It's time for Congress to wake up from its deep sleep, writes Harini Calamur

The first task for the Congress is to fix its leadership booth up, not High Command down. They need to attract new, local talent that wants to change India. Talent from the grassroots. Solving problems at the grassroots. And they need to do this booth by booth, assembly seat by assembly seat, to win at a parliamentary level.

Harini CalamurUpdated: Monday, May 16, 2022, 08:55 AM IST
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The first task for the Congress is to fix its leadership booth up, not High Command down. They need to attract new, local talent that wants to change India. | Photo: PTI

There is a problem with the Indian National Congress. And that is - for a very, very, long time – almost two decades - it has failed to inspire people.

The Congress may have won elections at the state level, or even at the national level, but it was a game of numbers, and alliances. But the victory was because it had better alliances, and a better grip on electoral calculation. It wasn’t about a greater message that voters could get behind, nor was it a vision of India that was very different. The backroom boys running the strategy of parties used this more or less effectively through the 1990’s and 2000’s. It was a process of electoral numbers, negotiations, and alliances based on current interests. The result was fractured mandates where ‘coalition dharma’ ruled, and progress was incremental.

And then Narendra Modi burst into the national scene, and the political landscape changed. He blew away caste and community calculations and appealed to an audience that cut across demographics and psychographics. While the BJP’s backroom boys are excellent with the same calculations that the remaining parties made– the incredible mandate in 2014 was powered by Mr. Modi’s charisma. He electrified voters, gave a vision and direction – and sold his party to the voters twice in a row. And the people voted Modi in with a massive mandate. We may debate on whether Mr. Modi has been able to live up to his promise, but the fact remains he inspires large chunks of the population. And, the Congress is still reeling at this personal charisma at the core of the BJP’s electoral success. Post the losses in 2014 and 2019. It seems to be walking in deep sleep. And waking it up seems difficult.

To say that the Indian National Congress is going through internal turmoil, would be a woeful understatement. For the best part of a decade, the Congress has floundered on communicating its values, ideals, and ideas. And to a larger population, the party seems bereft of all three. It isn’t that they don’t have ideas – some of their policy initiatives are interesting. But, as quickly as they are announced, they disappear from public memory. Their Universal Basic Income initiative (NYAY) – a pillar of their last election campaign, has been given a quiet burial. Their views on industry or economy or indeed labour are buried under tons of rhetoric that says only one thing “we are not the BJP”. Unfortunately, that is not a good enough electoral promise.

As a part of the process of opposing the BJP, the INC has picked up on the same symbolism of Hindu prayers. Almost as if to say – look we are Hindus too, vote for us. But the voter voting for a party for “Hindu” reasons is not likely to be attracted by a poor copy of the original. And those looking for other things – apart from religion – are not likely to find the “religious symbolism” attractive. What would be interesting to see is not what the Congress does not stand for, but what it stands for.

If an organisation is like an orchestra, with different people and leaders playing different instruments creating a melody – the Congress has become an organisation where it seems like each leader is playing a different song. The resultant noise diverts from even understanding where Congress stands on most issues, including secularism. We know they stand for a secular India – but what does that mean in the context of Indian politics? Words and actions do not match up, as electoral calculations take precedence over values. A case in point was the rather muted reaction to the ‘Burqa Ban’ in Karnataka. There was lip service to standing up for the rights of girls to wear what they choose, but action – that may upset electoral calculations – was lacking. And two sets of audiences – those who supported the ban and those who opposed it – were left scratching their heads on where the party stood.

Elections are important. Winning elections is even more important. Because without victory parties can’t deliver what they believe in. But to win elections you have to stand for something – and put that view of the world across. Opposing the BJP is not a vision. “Vote for us, we are not the BJP” may attract those whose vote for the INC is muscle memory. But it is not likely to attract new voters.

Right now, the Congress is sitting in Udaipur in a “Chintan Shivir” (literally a conclave that discusses concerns). At the top of the list should have been voting for leadership that inspires, that can bring people within together to fight to win elections. But it seems to be more of business as usual, with the party at large reposing faith in the current leadership.

The Indian National Congress of the freedom movement was a party that attracted people with diverse political, economic, and religious views. It was a party with healthy levels of debate. Nehru, Patel, Ambedkar, Azad, Rajagopalachari, and many others had vigorous debates with each other while defining policy for India. They found the Congress to be this giant tent that allowed for diversity of thought. The current version of the Congress is sorely lacking both this diversity and this debate. Any attempt at debate is seen as dissent and soon disappears.

The first task for the Congress is to fix its leadership booth up, not High Command down. They need to attract new talent. Talent that wants to change India. This needs to be local talent. Talent from the grassroots. Solving problems at the grassroots. And they need to do this booth by booth, assembly seat by assembly seat, to win at a parliamentary level. Sitting in Delhi and wishing you will win at the booth level in Jharkhand seems to be a pipedream. You need boots on the ground, and talent that can rally the masses.

That intent to attract diversity in leadership; to decentralise power; to allow young leaders to grow seems sorely lacking. In any other organisation, the team that oversaw such disastrous results – as the last two general elections, and a series of state elections - would be asked to leave. It would be replaced with people who would be charged to succeed. Unless success is a mandate, and every aspect of the organisation is geared towards success – success is likely to be elusive.

(The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology, and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty, and filmmaker. She tweets at @calamur)

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