Once a force of nature, Congress decays as it careers off course

The Congress lurches from crisis to crisis, at a time when it should be working towards revival and acting as an effective Opposition. The fact that the grand old party seems less concerned about keeping its ranks intact than demanding the return of the prodigal, Rahul Gandhi, strengthens the perception that it will find itself marginalised on the national scene.

The prospect of a 'Congress-mukt Bharat' is disturbing, for two reasons. First, democracy needs a vibrant opposition. Second, the forces that fill the vacuum left by the Congress may not be conducive to peace and harmony.

The Congress is the devil we know and for all its flaws, it is a comforting presence, a marker of continuity and a reminder of Independence and its precious freedoms. The Congress may have lost its way, but its spirit remains. Although the party's footprint has shrunk, its values have permeated the political sphere and set standards for all other parties.

The current strength of the Congress is less than 10 percent of the Lok Sabha, which means it cannot even claim the post of 'leader of the Opposition'. Nor, in the absence of dynamic leadership, has it proved a constructive Opposition. What's more, Rahul Gandhi's erraticism reconciles even BJP-baiters to Narendra Modi. But that does not mean the party has outlived its utility.

India prides itself on a vibrant democracy, which demands a strong Opposition. The fear that any government, left unchecked, will assume an authoritarian aspect is very real. As eminent author Frank Herbert wrote, governments that endure will tend to “act exclusively in the interests of the ruling class — whether that class be hereditary royalty, oligarchs of financial empires, or entrenched bureaucracy”. Hence, the need for a strong and liberal rival to exert a countervailing influence.

If the Congress is in no position to challenge a hegemonistic BJP, who will? The only forces that have dented the BJP's composure in recent years belong to the far-Left – hardly the liberal alternative the country needs. A strong Opposition is a safety valve, an outlet for social tensions that could otherwise assume dangerous proportions.

At the regional level, strong and viable alternatives to the national parties are thriving. Currently, nine states (outside of the north-east) boast regional chief ministers. Recent experience has shown that forging a coalition that can take on the NDA in a national election is near-impossible in the current scenario. Nor have the regional forces shown any capacity to expand beyond the borders of their respective states.

The decline of the Congress can be arrested only through democratisation. The 'spirit' of the party does not lie in its directionless leadership, but in its workers and in recent years, the gap between the grassroots worker and the high command has widened. The party workers attach themselves to a state satrap, who looks after their interests and motivates them. If the leader quits, they follow him, leaving the Congress weaker. At one time, they could have been replaced, but no longer.

The Sachin Pilot imbroglio underlines the insouciance of the party high command. Just last year, he was proposed as possible president of the 135-year old party. The widespread perception that he is a hapless victim of the old guard has evoked disappointment and disgust within the party.

Jyotiraditya Scindia's exit was preceded by a long period of courtship with the BJP, which was grist for the gossip-mills. Six months before the fact, bets were being taken about when he would take the final leap, so it came as no surprise. The Congress leadership appeared to be philosophical about his departure.

In Pilot Jr's case, gossip has centred around his troubles with his boss, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, rather than his playing footsie with the BJP. The party high command seemed unconcerned, until he rebelled, in what was clearly an act of desperation. The tragedy is compounded by the fact that Sachin was the most promising of the dynasts in the party. He worked hard to make the rural connect and was credited with the party's 2018 victory in Rajasthan.

The current crisis reinforces the sentiment that the Congress does not value merit and hard work. All but hardcore family loyalists acknowledge that the absence of upward mobility and the domination of old guard deters youth from joining or staying with the party. Switching to the BJP or a regional party opens up avenues that the Congress lacks.

Sonia Gandhi once claimed that she was in politics to uphold Congress values and not for power. Hopefully, the party will course-correct and both the Congress and its values will remain a credible force in national politics.

The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.

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