Lessons from Nehru: To move forward, Congress will have to look back

The elections for Bihar are done and dusted and the results are out. Despite exit poll predictions, the NDA, led by the BJP, cruised to a comfortable win. The BJP has become the senior partner in its alliance with the JDU – winning 21 more seats than it did last time, while Nitish Kumar’s party shed 28 seats. For the Mahagathbandhan, while Tejaswi Yadav’s efforts got the RJD to a tally of 75, five less than the last elections, the surprise good performers were the Communists, with a sum total of 16 seats. The Congress, which had won 27 seats in the outgoing assembly, contested in 70, and won 20.

The BJP has bettered its performance during a pandemic-induced lockdown that has left lakhs of people in dire economic conditions. And the opposition has collectively been unable to capitalise on this. While there is a crisis in all the opposition parties, the crisis for the Congress is even more stark. How do they stay relevant in a world where the media seems stacked against them?

On November 14, Jawaharlal Nehru’s birth anniversary, Rahul Gandhi wrote about the first Prime Minister of India, the erstwhile Congress Party president and freedom fighter, calling him a “a towering visionary who laid the foundation of our country with values of brotherhood, egalitarianism & modern outlook” and suggested that “our endeavour must be to conserve these values”. And, while he is absolutely right in prescribing this for the nation at large, the starting point would be to implement Nehruvian ideals in the Congress Party and that could begin with embracing diversity of thought.

When we look at the pre-Independence era, what we see are intellectual giants. Each of them, a scholar. Each of them, a polyglot. Each of them, well read, with deep understanding of both Indic texts and philosophy and western ones. Many of them had ideological disagreements with both Nehru and Gandhi. Yet, they were valuable members of the party, their ideas acknowledged and their voices heard. This is the time the party was at its most effective because it was a giant tent, under which most views were accepted. Subhash Chandra Bose, Vallabhbhai Patel, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, Maulana Azad, Rajendra Prasad and others had vigorous debates on ideology, on religion, on Partition, on communalism, on non-violence, on economics, on society, on reforms and more. There wasn’t one way. There was debate, discussion and a way forward.

This ability to be a giant tent, which allows a plethora of views to coexist, has been gradually whittled away by the Congress, as grassroots leaders got sidelined and replaced with those owing allegiance to the high command. This began in full swing under Indira Gandhi and has been fine-tuned in Sonia Gandhi’s Congress. There is no place for disagreements, or debates. Indeed, both are seen as betrayal.

A case in point was the letter written by Congress Leaders in August warning against the drift in the party, asking for full-time leadership, and elections to the Congress Working Committee (CWC). The letter called for sweeping reforms in the party, decentralisation and other steps that would help salvage the party. It was greeted with icy coldness by the high command, followed by reports of high drama, leading to the leaders backing down. Now, with the Bihar results giving the same message to the party, the murmurs of dissent will begin again.

Rahul Gandhi has the right ideas about the party. He has stated multiple times the need for primaries to select candidates and the decentralisation of decision making. And, yet he finds himself unable to implement these in the party. The reason for this is less his abilities and more the stranglehold on power held by Sonia Gandhi’s key advisers – Digvijaya Singh and Ahmed Patel - who have not won an election in years.

Rahul Gandhi seems to be poised to return as president of the Congress, simply because it seems unlikely that what remains of the Congress will accept anyone else as leader. And if he does decide to wear the crown of thorns once again, he has to clean out the Aegean stables that is the Congress Party, with a very firm broom. He needs to retire senior members of the party and ensure that they are not involved in decision-making. He has to attract talent from outside the party – young people who have the hunger to win and has to build the party ground up. It is too much for one person, and he needs to do what Nehru did – help build the giant tent in which multiple viewpoints will be accepted, respected, and nurtured.

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

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