealth. We are proud of the role of two Congress prime ministers, PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, in liberalising our country’s economy and in making possible so many new opportunities for our young to succeed in a globalising world. Rajiv Gandhi’s tech and telecoms revolutions that built a bridge to the 21st century, Narasimha Rao’s courageous economic reforms and Manmohan Singh steering India’s globalising policies while insulating India from the devastation of the global recession of 2008, tell their own story. But we remain profoundly wedded to Nehru’s concern for the weakest sections of our society. This is why we can still claim to be socialist today. Our socialism is not anti-growth; rather, it aims to ensure that the benefits of our country’s growth are given principally to the deprived masses who need it most. Whether we grow by 9 per cent, as we once did, or by just about 6 per cent, as we are doing now, our fundamental commitment must be to the bottom 25 per cent of our society. In the long run, I am certain that Congress must not abandon vast sections of society to hanker after a notion of growth that only favours a select few, at the cost of everybody else—a growth that celebrates “India Shining” without asking who India is shining for.
It is a commitment to this that allowed an updated version of the constitutional idea of India to develop in the 21st century—one that has widened the scope of its democracy through such innovations as the Right to Information (RTI) Act; one that has defended secularism in the face of violent threats to our nation’s diversity; one that has deepened socialism through the creation of a framework of rights, including the right to work, the right to food, the right to education (RTE) and the right to fair compensation for land, all of which have strengthened and empowered the poorest of our people; and one that has remained a proud and independent nation in the community of nations. It was Nehru who built the scientific base for India’s space and engineering triumphs today. Without his establishment of what is now the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), there would be no Mangalyaan and Chandrayaan space probes; without the Indian Institutes of Technology he established, Indians would not have a worldwide reputation for engineering excellence or have established 40 per cent of the startups in Silicon Valley. Today, we are world leaders in information technology, the provision of digital services and in the launching of rockets and satellites. In all this, we are upholding and continuing the legacy of Congress, whose vision soared well above the poverty and misery that colonialism had reduced this country to.
Rajiv Gandhi’s tech and telecoms revolutions that built a bridge to the 21st century, PV Narasimha Rao’s courageous economic reforms and Manmohan Singh steering India’s globalising policies while insulating India from the devastation of the global recession of 2008, tell their own story
Congress is the party that liberalised the economy, but it also has a strong commitment to social justice. We want economic growth, but we must ensure that the fruits of growth reach the poor and the marginalised. As I’ve said in Parliament and repeated at Congress’ AICC plenary in March 2018, the magic of the market will not appeal to those who cannot afford to enter the marketplace. We must lift the poor up so they can enjoy the full benefits of our economy. Garibi Hatao may now be dismissed as a clichéd slogan, but we are proud of our record in pulling millions out of poverty during our rule and remain committed to continuing the effort. India will not ‘shine’ until it shines for all.
In urban India, Congress must speak for the basic necessities that urban voters lack, which we sought to provide and which the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has made its own USP. We should speak to and lead the struggle for better public utilities like city transport, pothole-free roads, affordable housing, clean drinking water, decent education in government schools, adequate healthcare facilities, public parks, cleaner air and improved sanitation and effective waste management. We should use facts and figures to point out that BJP’s performance in these basic challenges of urban governance has been woeful and that it does not deserve the votes of the urban public. I would personally go farther and call for a restructuring of urban government, promising to establish directly elected mayors with real authority and budgetary controls to be able to make a difference to the lives of city residents.
The needs of rural India represent an obvious political opportunity for Congress: the mounting farmer suicides, the inadequate funding of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the lack of increase in minimum support prices (MSPs) paid to farmers for vital crops, and the increase in distress migration in the countryside, represent easy targets for the opposition. Congress has many tried and tested policies in response: massive loan waivers, rural aid packages, increased funding for MGNREGA and higher MSPs, as well as the “NYAY” (Nyuntam Aay Yojana) scheme to assure a basic income to families struggling below the poverty line. Critics can call it “welfarism”; we must wear the badge with pride. Our poor need welfare.
Congress has a proven record on national security: Indira Gandhi’s decisive intervention in Bangladesh, Rajiv Gandhi’s firm handling of the border issue with China during the Sumdorong Chu standoff, and Narasimha Rao’s expansion of India’s global footprint are all Congress accomplishments
When Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, in a mass rally this month, praised India’s robustly independent foreign policy, he was paying tribute to an approach laid down by Congress since before Independence. This has deep roots in the freedom movement and in the vision of Jawaharlal Nehru.
