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Crafting ‘New’ Congress To Take On The BJP

It can’t be a rebranding exercise alone.

09/08/2017 8:30 AM IST | Updated 09/08/2017 8:30 AM IST
Adnan1 Abidi / Reuters

A "New Congress" is needed. The current Congress is at a historical low in terms of morale, credibility and electoral footprint, and the continued flow of Congress leaders to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suggests that even some of its own are not convinced of the party's turnaround prospects. Clearly, old agendas, methods and leaderships have to be revisited if lost territory is to be reclaimed.

At the moment, the Congress appears to have no dream to sell, no solid prescriptions for the future. Naysaying can't be a narrative; and, narratives can only be wrested by narratives.

The more compelling case for a Congress overhaul comes from elsewhere though. The BJP is systematically unrolling its Hindutva project and suffocating the opposition in state after state, and it would be a betrayal of the democratic cause if the Congress, the country's principal opposition party, allowed these hegemonic designs to go unchallenged.

Why now's the time

There are three reasons why this could be the most opportune moment to unveil the New Congress.

One: As disappointments with the Narendra Modi sarkar mount, sections of the electorate are looking for a fresh alternative. Growing TINA (There is No Alternative) talk is, above all else, a desperate call for such an alternative. It does mark an acknowledgment of the BJP's heft, but such acknowledgment should not be mistaken for an endorsement of the BJP's performance.

Two: The current Congress is hobbled by non-performers and those itching to jump ship. These are the elements most likely to be threatened by change, and will probably be the first to negotiate exits with the BJP (or others). Aside from the setback of losing some known names, this could actually ensure that New Congress starts with individuals invested in its future. The choice between a truncated, committed core and a bloated, slothful one is a no-brainer. So, in some ways, there is a silver lining for the Congress in the current low.

Three: Almost every opposition voice of note in the country today has more in common, and more reason to align, with the Congress than the BJP. Think Akhilesh Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav, M K Stalin, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Naveen Patnaik, Omar Abdullah, the Left parties, the Sorens in Jharkhand, and perhaps even Hardik Patel and Jagan Reddy. Sure, several of them have joined forces with the BJP in the past, but they would all know that the BJP under Modi and Amit Shah is a different, more threatening creature.

Questions the Congress must address

If the Congress chooses to bite the bullet and refresh itself, it must, for starters, address two questions that are uppermost in the minds not only its supporters but anyone concerned about the BJP's spread and the state of the opposition.

The New Congress must begin with a new manifesto, a (non-election) document that states its larger vision for the country clearly...

A: What does the Congress stand for, and how do its interpretations of, and remedies for, current day issues contrast with those of the BJP? At the moment, the Congress appears to have no dream to sell, no solid prescriptions for the future. Naysaying can't be a narrative; and, narratives can only be wrested by narratives.

B: What is the Congress doing to improve its health and stall the BJP juggernaut? Tales of how Rahul Gandhi has been working behind the scenes to strengthen the organisation have been floating for a while, but substantive organisational changes or results have hardly been visible. Before every election, one sees the BJP audaciously state and chase ambitious targets, while the Congress frustratingly flounders, mounting a token challenge at best.

To respond to (A), the Congress must recognise that the New Congress can't be a rebranding exercise alone. Old wine in a new bottle will only earn further disappointment; what is needed is an offering that stands apart from the heady but toxic flavour of recent seasons—an offering that contemporises the Nehruvian consensus but avoids the dodgy undertones that got added to it in time.

The New Congress must begin with a new manifesto, a (non-election) document that states its larger vision for the country clearly, locating within this vision its positions on the contentious issues of the day (nationalism, welfare, centre-state relations, internal and external security, linguistic imposition, minority rights, cow protection, etc.).

Office bearers at the national and state levels could resign and pave the way for the emergence of a new, hungrier leadership.

If there's the risk of certain groups being alienated in the process, so be it; it is not as if they are leaning towards the Congress anyway. At least, the party, with a clearer articulation of its vision and stances, would be in a position to reach out to those who stand disillusioned with the BJP, but wary of the Congress too.

To respond to (B), a serious and visible signal of reform intent is needed. It could come from something that has been proposed within the party before. A Kamaraj-like plan.

Office bearers at the national and state levels could resign and pave the way for the emergence of a new, hungrier leadership. (Of course, a certain amount of background thinking and parley would have to be take place before this to avoid an embarrassing, public free-for-all.) There may even be a case for those above a certain age and/or with an unimpressive electoral record (personally and as stewards of party fortunes in various elections) to be temporarily barred from assuming nodal positions such as state chief. It will still leave the tricky question of where and how to position Rahul, and much will depend on how Rahul himself chooses to confront the issue.

In any case, whoever emerges the Congress' national chief after the churn will have to possess the stature and sagacity to engage with like-minded parties, craft alliances and, in time perhaps even negotiate ghar wapsis, with them. For the moment, health permitting, the Congress has no one better than Sonia Gandhi for the job.

Opportunities in the horizon

More than anything else, it will be an impressive showing against the BJP in assembly elections that will provide the greatest boost to the New Congress. It could, at once, convince the party and the larger electorate of the New Congress's potential, and provide good reason for like-minded parties to pursue understandings with it. Currently, such parties, despite a common political enemy, will be wondering what benefit an association with the Congress brings them.

The New Congress, if it takes shape, would do well to focus on Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Rajasthan, where polls are due in late 2018.

The boat may well have sailed as far as the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh assembly elections go, and the New Congress, if it takes shape, would do well to focus on Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Rajasthan, where polls are due in late 2018.

From a political party perspective, these are states where an opposition party will fancy its chances. The BJP-led governments in these states are far from models of good governance; plus, the BJP has had a long stint in Chhattisgarh and MP, and Rajasthan generally swings between the BJP and the Congress.

Importantly, the assembly elections in the three states above will be closely followed by the 2019 parliamentary elections. Should the New Congress make an impact in them, it will not only give itself but the entire opposition cause for optimism.

The time, of course, to begin rebuilding is now. Every day that passes in inertia is hastening the Congress-mukt Bharat project.

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