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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 22, May 23, 2015

The Indian National Congress: It Is Back

Friday 22 May 2015, by Badri Raina

One of the least prepossessing features of some recent Indian journalism—especially of the electronic channels—has been an unpleasantly motivated obsession with Rahul Gandhi. Barring a few “senior” journalists, who have sensitively sought to context Mr Gandhi;s difficulties within the limitations and impera-tives of an embracing historical framework—both of the Congress and the country—most embedded commentaries tiresomely, one suspects even to the commentators themselves who could be seen in some discomfort at having to carry out a brief, have tended to diminish themselves by resorting to clichéd mock, aided and abetted by glib spokespersons of the ruling party, always quick to cease a dishonourable jibe.

India and America have many things in common; and one of these commonalities is the delight that the “victor” takes in kicking the one who seems down and out. Having now for more than two decades practised a like economic model, India’s happening generation can be seen to have also imbibed the grand American thesis that only two kinds of people populate the world—winners and losers; and that to be a loser is to forego any claim to social or intellectual consideration. Contrarily, once declared a winner, the subject must be considered beyond critique of any kind till such time of course as such a subject may become a loser. Ergo, were you to gobble up some two dozen boiled eggs in a stipulated period of time in a Guiness Record competition, you would be a winner; but were you obliged to descend back to base camp from a height of just under a hundred feet of the summit of Everest owing to fatal weather conditions, the next day’s report would say “failed” to conquer Everest. And no one might ask the question whether eating them eggs and scaling Everest could be seen as comparable human endeavours. Indeed, the thought is reminiscent of the ease with which a market economy might be unleashed and human beings made compliant commodities and the insuperable rigours of attempting to build a socialist order wherein human subjects would be human rather than commodities or successful robots. Likewise, in our kind of democracy, it matters little how you win an election so long as you do, rather than how honest you have been in your campaign.

Mr Gandhi’s difficulties, it needs to be understood, have been the difficulties of the Indian National Congress, and his seeming ditherings, the expression of a refusal simply to answer those difficulties with media-savvy gimmicks or smart short cuts. An unintellighent question often asked of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is why does he “delay” in taking the revenge his murdered father seeks. The deeper conundrum that confronts this most intellectual of Shake-speare’s protagonists is how in fact to transcend the fruitless and self-perpetuating tradition and cycle of revenge, and to produce a course of action which may yield a more lasting conse-quence. Thus, rather than simply kill the killers whose progeny may then kill again, he seeks to penetrate deeper: “the play is the thing/ in which I shall catch the conscience of the king.” The murderous, usurper king, that is.

I have watched the still quite young Mr Gandhi with close interest, and I am of the view that his posers to himself may not have been too different. Given that there may be much that is not sanguine within the state of the party, could it be thought that only some flourish of leadership might suffice to bring back its good fortune? If Mr Gandhi’s answer has been in the negative, I would agree with him. And I would further agree that all those now seized with the task of putting the Congress party on a new credible footing must look beyond individual prowess to organisational and policy issues.

From the evidence that has been available, it would seem that Mr Gandhi has been attempting precisely these difficult course corrections. At the organisational level, his insistence on the electoral route to responsibility and reward within the party must be seen to be unexceptio-nable, however such a turn might disrupt, and perhaps even militate against, well-settled habits among Congress stalwarts. Nor may it be said that his persistent efforts to bring a younger generation into visibility and prominence is a faulty move. Mr Gandhi of course may not be held culpable for the accident of his own birth, and, as has often been commented, so long as citizens of any birth are validated by democratic processes of transparency and credibility, it would be a sort of reverse discrimination to hold them in any sort of moral contempt, or to deny them their rights as citizens.

 What is very apparent since Mr Gandhi’s return from an introspective furlough is that it is in the area of policy that he seems to have rethought with considerable boldness and conceptual clarity what the Congress may have been doing wrong over a consequential period of time. It is this latter transformation that seems to this writer to account for the force of argument and conviction that Mr Gandhi came to display in his interventions in the Lok Sabha. A performance distinguished by a steady earnestness rather than by the glamour of rhetoric. What these interventions clearly bring to light is Mr Gandhi’s recognition that, despite its laudable growth in GDP, India remains a very poor country, that very little of that growth has in fact “trickled” down to the hoi poloi, and that if the Congress party is to be true to its ideological history prior to 1990 when it unwisely acquiesced in the terms and conditions of the Washington Consensus, an acquiescence that has led not merely to rapacious material exploitation and immiseration of the bulk of India’s population, but to deplorably and often violently retrograde cultural practices—all at the expense of the marginalised social groups, the party must take up the courage once again to return to the ideology of a Welfare State, wherein fundamental human rights of dignified livelihood, the guaranteed constitutional rights of minority sections, and a national culture of pluralism are made the chief concerns of political action.

