Starting with a near-clean slate after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, this week’s state assembly election results are like a second coming for the Congress party. A combination of factors helped the party to succeed in the ruthless politics of the Hindi heartland – fatigue with long BJP rule in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the incompetence in Rajasthan, farm distress, unemployment, and the fallout from demonetisation and GST. The issues were pretty straightforward which the BJP tried to complicate with attacks on the Nehru-Gandhis on the lines that have been repeated routinely since 2014, a vituperative agenda of communal divisivess with crass generalisation symptomatic of majoritarian politics and an encouragement to abusive trolls by not shutting them up. In a way the Congress party got lucky. It dipped into the mood of discontentment, kept its nose to the ground and stayed the course with what, by comparison to the BJP, was a smart and mature campaign. But, this was all about strategy, like a game of chess. The all-new Congress under Rahul Gandhi, who had demanded the eclipse of the party’s old guard and a free hand in choosing his lieutenants before taking over, should present itself in new light. What it therefore needs is not strategy. It should be at the vanguard of a movement for a new political order.
All political parties, the Congress party included, have grown out of movements. The Congress was a product of the freedom movement. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh was created on the agenda of Hindu revivalism by Syama Prasad Mookerjee, a minister in the first national government led by Jawaharlal Nehru. He founded the party as he realised that Rajendra Prasad and Purushottam Das Tandon, rightwing elements in the Congress, would not hold centre-stage in the party. But the Jana Sangh muddled along without making a significant splash – even though it did reasonably well in Hindi heartland states till the mid-1960s.
However, after the formation of the Bharatiya Janata Party, it was the Ram Janmabhoomi movement with its accompanying vision of Ram Rajya and the politics of Hindutva that helped to build the party. In 2014, that movement culminated in a full majority BJP government of Narendra Modi, recognised as Hindu Hriday Samrat – something that could not be said of Atal Bihari Vajpayee or even LK Advani who spearheaded the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. It is difficult to say whether that movement has reached a peak and delivered all that it could because, despite the recent electoral reverses, Modi continues to be India’s most charismatic political leader.
The Janata Party succeeded as Jayaprakash Narain led the movement against authoritarianism and came to power after the Emergency. The OBC parties – Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal – were created from Mandal politics. The Bahujan Samaj Party reinvented Ambedkarite politics and built the organisation from Bahujan politics, and grew by being politically malleable. The Aam Aadmi Party rose out of the anti-corruption movement of Anna Hazare and all that had been encapsulated in the India Against Corruption campaign.
Now, to rise from where it is, the new Congress needs a movement that will give it the political might it seeks to challenge the BJP under Modi. The Congress party has tried to position itself at the vanguard of a new anti-corruption movement with the Rahul Gandhi slogan ‘Chowkidar chor hai’. One target is the Rafale deal – on which the Supreme Court cleared the government of any wrongdoing on Friday. However, such a tack is unlikely to succeed. Neither would attacks on Modi’s alleged authoritarian style of functioning. Political movements against corruption in government and authoritarianism have usually been aimed at the Congress party and other parties have gained from it.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Rafale deal has not got the traction that the Congress perhaps expected it to – surely because at the national level the Congress party is the one more associated with corruption and abuse of power. This continued into UPA-I and UPA-II when the slightest allegation of impropriety was lapped up by people. In raking up corruption issues, the Congress is on the wrong side of history. On the other hand, the Congress party’s best bet is a positive campaign on the agenda of inclusiveness and development – areas where it can position itself against the BJP brand of politics. That will contrast well with the prevailing discourse in the country where hotheads in the BJP appear to be beyond party discipline. There have been suggestions from Modi acolytes that these very elements, who have run amok, have undermined the Prime Minister. The Congress party should step up to the task and seize the opportunity to attack the government and the party. There will not come a better time than this before the general elections when Congress party cadres are on a high and BJP cadres are demoralised. It is opportune because the BJP will be doing soul searching over the losses and a change in power equations within the party and the larger Sangh Parivar could be expected. So far the BJP has used communal divisiveness and attacks on the Nehru-Gandhis as its default option in times of crisis. The losses in the Hindi heartland are likely to prompt a rethink. If the Congress party is smart, it should quickly take advantage of this uncertainty, build a new movement, and try to forge ahead aggressively into the next election.