The Congress must reform or perish
We may dislike the grand old party or detest the Gandhis for a million reasons, but the bitter truth is that the future of the Congress is inextricably intertwined with the future of India as envisioned by our founding fathers.
It was a savage Holi for the Congress.
Jyotiraditya—the scion of the Scindia royal family and a close confidante of Rahul Gandhi—quit the Congress party on 10th March, on the auspicious occasion of Holi, after 18 long years of close association, but this wasn’t all; while cutting his umbilical cord from the grand old party, he also landed a crippling blow to the Kamal Nath government in Madhya Pradesh, which is now teetering on the verge of collapse. About 20 Scindia loyalists have resigned from the membership of the state Legislature in an attempt to topple the Congress regime. Whether the government can survive or not is anybody’s guess, but that seems more unlikely than likely.
Shivraj Singh Chauhan is already flexing his muscles in anticipation of a windfall gain; the famed Amit Shah machine for unseating incumbent governments is working at full steam. The fate of the government hangs on a knife’s edge. One thing is certain: no one will allow the chips to fall where they may; the Congress has the Speaker and the BJP, the Governor. What will follow is the all too familiar script of machinations, betrayals, and—dare I say—poaching of MLAs. This story will be a sordid one, and we will all watch with bated breath as the plot thickens.
The bigger story, however, is the unceremonious exit of Jyotiraditya Scindia from the Congress. On 11th March, a day after Holi, he formally joined the BJP in the presence of its President, JP Nadda, laying to rest all speculation about his future. The BJP rewarded him swiftly by proposing his name for a Rajya Sabha seat from MP, and—what is imminent, if the grapevine is true—a plum cabinet post befitting his stature, to follow later. Scindia will surely be a showcase minister in the Modi Cabinet which is arguably bereft of talent, and severely depleted, because of the BJP’s inability to suitably replace the likes of Jaitley and Swaraj who were part of its first edition.
On balance, this is a massive jolt to the Congress; a huge dent in its prestige. Jyotiraditya Scindia is a charismatic leader with a massive political legacy. The ‘Maharaj’—as he is popularly known to his followers—commands considerable loyalty and respect amongst the people of the erstwhile Scindia state. He is also an apt example of how royal lineage can be translated into formidable political capital. It will be hard to dispute that Jyotiraditya, along with his father Madhav Rao while he was alive, was able to lend gravitas and dignity to the Congress; even the BJP will grant this. Jyotiraditya, only recently, was the face of the Congress campaign in Madhya Pradesh for the last assembly elections, in which the BJP was narrowly dethroned. It is obvious that the Congress has diminished its appeal by losing to the BJP a suave, young leader whose moderate-liberal voice resonated with the median voter all over the country, and not just in Madhya Pradesh.
Many Congress leaders, like the Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot, and Congress sympathisers on social media, after Scindia’s switch to the BJP, have called him an “opportunist”; some have angrily reminded him of the “betrayal” of his father Madhav Rao Scindia and grandmother ‘Rajmata’ Vijayraje Scindia, both of whom embraced the Jana Sangh after 1967. They have cast aspersions, perhaps not without reason, on the duplicitous tendencies of the Scindia family, and a few enthusiasts have suddenly recalled the role of the Scindias in abetting the British against Rani Laxmibai. In all fairness, such criticisms are not anything more than crying over spilt milk.
Congressmen should also remember that Madhav Rao had returned to the Congress fold and was a very close associate, even a friend, to Rajiv Gandhi. Jyotiraditya, after the sudden demise of his father, cut his teeth in politics under the tutelage of Sonia Gandhi who, as many would attest to, treated him like a son. Rahul Gandhi and Jyotiraditya Scindia are close friends, often seen sharing a joke, or even a wink as famously seen in the Parliament.
This rosy narrative began to sour after the high command chose Kamal Nath, the experienced warhorse, over Scindia, for Chief Ministership in Madhya Pradesh. In what was then touted as a battle of generations within the Congress party, both Kamal Nath and Ashok Gehlot—who were widely seen as Sonia loyalists—were able to trump the claims of Jyotiraditya and Sachin Pilot who were more visibly aligned with Rahul Gandhi. This episode only bolstered the popular perception that the Congress is uneasy in promoting talented, young, and dynamic leaders who might outshine Rahul and Priyanka. Whatever may be the truth of this, the fact is that things in the Congress establishment have been far from smooth, both in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, ever since.
This whole imbroglio also points to a systemic rot in the Congress; it is in the midst of a leadership crisis. Rahul Gandhi, who perhaps on a whim, had unilaterally abdicated the party leadership after a crushing defeat in the Lok Sabha elections last year has unwittingly left the grand old party in the lurch in these difficult times. While Modi has emerged as the supreme leader in the BJP—his hold on the party apparatus tightens with every passing day—the Congress party in comparison cuts a sorry figure. Sonia is ill, and not suited anymore to the taxing demands of leading the opposition. The role of Priyanka Gandhi is still not clear, and neither is her position known in the pecking order. There is no clarity, no resoluteness, in matters of ideology. The Congress seems to be unwilling or unable to make up its mind on what it stands for—cagey flirtations with Hindutva, ambivalence on nationalism, and a jittery, somewhat apologetic, attitude to secularism only hints at the humongous confusion lurking beneath.
The Congress cadre is severely demoralised, and the party’s recent victories in state elections seem meretricious in the absence of a coherent and simple message to the electorate. The defection of Jyotiraditya Scindia also signals the increasing acceptability of the Hindu Right, its mainstreaming among the elites. The BJP-RSS fold knows that every acquisition that it makes from the Congress—and Scindia is undoubtedly a prized trophy—will only widen its scope and deepen its roots in the body politic. The gains that accrue to the Sangh Parivar go far beyond electoral arithmetic; they extend dangerously to the grain and fibre of our country; these gains seem irreversible because of the ideological vacuum in the opposition. The mischievous law on Triple Talaq, the abrogation of article 370, and now the hugely contentious CAA-NRC-NPR move by the government is indicative of how far the centre of our politics has already shifted to the right.
While it may be yet premature to write the political obituary of the Congress or the Gandhi family, there is no escaping the fact that it is a moment of reckoning for both— they will have to reform or perish. The Congress has hit the bottom; there is a path forward and upwards, but it needs courage. Can the Congress rally the opposition by becoming a principled opposition to the right-wing BJP? Or will it suffer pangs of atrophy, blow by blow, as it dismembers slowly? To survive, it needs to become a movement; it must shed its aversion for risk, and embrace the stridency of ideology.
The Congress needs to reinvent itself as the bulwark of resistance against the constitution-slaying urges of the ruling dispensation. It needs to become visible on the ground in the struggles against communalism and hate. The same old, same old tactic of simply lying in wait for power won’t do anymore—the Congress is no longer the default party of governance; it is a sinking ship whose crew is running helter-skelter for safety. It needs a captain: someone who is not scared of the defeats which will follow, someone who can convince its cadre of the moral worth of its ideological forbears like Gandhi and Nehru.
We may dislike the grand old party or detest the Gandhis for a million reasons, but the bitter truth is that the future of the Congress is inextricably intertwined with the future of India as envisioned by our founding fathers. There is no other political force—regional or national—that has the ability or the girth to fight the BJP. Even if regional parties manage to vanquish the BJP in the states, they simply do not possess the will to challenge it in any meaningful way on the ideological terrain. The Congress needs to fight this fight.