ONE OF THE MOST iconic scenes from Bollywood lore features the formidable Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor in Salim Javeds landmark Deewar. In response to Bachchans long, impassioned harangue, showing off all that he has achieved in material terms in the shortest possible time despite his humble origins and his final jibe, what do you have? his brother has only one short answer: Mere paas maa hai! (I have my mother!)
In the face of the continuing carnage at the hands of the Modi-led BJP and other upstarts across India, Sonia Gandhis Congress seems to have only one answer: Mere paas beta hai! (I have my son!)
But what do you do when the prodigal son fails to deliver, time and time again. The Congress and its Italian-born president have been waiting for ages for Rahul Gandhi to take charge of the party and return it to its lost glory. However, the son simply wouldnt grow up. What was supposed to have been the partys most potent weapon and asset has become its greatest liability.
That the Congress faced certain and humiliating defeat in the just concluded state polls in its traditional bastions like Assam had been a foregone conclusion. It had become apparent to pundits in and outside the party months before the polls.
Yet the party not only refused to remove the increasingly unpopular Tarun Gogoi, it was suicidal enough to go it alone, ignoring Badruddin Ajmals AIUDF. This at a time when the BJP had formed a formidable alliance with Prafulla Mahantas AGP and the Bodos, not to mention the shot in the arm that Congress rebels like Himanta Biswa Sarma provided. On the other hand, as feared, the crucial Muslim vote got evenly split between the Congress and the AIUDF, directly helping the BJP-led alliance. As the Lokniti-CSDS poll suggests, the BJP managed to bring about an unprecedented Hindu consolidation with its communal pitch about the Bangladeshis taking over Assam.
As a result, the crucial state bordering Bangladesh with nearly 35 percent Muslim population has ended in the BJPs lap. Claiming that all Muslims in Assam and the northeast are Bangladeshis, the party has long vowed to throw them out. Assam may just be the beginning of Hindutvas party.
The Congress has to blame no one but itself for this state of affairs. Indias oldest political party, which ruled for more than half a century, has been beaten to the margins of Indian democracy. Quite a feat for a party that had been in power at the centre only two years ago.
What began as an absurd slogan during the 2014 election campaign, Modis campaign of Congress Mukt Bharat (Congress-free India) no longer looks like a distant possibility. And by failing to confront Hindutva and its divisive worldview and presenting the nation with an alternate, redeeming narrative, the Congress has only aided and helped Modi in his mission.
Today, the political footprint of Indias once natural party of governance has been brought down to a historic low. The party is now in power in just six states and rules around seven percent of the countrys population (or the size of Andhra Pradesh). Diehard optimists like Mani Shanker Aiyer still insist that the Congress is neither on the deathbed nor in the ICU. Perhaps they are right. Probably, in Mark Twains words, reports of the partys demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Indeed, no matter what Modis wild, saffron fantasies have you believe, a Congress-free India is easier said than done. For all its flaws and substantial erosion of its base, Congress remains the only pan-India party that has presence across the length and breadth of the country in literally every town and village.
Notwithstanding its inherent weaknesses, hypocrisies and its complicity in tragedies such as the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom and the destruction of Babri Masjid, the party has been inextricably linked with the history and journey of the nation, mirroring its highs and lows. Having provided the leadership during the nations long struggle against colonialism, it is still the only party that can credibly claim to represent all communities, regions and religious and linguistic minorities. In many ways, it is a metaphor and microcosm for India in all its colourful complexity and diversity.
Isnt it profoundly tragic and ironic then that a national institution with such proud history is today being challenged by someone like Modi with his all-too-familiar past and a party like the BJP, which has come to power by spreading hate and exploiting religious sentiments? But perhaps it serves the Congress right for not taking on the then Gujarat leader after the 2002 pogrom.
Still, the meltdown of the Congress is unfortunate and does not augur well for the future and wellbeing of Indian democracy, especially when it directly translates into the rise and rise of a hateful ideology and its dangerous worldview.
For all its sins and imperfections, the Congress still represents the idea of India. The continuing decline of the party is a tragedy for all secular and democratic forces in the country and their dream of an inclusive India.
Is there any hope for the Congress though?
Dynasty loyalists like Digvijay Singh and latecomers like Shashi Tharoor both agree that the time for introspection is over and its time for the Congress to act to arrest its fall. Indeed, everyone is conscious of the existential crisis facing the party and wants swift measures to address it.
Both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have also promised to look into the causes of the partys defeat and talked about accepting peoples verdict with humility. But these platitudes mean little unless they are backed by action. After all, the Congress leadership had promised similar introspection and action after the humiliation of the 2014 elections. Yet, nothing really happened. The much debated Antony report suggesting overhauling of the party is in cold storage.
Given its history and the party faithfuls tendency to deflect all criticism of the leadership, there is little hope that the grand old party is really ready for a shakedown. Predictably, the loyalists have moved in to protect the Gandhis at the top.
However, if the Congress has to survive and remain relevant in a fast-evolving country with an overwhelmingly young population, it must act swiftly and boldly with or without the Gandhis. Cosmetic corrections will no longer work. If the party wants the Gandhis to remain at the top, it is their choice. However, if Rahul Gandhi cannot be part of the solution, he has to make way for others, rather than block the way. He must not become the proverbial millstone around the partys neck. Theres no dearth of talent in the party.
In marketing parlance, the Congress still has a great brand name perhaps better than everyone else and enjoys the broadest appeal, cutting across all sections of society. It only needs to focus on its core messaging and reconnect with its target audience. Instead of trying to be all things to all people, it needs to rediscover the universal ideals that once inspired it and which are at the heart of Indian constitution values like pluralism, secularism, tolerance, and participation of all in the democratic process.
All said and done, though, no one can help the Congress until it chooses to help itself.
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