How can the somnolent Congress be revved up?
Now that the Congress party in India has overwhelmingly elected Mallikajun Kharge, the first “non-Gandhi” as its President, the question as to whether the 80-year old party veteran and seasoned warhorse will be able to awaken the 137-year old sleeping giant to be a threat to the dominance of the BJP led by the charismatic Narendra Modi in the 2024 parliamentary elections.
Kharge has a heavy burden on his shoulders as Congress is beset by ideological confusion, organizational disarray, lack of a charismatic leader, and absence of the killer instinct, in sharp contrast to the BJP.
The BJP’s gung-ho mindset stems from the fact that, with its allies, it governs 17 out of 28 States, covering 44% of India’s territory and 49.6% of its population. After the rise of Narendra Modi in the BJP in 2014, the Congress has been losing States, sometimes even after winning an election because of its inability to keep its flock together in the face of BJP’s machinations backed by sheer chutzpah and unabashed use of State power. The absence of electoral successes has led to demoralization. Recently, 23 top leaders quit the Congress.
During the party election campaign, Kharge was portrayed by his detractors as the candidate of the “Gandhis” – and therefore a symbol of a rotten and withering system. Tharoor, on the other hand, was portrayed as a dashing gladiator, a rebel who wanted to clean the party stables and make it relevant for the young “aspirational classes” Modi is supposedly catering to. The media was also dazzled by Tharoor’s impressive personality, his felicity with the English language, his scholarship and his service at the highest levels in the United Nations.
But still, party voters overwhelmingly preferred Kharge to Tharoor. Most attribute this to his being the “Gandhis’ candidate” as blind support to the Gandhis is the norm in the Congress. But actually, Kharge won because he answers to the emerging political needs.
Kharge is a match to Modi in some important ways. Like Modi,he does not belong to the Westernized social elite. As a Dalit-Buddhist he is part of the hoi polloi, a quintessential symbol of the masses, as it were. As a homespun socio-cultural type, he could have greater appeal to the masses than Tharoor and a potent challenge to Modi by that token. Kharge would also be able to relate to the party rank and file more easily than the Westernized, elitist Tharoor.
Additionally, unlike Tharoor and like Modi, Kharge is a full-time politician with a long career in politics. He is also an election expert having won all but one of the 13 elections he had stood for since he entered politics in 1969. Again, unlike Tharoor and like Modi, Kharge has experience of operating at the local, State and national levels.
Overcoming Hindutva Challenge
But Kharge (like all Congress leaders) has one major disqualification: He cannot tout “Hindutva” or “Hindu nationalism” a major vote catcher for the BJP in many parts of India. According to a 2019 PEW survey, 64% of Hindus (the majority community) said that being a Hindu is very important to be truly Indian. This feeling was as high as 83% in Central India, 69% in the North, and 42% in the South. Congress, on the other hand, is wedded to secularism or non-communal politics, though its commitment to these values has waned due to repeated election defeats. The result is that the Congress of today lacks a clear-cut ideology.
Therefore, one of Kharge’s first tasks would be to provide ideological clarity to party members first and then to the electorate. To get round Hindutva, the party would have to stress secularism, communal harmony and social justice and contrast it with the BJP’s communal and divisive politics and its long term ill effects. Like Modi, and unlike Rahul and Sonia Gandhi, Kharge is an example of social mobility. He has risen from the bottom-most rung in the Indian socio-political ladder to the highest rung in national politics.
Defeatism arising from a lack of electoral successes is another problem Kharge has to tackle. The dispirited party has not exploited its considerable achievements during its stewardship of India from 1947 to 2014 with just a few gaps. The party has failed to tom tom the fact that it started the economic reform process in the early 1990s, brought about the green revolution, and increased telecom coverage from 2% in 2004 to well over 50% in 2014. Its government opened bank branches in remote areas and developed the unique identity scheme, “Aadhaar” to give citizens an identity based on biometrics. The National Payments Corporation of India was set up to create a framework for digital payments. It instituted state-funded health insurance for the poor and paid women to give birth at hospitals, not at homes and started a successful rural employment scheme for the poorest of the poor.
But, as T.K. Arun of the Economic Times put it, the Congress treated these achievements as “administrative” and not “political”, to be touted and exploited in elections. In contrast, BJP governments under Modi launch their schemes with fanfare, give them catchy Hindi names and attribute them entirely to Modi’s leadership so that his charisma is enhanced.
The Congress’ campaigns have been lackluster and unappealing to the intelligentsia, the youth and the aspirational classes because of its inability to use the social media in full, unlike the BJP. The social media are cheaper than the mainstream media which have a tendency to kowtow to the ruling party, presently the BJP.
Congress cadres stir themselves up only at election time. To keep the cadres awake and involved, free and fair elections should be held regularly at the the national, State, district and lower levels so that activists come to the fore, as senior leader P.Chidambaram has suggested. And, as party Communications General Secretary Jairam Ramesh said, party cadres should be well-versed in the party’s policies, speak out on the party’s stand on issues, and rebut criticisms promptly and forcefully.
Lastly, it is suggested that party members cease bowing to their bosses in the feudal tradition. Though there are doubts about Mallikarjun Kharge trying to emerge from the shadow of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, given his reputation as a staunch loyalist, it is hoped that the dire state of the party will force Kharge and Rahul Gandhi to think afresh and make the party fighting fit to face the 2024 parliamentary polls.
The recent Presidential election and Rahul Gandhi’s on-going Barat Jodo Yatra (Unite India March) from the deep South to the North of India, could be signs of a change for the better.
P. K. Balachandran
- K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.