Mr Gandhi’s recent articulations suggest a realisation that such an alternative agenda cannot be based in current economic practices but will require different sorts of emphases in investments. Whereas there is no fear that private capital stands to be banished were the Congress to return to power, it does seem now in the Congress mind that be it private or public investment, such investment cannot simply be tareted at profit maximisation, but that a system of regulatons must ensure that it results in enhancing the productive capacity of the citizenry widely across the rural sector and among the urban poor by raising the spread and level of educational infrastructure, by ensuring affordable, if not free, health care of the best quality, by eradicating disease and disability through a sanitation revolution, by investing ambitiously in the farm sector so that farm and allied incomes are raised to enhance domestic purchasing power at a macro level, leading to enhanced domestic demand which alone, ultimately, can sustain manufacture on a lasting footing. Clearly, there seems a new, more substantive ring to Mr Gandhi’s advocacy on the land acquisition question that goes beyond any populism of the moment, and foregrounds itself as symptomatic of a more totalised concern and vision of how the gross imbalances of income must be remedied if far-reaching “development” is to be achieved and if social disaffections of various description are to be addressed credibly. Indeed, there seems now a greater correspondence between Mr Gandhi’s thinking and the kind of thinking that informed obtaining rights-based entitlements for a majority of citizens by the UPA in its second term chiefly through Sonia Gandhi’s caring advocacy, supported by progressive social-movement organizations and the Left parties.

That global economic travails make it a bad thought to hope that international finance will come readily to sort out our investment requirements needed to raise our income levels and provide infrastructure of the kind Impoveri-shed India needs—indeed of any kind—is also beginning to unravel as, braggart claims notwithstanding, money has actually been going out of the country in search of greener pastures. India’s exports have receded some 14 per cent in the month of April, and similar fall in imports suggests the woes in which our manufacturing sector finds itself in the absence of raised domestic incomes and investments. Mr Gandhi seems to have internalised the view that the acquisition of obscenely fabulous wealth by a minuscule Indian elite, far from constituting national development, may be becoming the harbinger of ugly social tiding in the days to come—a consequence that bids fair to invite widespread violence that could as much as render the democratic arrangement itself in grave jeopardy. Although one has not heard Mr Gandhi make any specific reference to the “smart city/bullet train” paradigm of development, inputs suggest that he and the Congress may be mulling a form of urbanisation that does not make of the rural hinterland an “other”, and a subservient one at that, but that merges with and enhances the productive genius and capacity of areas where some sixtyfive per cent of Indians still live and work.

If these inferences are not wholly speculative or baseless, then Mr Gandhi’s persistence in mass contact programmes makes purposeful sense. If the Congress tree is to hope for new leaf, the necessary condition must be that its roots are rid of the brick and bramble accumu-lated over a decade or more of self-satisfaction and neglect of the nutrients that have drained off or dried out. And there is never a nutrient in democratic politics more potent than to be trusted by the last man/woman standing that the party does not only mouth her concerns but strains every social, intellectual, and govern-mental resource to meet them with visible honesty, and without the lining of the pocket.

What Mr Gandhi seems to be teaching his party people is that such work does not commence only when the party comes to power but must constitute the ceaseless political and moral agenda of any political formation. This is not something that the Congress has been used to owning, not to speak of practising. No wonder then that the party should today find itself in a situation politically where it cannot take the allegiance of any segment or social group of the electorate on trust. And the enormity of that depletion is enhanced several fold when it is remembered that the USP of this mother of all parties has been, whatever cavil its ill-wishers may propagate, that both in social and economic terms it has historically addressed itself to the centre of gravity of a nation-state as unparalleled in its heterogeneity as India. As much as this form of democracy may permit a party whose ideological ontology might have been Left-of-Centre but by no means Left.

That this renewed agenda is not something now that the Congress may carry out with desired success all by itself should be obvious. Ironically, the policies it has pursued in the main since 1990 have bred its own destroyers, and India’s Rightwing today penetrates far and wide among the classes. The airwaves they command spread words that affect millions of innocents whose access to education and information remains abysmal. The Congress will therefore need to learn to climb off the high horse and leave the collaborative space to lesser mortals where the bylanes are too choked even for a horse and rider, and where other creatures are far better placed to understand and affect change of the desired kind. And, as in a household, it should not matter that credit for work done duly goes to the other. Just so long as the hoi poloi prosper, and just so long as the index of collective happiness keeps rising.

Where it concerns secular and socially emancipatory struggle against communal and casteist brutalities, or against the equally brutal assertions of patriarchy, these must be under-stood to constitute domains for joint and collective fight on a countrywide scale and for long years to come. Let it be said forthrightly that both the Congress and the Left still have many miles to go to rise to Ambedkar’s analysis and vision of what must constitute justice in post-independence India. And any party person seen to be complicit in these brutalities must be shown the door without a moment’s dithering, if, that is, the Congress, Left, and progressive non-governmental social forces are serious about the unfinished agenda to obtain the citizenifi-cation of all Indians as a matter of terminal importance to the continuation and consolidation of the Republican ideal.

Much as the Rightwing ruling dispensation might have mocked Mr Gandhi thus far, its testy chagrin during the just concluded parliamentary session is proof that it feels suddenly caught on the wrong political foot, and insistently so. Mr Gandhi seems to have become a Betal riding its back with a persuasiveness which it is unable to shake off. No better compliment to Mr Gandhi for the riches he seems to have gathered during the sniggered weeks he was introspecting. Another instance in our political history that the politics of smirk and glib assertion can have a limited shelf-life. Especially when governmental performance on the ground seems to lag leagues behind the braggart pronouncement.

The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His latest book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012.