Reinventing the Congress in the 21st Century

The Success of the Congress in Elections 2004 and installation of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has given a great sense of relief. But the real challenge continues and the battle for the hearts of the people is far from over. Before these events, successive reverses in the Congress Party's electoral fortunes had triggered varied survival responses. There was the usual cry of return to our roots formulations. We have ceased to be the poor man's party was another refrain. An interesting perspective was reflected in the case of a phrase borrowed from contemporary Anglo-Saxon politics Reinventing the party. Interestingly though this proposition was advanced in our case by septuagenarian leaders whilst in the countries of its origin it represented of a 40 generations of politically mobile new leaders vying for top slots in their parties.

In the past several years, there were several attempts to come to grips with changing conditions. The Task Force Report and the Antony Committee Report are the two recent and conspicuous attempts to put ourselves under the microscope. The introspection exercises hesitatingly indicated a need for a fundamental overhaul of the party organization. However, follow-up on the reports has been uneven and sporadic, often overtaken by subsequent events. Regrettable, though perhaps inevitably, a serious attempt to reinvent the congress for the 21st century has not been feasible. This is a task we should have undertaken in anticipations of events. Now it has become imperative, in light of our experience of the past 10 years.

Despite our best intentions and indeed our return to power as UPA. Our national graph has not changed dramatically. Yet the talk amongst common folk is that Congress has a future, it only has to move beyond its past. More than that, Congress should sustain the will to win.

So the critical decision to be taken urgently is weather we can make do with routine repairs and reshuffles or do we need to virtually reinvent our party? There are perhaps five identifiable reasons that have, thus far prevented the possibility of reinvention.

Intellectual inertia and slow response in articulating our political philosophy in a form consistent with the times.
Reluctance to engage in a serious examination of the changed and the changing world around us.
Our cultural propensity for supporting the status quo.
Fear of the unknown.
Inadequate appreciation of the causes of our disappointing performance and growth of the BJP.
For a party with our unique heritage, intellectual inertia is unacceptable and distressing. During the independence movement, innumerable Congress leaders, intellectual giants in their own right, lit up the philosophical and political firmament of our country. They established and preserved their individual and collective stature despite the overwhelming presence Mahatma Gandhi and his inspiring message of ahimsa and swaraj. Twentieth century annals of world politics are replete with remarkable political reputations but none can match the unique blend of thought and action reflected in the life of the Mahatma. Of course even in his lifetime the Mahatma had sensed the danger of inconsistency between the praise showered on him and the failure of his admirers to adhere to the path of Satyagraha. Since then the gap between what we preach and practice has grown alarmingly. Indeed, this conspicuous gap has reduced satyagraha to a faint shadow of its past. Civil disobedience has regressed into selfishly induced civil disorder.

Reworking Congress strategy or reinventing the Congress will naturally resolve around the message of the Mahatma. In that message is to be found the essence of India and the seminal link between the Congress and the masses of India.

But reinvention of the party will require a careful re-examination of the message and perhaps an intelligent reinterpretation as well. With the passage of time, myth, and dogma have repeatedly fogged the vision of all great spiritual movements. Gandhian thought is no exception. Cultural evolution, impact of industrial democracy and rapid urbanization has all taken their toll on our understanding of and adherence to the fundamental precepts of Gandhian philosophy. Furthermore the 1947 political picture of Gandhi versus Godse has cleverly been repainted into Gandhi versus Mahatma. The challenge is to establish the real Gandhi with a reach. Inappropriate use of simple but powerful symbols of political statements of the Independence movement are today obscuring, rather than communicating the message of the Mahatma.

The erosion of the pristine Gandhian credo and our inability to conceive a legitimate and natural successor ideology has left us vulnerable and confused. In some respects, the Mahatma had predicted Nehruji's succession but that too had passed. Civil disobedience had profound moral requisites. In essence the illegitimacy of the regime and the injustice of its laws were subjected to passive resistance. Submission to sanction or punishment Provided intrinsic enhancement of the moral dimension of defiance.

