It is both bad news and good news for the Congress. The edgy victory of Ahmed Patel in the Rajya Sabha poll, with some of his long-term loyalists whose career he literally carved out over the years, ditching him in the final run, is no reason for great celebration for the party. One of the defectors, till recently Patel’s close associate, chose to fight against him as he switched onto the Amit Shah bandwagon. Surely, ideology plays no role when it comes to power politics in Indian democracy.
Known as the ‘gatekeeper’ of Sonia Gandhi and the high command as her political secretary and advisor, he is also reportedly a deal-maker par excellence. It is well-known among those who cover Gujarat that several Congress leaders despise him for his alleged ‘backroom deal-making’ with the BJP, so much so that the state unit has been badly weakened and demolished, under his patronage.
Despite being a two-party state, and the Congress scoring plus 40 percent votes, and winning local elections heavily, it has lost election after election. Much of the credit or discredit is attributed by local leaders to Patel.
Besides, no one knows what kind of advice he gives to Mr. Gandhi, on Gujarat or on other issues. It was also widely speculated during the UPA tenure that he would allegedly often call the shots, that even Manmohan Singh would feel exasperated. There are also rumours that he is not really in the good books of Rahul Gandhi. That is why, Congress sources are of the view that Ahmed Patel is a deceptive omen for the Congress, especially for the Gujarat Congress.
In this context, and in the context of the general decline of the Congress all over India, Jairam Ramesh’s frank criticism comes, not as a revelation, but as a moment of departure in the party. After losing Goa and Manipur despite being the largest party, playing third fiddle in large states like UP and Bihar, and literally wiped out in big states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Telangana and Bengal, the criticism by Ramesh hits the nail on the head. Indeed, after the fall and fall of the party, is the Congress high command and the first family ready to introspect and mark a radical departure from its stagnating and unimaginative past?
Ramesh expressed his exasperation recently without mincing words. He said, “Old slogans don't work, old formulas don't work, old mantras don't work. India has changed, the Congress party has to change.”
However, this general statement can very well be part of the logical inner working of any organisation or political party which is facing a lingering crisis, such as the CPI(M) and CPI, for instance. And not just Ramesh, who emerged during Rajiv Gandhi’s era, almost the entire leadership of the Congress party pines for its clichéd hope that one day Rahul Gandhi will take charge as the president and thereby that will naturally herald the revival of the grand old party. How come, one may ask?. Will a sudden miracle happen if Rahul is made the president? Will he change overnight? Will he suddenly become a charismatic and strong mass leader riding the victory chariot?
Ramesh contradicts himself when he says that it is not the electoral setback that is crippling the party but an “existential crisis”; indeed, simultaneously, he hopes that the party’s revival will start from the Karnataka polls next year.
This reluctant or unstated introspection comes at a time when several ‘old’ parties in the world have been subjected to a kind of dynamic ‘churning and revolution’ from within.
The enormous support ‘socialist’ Jeremy Corbyn in Britain garnered from the Labour Party cadres, and the vast spectrum of the population, including the working class, the educated and the young; and the way ‘democrat and socialist’ Bernie Sanders nearly won the nomination for the US presidential election shows the striking power of the people even at a time when the leaders of their parties adhered blatantly to corporate elitism and cold-blooded capitalism masquerading as neo-liberalism.
Corbyn and Sanders continue to fight the conservative logic of the elite within their own parties. Sanders, himself not young anymore, had the support of women and the ‘millennials’ – tens of thousands of the young, students and academics. There are reasons to believe that if Sanders had got the Democratic Party nomination, the world would have been free from the eccentricities and xenophobia of real estate tycoon Donald Trump.
Besides, Corbyn has reinvigorated the Labour Party after Tony Blair had made it the B team of the Conservative Party, defeating both right-wing Blair loyalists in the party, and making Theresa May look like a doll lost in the woods with no majority in the house.