Nehru was a convinced internationalist. For him, non-alignment was the only response to the bipolar divisions of the Cold War era. After two centuries of colonial exclusion from the global system, Nehru was determined to protect India’s strategic autonomy; his India was not about to mortgage its independence by aligning itself to either superpower in the Cold War. In that form, it might be argued that his vision is no longer relevant in the changed circumstances of the 21st century. Today, there are no longer two superpowers to be non-aligned between. But in its essence, the power of non-alignment was to ensure that India was free to take its own positions without allowing others to decide for it; the Congress vision was about our “strategic autonomy”, safeguarding India’s independence and self-respect against potential encroachments on its sovereignty. As a result, all Indians can be proud of the role we play in the international community. We are still non-aligned in the sense that we are aligned with no one nation or bloc, and we remain free to conduct our foreign relations according to our own lights and according to our national interest.
It is astonishing to see the ruling party laying claim to some sort of monopoly over nationalist credentials when Congress is the original party of nationalism—and the political forebears of BJP played no role in the freedom struggle, indeed actively collaborated with the British. Speaking up against the iniquities of colonial rule and laying claim to the nationalist legacy of a generation of Congressmen—from Mahatma Gandhi to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, from Nehru to Sardar Patel, from Maulana Azad to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur—burnishes the party’s legacy as the foremost defender of India’s national interests. This should not be surrendered by default to the Hindutva pretenders currently in government.
India under Congress was also a skilled exponent of soft power, much before the term was even coined: we developed a role for India in the world based entirely on its civilisational history and its moral standing, making India the voice of the oppressed and the marginalised against the big power hegemons of the day. This gave our country enormous status and prestige across the world for years, out of all proportion to our military strength or economic might, and strengthened our own self-respect as we stood, proud and independent, on the global stage.
India under Congress was also a skilled exponent of soft power, much before the term was even coined. But we also learned that soft power without hard power is not enough. Soft power becomes credible when there is hard power behind it
But we also learned that soft power without hard power is not enough. Instead of Theodore Roosevelt’s maxim, “speak softly and carry a big stick”, we often spoke loudly but had no stick at all. Soft power becomes credible when there is hard power behind it; that is why the US has been able to make so much of its soft power. Let us be clear: soft power by itself is no guarantee of security. The failure of the BJP government to respond effectively to China’s recent gains in Ladakh and the killing of 20 Indian soldiers in Galwan proves that the soft power of Bollywood or International Yoga Day cannot protect our borders. Congress has a proven record on national security: Indira Gandhi’s decisive intervention in Bangladesh, in the face of pressure from the US, Rajiv Gandhi’s firm handling of the border issue with China during the Sumdorong Chu standoff, and Narasimha Rao’s expansion of India’s global footprint through enhanced relations with Israel and a new “Look East” policy, are all Congress accomplishments that BJP propagandists try to elide by thumping a “56-inch chest” and invoking Balakot.
If anything, the current government is undermining these traditions. After all, in the information age, it is not the side with the bigger army that wins but the side which tells the better story. India must remain the “land of the better story”. As a society with a free press and a thriving mass media, with a people whose creative energies are daily encouraged to express themselves in a variety of appealing ways, India has an extraordinary ability to tell stories that are more persuasive and attractive than those of its rivals. This is not about propaganda; indeed, it will not work if it is directed from above, least of all by government. But its impact, though intangible, can be huge.
Yet, soft power is not just what we can deliberately and consciously exhibit or put on display; it is rather how others see what we are, whether or not we are trying to show it to the world. It is not just material accomplishments that enhance India’s soft power. Even more important are the values and principles for which India stands, and an India seen as bigoted and intolerant, unsafe for minorities or women, cannot maintain that soft power standing that is Congress’ legacy and that Congress is best positioned to restore.
Congress thus offers the nation a far more credible ideology than BJP’s, and one that has been tried and tested. We need to reaffirm our belief in these values and keep reiterating them at every opportunity. At the same time we must battle the widespread perception that the party has ceased to be an effective vehicle for those ideals and in the process has lost India—to India’s own loss. The party should not merely be seen as an instrument for fighting elections every few years. There is a great deal that it can and must do between elections, helping citizens in their interactions with government, police, and the unfeeling petty bureaucracy they have to confront daily. We have to return to the ethos of politics as social work for those who cannot help themselves.
Congress must rejuvenate itself, bringing in fresh faces and young blood into its leadership at all levels—village, block, district and state as well as national. Young Indians must believe we understand their aspirations and can be trusted to promote them in government. Our ideology assures them we do. We should broadcast it proudly and aloud across the nation.
We also need to articulate a vision for the future that embraces the aspirations of India’s majority—the young. A startling 40 per cent of voters are under 35. They need to hear what we have done and can do for them. Our party has done a great deal of work in the areas of education and skill development, but not enough in job-creation strategies. We need to evolve policies in this area to be implemented in the few states we rule and advocate them at the Centre. Young Indians must believe we understand their aspirations and can be trusted to promote them in government.