In Contemporary public life, the justification of civil disobedience is sadly overlooked. Laws made by a representative legislature and subjected to a scrutiny of constitutional courts cannot be treated on a par with laws made by alien rulers. Responsibility towards consensual democratic institutions cannot be lightly swept aside by pragmatic concerns about political motivation of the electorate. Demonstration, dharnas, roadblocks, bandhs, jail bharo movement are part of the common vocabulary of contemporary politics. But they often lack the moral underpinning which distinguishes them from civil disorder. The congress president's peaceful courting arrest on the RSS issue some years ago reinforced the primacy and legitimacy of civil disobedience of our times. We need to amplify its reach and profile. Her decision to renuciate the highest executive office has reemphasized her commitment to Satyagraha in a remarkable manner.

Civil Disobedience is an effective shortcut for public opinion building, but we need to examine its limits. More strenuous and sustained endeavor to educate the ordinary citizens must not b wholly sidelined. Blind and Habitual adherence to behavior patterns of the Independence movement needs to be reconsidered carefully in the light of contemporary political conditions. At present we regularly express/encourage public demonstrations disruptive of normal life. These involve considerable resources and subject party workers (particularly the young) to great inconvenience and periodically to police violence. We should be honest to ourselves and admit that police brutality is quite often a deliberately provoked outcome desired for public mobilization. The pervasive cynicism was summed up by a police officer involved in several lathi charges. Some people want to become leaders by being beaten up the police. So be it. Indiscriminate use and overkill in such public posturing leads to severe undermining of civil disobedience as a moral force. Political strategists have to judge tolerance levels in the public mind and the extent of State injustice which will trigger revolt.

The modern instruments of a mature, modern democracy/civil society “ NGOs, public interest litigation, rigorous media scrutiny (both electronic and print) an active human rights movement-make it incumbent upon us to morally justify to ourselves as well as to the country that recourse to traditional methods of protest and public expression, in preference to and perhaps to the exclusion of, constitutional instruments, in essential. To dismiss this view as being defeatist or escapist is not only unfair but also reflective of intellectual poverty. No amount of noise and demonstration of numbers can effectively substitute the need for an intellectual framework for political choice and assertion.

Reinventing the congress will involve charting the philosophical and ideological map afresh, taking the Gandhian moral benchmarks for their personal value but harmonizing them with emerging modern political architecture. If a careful and sensitive re-reading of Gandhian thought throws up (as I believe it will) foundations for contemporary institutions as well. Our sense of history will be reinforced in a wholesome manner.

Gandhi's relevance to modern industrial democracy in India appears to have diminished, not because of inherent limitation, but due to the superficiality of our understanding of his thought. India needs a unique combination of the spiritual with the practical. That is indeed the essence of Gandhian ethos. The moral high ground retains its significance in India politics despite the unprecedented growth of baser concerns. Having stood by it through good and bad times, now that disenchantment with politicians is at its greatest and cynicism pervasive we should make a bid to occupy the high ground exclusively. We have paid the price of being relatively clean and ethical. We should now make it our unique selling point ( USP). There will of course be some very hard decisions but we must learn to be tough on Principles. Sleaze must not have a home in the congress.

Once the ideological map has been drawn up, we will need to concentrate on the architecture of institutions. We have to meet the criticism that the reduced itself to an election machine and that too not for a very efficient one. A vigorous political party offers working conditions that offers ensure status and opportunity to its leaders and workers in parallel and equal to elected offices. To become an MP or MLA should be a desirable goal but not the be-all and end-all for party workers. The Indian parliament in our times is not the most effective forum for public debate and social service. Giving recognition and precedence in the party to leaders who opt to serve outside legislatures would have a very salutary impact. Our part has a spectrum of talent “good parliamentarians, good constituency representatives, experts in different fields such as economics, defense, education, etc, field such as economics, defense, education etc, field workers, trade unionists and political thinkers. The party should spread the focus of its attention and favor much wider, keeping to mind the job to be done.