Unfortunately, in India, the Congress and its loose and fledgling organizational and grassroot apparatus, is unable to galvanise a refreshing, new and dynamic leadership, so dependent it is on the first family. Knowing this well, its sycophantic leaders conveniently expect a mythical revival of the party if the ‘heir apparent’ takes charge, however reluctant an inheritor he might appear to be, and however big a failure as a winning mascot, with all his good intentions, his solidarity actions with JNU students, Dalits and farmers, and his vehement criticism of Modi’s economic and communal policies.
That is the culture Indian democracy has nurtured all these years inside the party which was at the helm of the freedom movement. Pray, why can’t Ramesh or Ghulam Nabi Azad, even a young leader like Sachin Pilot become the new president of the party, with Rahul working in the grassroots and organizing the people all across the remote Indian landscape? Or a new working and organizational president, with Rahul as president, and Sonia Gandhi as mentor?
Another factor that Ramesh fails to understand or refuse to discuss is how the decline of the party got exacerbated after it embraced neoliberalism as its guiding principle. The policy has killed many farmers, with farmer suicides rising to its peak during the UPA regime despite the huge loan waiver. After Congress was defeated, the BJP pursued neoliberalism with ruthless vigour and soon became the champion of all the crony capitalists who jumped ship from the original proponents of ‘strutctural adjustment’ to the ‘totalitarian’ leadership of the mythical ‘Gujarat model’.
Even when globalisation and neo- liberal policy has increased rural distress, created mass unemployment and push lakhs of farmers to the brink, including suicides, in the last two-and-a half decade, major political parties have become the votaries of the policy. The modicum of resistance put up during UPA 1 against neoliberal policies at the behest of the Left parties was abandoned when UPA was re -elected to power in 2009 without the support of the Left. A market fundamentalist, Manmohan Singh then flaunted it as a testimony of his own economic policies. How wrong he proved to be was proved in the next general elections with a muscle-flexing Narendra Modi literally capturing the entire media, with the total backing of the corporates, the same corporates who were pampered and subsidized by Singh.
The struggle farmers, students, Dalits and minorities are waging across the country are testimony to the fact that the masses have become the victims of the neo-liberal policies, the fascist and right-wing regime of Modi, the mob-lynchers and communal forces, and the majoritarian policies and hate politics pursued by the ruling regime. If the Congress can’t feel the pulse of the masses, it has already lost the battle for the ‘secular’ soul of India in the next round.
The question Ramesh and others of his ilk must answer is whether the Congress is ready to introspect? Rather than alienating itself from the people, their relentless tragedies, and mass inequality, the grand old party, which boast of its secularist credentials, must answer if it is ready to shed its opportunist and soft Hindutva line pursued from time to time? Will it shift its admiring gaze away from the pro-rich neo-liberal policies?
Rather than pressurising Rahul to take full charge of the party, would Ramesh ask the party leadership to consider Kashmir as a political issue seeking a political situation which should not be dealt as a law and order issue? To prove that the Congress is seriously concerned about the human rights violations perpetrated by the security forces in Bastar, would Ramesh ask his party to apologise to the tribal people and stop backing big business and multinationals to exploit the mineral-rich forests and thereby crush the indigenous people?
Will they shift the paradigm and initiate a new process of dialogue instead of calling those who are fighting in the forests as India’s ‘biggest internal security threat’? Will it scrap AFSPA in Kashmir and the Northeast? And, will it abandon crass neo-liberalism, change the economic paradigm for all round and equal development, and take the corporates by its horn?
In all probability, Ramesh or other Congress leaders, are not ready for introspection. Their convenient politics has kept them aloof from the issues that the masses are encountering in their daily life, especially the vast multitudes of the poor and working class, the farmers, Dalits, and women, in the organized and unorganized sector.
This, for sure, is not just the crisis of the Congress leadership, it is the reflection of the limits of Indian democracy and the party system. It also reflects how the directive principles of the Indian Constitution have been dumped to benefit the richest of the rich and upwardly mobile classes. Hence, righteous indignation is not going to revive the Congress party, nor is it going to strengthen Indian democracy A new, pro-people, radical and progressive path of politics alone can.