Get real, Mr Gandhi

What the Congress needs is less of AAP-ism and more of realism.

The Aam Aadmi Party’s spectacular performance in the Delhi assembly elections has made Arvind Kejriwal the flavour of the season. He has been feted for writing a new template for democratic politics in India and has been deservedly hailed for a significant triumph against near impossible political odds. But as Mr Kejriwal prepares for the challenges of running a city-state as complex as Delhi, pundits are busy debating what lessons AAP may hold for the mainstream politics particularly for the Grand Old Party.

Rahul G

The Congress party’s disastrous performance in the assembly elections has depressed even its most ardent supporters; it clearly faces an uphill challenge in the next general elections. What should really worry the Congress is the sheer extent of its defeat: In Rajasthan, the supposed stronghold of ‘Sonianomics’, the party was virtually wiped out with a massive mandate in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). So where does the Congress go from here?

Some commentators have argued that the Congress needs to adopt an ‘AAP model.’ with a display of disruptive thinking: loosen the vice-like grip of the Nehru-Gandhi family on the party with genuine internal democracy. Most certainly, the Congress has suffered massively from its reluctance to encourage and nurture regional leaders in sharp contrast to the BJP with its pantheon of strong chief ministers. However, the commentators may be overstating their case. For three reasons.

First, there is little similarity between AAP and the Congress party. One is a newly formed insurgent formation whose political structures are still amorphous and malleable. It also carries no baggage either of governance or history. On the other hand, the Congress in its various forms, has existed for over 125 years and has been in power for much of India’s history. It’s all very well for Rahul Gandhi to promise to empower individual in ways ‘you can’t even imagine’ but it is far less convincing when the statement is made literally in his mother’s shadow.  Mr Gandhi has failed to establish himself as the ‘angry young man’ railing against the injustices of the establishment because he and his family are the establishment.  In any case, the strongest argument in favour of the Congress is that it can stand as vanguard against disruptive politics; an attempt to position itself as a radical alternative is not only transparently mendacious but perhaps politically suicidal as well.

Second, beyond AAP, there is little evidence that Indian voters have much patience for hifalutin concepts like inner party consultations and participative democracy. A part of Mr Modi’s appeal certainly lies in his image as a decisive leader who would brook no opposition– not SMS polls for him!– and address the policy paralysis which has adversely affected the India growth story in the last five years. Even in regional politics, voters have supported strong chief ministers and parties where the suzerainty of one person runs supreme. Inner party democracy is one of the quirks of Indian politics– much discussed and lamented but with virtually no political salience. And the way the Congress is structured, it can either have a Nehru-Gandhi in active politics or genuine internal democracy.

Finally, a radical retransformation of the Congress is a long-term prospect and not a project which can be accomplished in a matter of months. The general elections are hardly four months away and at this point the party seems ill-prepared as a political formation—even basic messaging and media management is marked only by its absence.  And here it must be asked: Considering Mr Gandhi has spent nearly a decade in politics with little formal responsibility and almost unquestioned authority, why has he failed the task of remaking Congress for the modern era? And if he has been a failure till now, what is the guarantee that he would succeed in the immediate future?

What the Congress party truly needs is less of AAP-ism and more of realism. A positive mandate for the UPA government is virtually out of question in 2014: what it can realistically expect to do is to limit the damage and repeat the AAP experiment with the so-called Third Front either as the governing party or extend outside support to a rag-tag coalition constructed in the name of ‘secularism.’

However, this would require the Congress to enter into tactical alliances across the country. For instance, a RJD-LJP-Congress alliance can pose a formidable challenge to Nitish Kumar and an ascendant BJP in Bihar.  And in UP, without a tactical alliance with the BSP, the congress is likely to be reduced to low single digits. But these would require the kind of political deal-making and the art of compromise which Mr Gandhi appears completely incapable of.

It is here the Congress old guard is caught in a bind between two equally compelling interests: It acutely understands the need for power but is handicapped in challenging a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family.  Unless Sonia Gandhi steps in, the Congress party is perhaps inevitably doomed in 2014. However, whether Mrs Gandhi who is a consummate political operative is able to keep the interests of her party ahead of that of her son remains to be seen.

Finally, the elephant in the room: what does Rahul Gandhi want? In the last decade, Mr Gandhi has perched himself almost perfectly in that dark space where he is neither prepared to accept responsibility nor give up power. Mr Gandhi needs to understand that the role of a political party differs from that of a non-governmental organisational (NGO).  Societal change and shifting the larger discourse are all fine sentiments but are meaningless without power. And whether one agrees with the policy prescriptions of the National Advisory Council (NAC) or not, it consummately illustrates how political power is truly exercised.

 In 2014, Mr Gandhi faces two stark choices. Either he can step up to the plate and accept responsibility—and that can only mean positioning himself as the Congress party’s prime ministerial candidate—or retire and perhaps join a NGO where his natural inclinations more truly lie. Mr Gandhi’s diffidence and ambivalent attitude towards power are only damaging the Congress party’s electoral prospects especially as he is faced with an opponent whose pitch is simple yet powerful: Elect me and I will transform India.

Mr Gandhi appears to have convinced himself that his mother’s magical ‘renunciation’ of 2004 is the perfect model for the Nehru-Gandhi family. Perhaps, he is right as India has often been enthralled by acts of abnegation. However, lightening often doesn’t strike twice and even if it did, as Dinkar once wrote in a different context: Kshama shobhti us bhujung ko jiske paas garal ho, uska kya jo dunt-heen, vish-heen, vineet, saral ho! (When a serpent that has venom, teeth and strength forgives, there is grace in its forgiveness, there is magnanimity. But when a serpent that has no venom and no bite claims to forgive, it sounds like hypocrisy and hiding its weakness.)

In order to renounce power, first you have to win it!

Photo: Presidency Maldives