Understandably the allusions to India’s youth and middle class made by Congress President Mrs. Sonia Gandhi in her inaugural address to the Chintan Shivir session of her party in Jaipur grabbed major media attention. This was a marked change from the earlier garibi hatao and aam admi slogans. Her allusions indicated the thrust of the party’s strategy for the 2014 general election. However Congress leaders would be sadly mistaken if they focused only on formulating appropriate policies in order to revive the flagging fortunes of their party.
The biggest public frustration in India currently relates to the failure of governance and the non-implementation of declared policy. Lack of governance doubtless requires some systemic reform. But equally it arises from the tendency of coalition partners to blackmail and paralyze the government’s functioning. Apparently Mrs. Gandhi was not oblivious of this problem.
Departing from tradition the Congress President in her address to the party’s strategy session implicitly acknowledged the crucial role of allies in her party’s future prospects. Earlier the party before elections always trumpeted its ideology and kept alliance options open till after the poll. No more. The party’s leaders have formally given up the dream of ever obtaining a majority on its own. In her address to the session Mrs. Gandhi said:
“In states in which we are in alliance we have to strike a balance between respecting these alliances and ensuring that the party’s rejuvenation is not compromised. We must admit that we now face increased competition and inroads have been made into our traditional support bases. There are some states, where we have been out of power for too long and, although I too believe that being in power is not the sole purpose of political activities, this does have an adverse impact on our morale and organization ability.”
The party had lost power in major states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu for many years now. The challenge of forging alliances without diluting its core approach has become therefore imperative. How might the Congress grapple with new political realities without altogether losing its character and identity? That is the challenge confronting Chintan Shivir at Jaipur.
Home Minister Mr. P. Chidambaram admitted as much in his remarks to the media. He said:
“Realistically an absolute majority is difficult for any party. But that doesn’t mean a party should not aim to win an absolute majority.”
This sounded as pathetic as whistling in the dark. The truth is that without addressing the problem of a flawed instrumentation for governance there is no hope for any real respite for the public.
It is welcome that in her speech Mrs. Gandhi acknowledged the current change brought about in India by a rising middle class, the spread of information and the growth of youth power that have altered the nature of politics. What Congress leaders require to equally recognizing are the historic changes that brought about the decline of their party.
Briefly, the Congress began as a freedom movement that was federal in character co-opting diverse elements in a common struggle. Socialist, conservative, Muslim and Sikh organizations were equal participants in the movement. After Independence the Congress became an exclusivist political party. That was after Mahatma Gandhi had urged the Congress to dissolve itself as an electoral party. Sikh participants in the freedom struggle belonging to the Akali Dal were debarred from using the Congress election symbol unless they quit their party and joined the Congress. That is how Pratap Singh Kairon and others became Congressmen. With time the filial sentiments of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi converted the Congress from a political party into a dynasty. That replaced a culture of democracy by one of royalty.
That is what obtains today. That is what has influenced the inner working of many smaller parties across the nation. That is what is becoming painfully incompatible with the attitude and aspirations of a rising new generation influenced by the Internet.
Two challenges require attention. A new, better informed younger India needs appropriate decentralization of power at the state level. A rising potential globally participating India requires greater cohesion and focus at the central level. These twin requirements can be met only by establishing a proper federal organization that can address both objectives as a single entity. That is what the Congress leaders confabulating in Jaipur have to accomplish if they seek any real future for their party. Before introducing systemic reform the party must create the adequate political instrument to usher it.
In other words Mrs. Gandhi and her colleagues must abandon all thoughts of reviving the old Congress. They must consider how to reinvent a new Congress. That will be done best not by literally following Mahatma Gandhi’s dictum to dissolve the Congress. It can be done by modifying that advice. The Indian National Congress must convert itself into the Indian Federal Congress by co-opting all its regional allies and new allies into a united federation that allows autonomous functioning at the state level and disciplined functioning at the central level. That would require a common election symbol for parliamentary elections by all partners. Even if that requires a new symbol approved by all the federating parties the Congress should not hesitate. The party has already changed its election symbol on three occasions. There is no reason why it cannot do it for the fourth time. Senior leaders of the party are unlikely to dare such change.
But what about the younger elements who comprise almost half the 345 delegates at the Jaipur session? Will they assert themselves for a real change in the politics of the nation? They provide the slender hope.