It would help if the party took steps to promote inner-party democracy and a more consultative decision-making style. Open up the party to internal elections for its key positions, including membership of the Congress Working Committee (CWC). Seek the views of a wide cross-section of party stalwarts, not just a favoured few. Allow, indeed encourage, the emergence of local, state and regional leaders, ratified by periodic votes of party members. The party constitution has a number of institutional and procedural provisions that have been allowed to atrophy. They should be revived and fresh blood infused into the organisation.
Nehru was a convinced internationalist. For him, non-alignment was the only response to the bipolar divisions of the Cold War era. Today, there are no longer two superpowers to be non-aligned between. But in its essence, non-alignment was to ensure India was free to take its own positions
At the same time, we will have to explore pragmatic coalitions so as not to cede the anti-government space to regional parties alone, as talk increases around the country of a ‘Federal Front’ to take on the BJP behemoth. It would damage us if a coalition of purely regional parties were to take over the visible and audible role of the main opposition to the BJP government. We are the largest national opposition party and must reach out to embrace them in our common efforts to resist unacceptable BJP policies. Political arrangements and adjustments should not just aim at not dividing the opposition vote in coming state Assembly elections, but also permit us to put up a stronger fight in Parliament before the next General Election.
India has in recent years undergone profound transformations in its politics (from the dominant Congress system to a proliferation of regional parties to the dominance of the now-ascendant BJP), its economics (from a controlled ‘socialist’ economy to a thriving free-enterprise system), its trade (from protectionism to globalisation), and its social relations (from a rigidly hierarchical caste system to a more egalitarian policy affirming opportunities and outcomes for the ‘lowest’ castes, and from a secular political culture to one in which a party of the Hindu majority is overtly asserting its strength). Now, any of these transformations could have been enough to throw another country into a turbulent revolution. But we have had all four in India and yet we have absorbed them, and made all the changes work, because the Indian revolution is a democratic one, sustained by a larger idea of India, an India which safeguards the common space available to each identity, an India that remains safe for diversity. That was Congress’ vision, and its vindication.
I reject the charge that in its attacks on the ruling party, negativism is all Congress offers. Our attacks are based on our own convictions about what is good and proper for the nation; they are not merely reactive, but emerge from a coherent idea of India and concern about the government’s straying from the desirable course. That, in turn, is shaped by Congress’ decades of experience in understanding what the desirable course is for our society, and in formulating the policies that help our country follow that course.
Congress’ core beliefs reflect the values it has embodied since the freedom struggle—in particular inclusive growth, social justice, abolition of poverty and the protection of the marginalised, including minorities, women, Dalits and Adivasis. These have been distorted and portrayed as pandering to vote banks rather than as the sincere, indeed visceral, convictions they are. Congressmen and Congresswomen have been speaking out for these sections of Indian society and they must do so with even more intensity.
We should openly shift the terms of the debate to development. Where is Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas, let alone sabka vishwas? Where is the ever-elusive achhe din? We can point to what we accomplished in 10 years of United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rule—MGNREGA, RTI, RTE, food security, millions of new bank accounts with real money in them. What can BJP point to, besides a few gas cylinders whose refills are unaffordable and toilets without running water? The disasters of demonetisation? A botched Goods and Services Tax (GST)? A collapsed GDP growth rate with tens of millions of Indians slipping back below the poverty line? The highest unemployment ever recorded? Record levels of fuel taxes to gouge the travelling public? The shameful mismanagement of the Covid pandemic? A confused and failed vaccination policy? Humiliation on the China border?
Congress has much to offer, and the experience in governance to do a better job. The first BJP prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in a historic speech in Parliament upon Nehru’s passing, called on the nation to rededicate itself to Nehru’s ideals. “With unity, discipline and self-confidence,” Vajpayee said, “we must make this Republic of ours flourish. The leader has gone, but the followers remain. The sun has set, yet by the shadow of stars we must find our way. These are testing times, but we must dedicate ourselves to his great aim, so that India can become strong, capable and prosperous…”
Becoming strong, capable and prosperous remains the cherished goal of all Indians. As we make our political choices, we would do well to recall the first leader of independent India and the values and principles on which he built our democratic polity. The Congress party is their principal legatee, and it must hold its banner aloft. The principles and practical suggestions outlined in this essay are by no means an exhaustive list. But in my view, they offer some pointers to the way forward for India’s oldest, most inclusive and most experienced party to restore its past glory. India needs it to.
(Shashi Tharoor is one of the signatories to the letter written to Sonia Gandhi in 2020 asking for changes in the party)