After Congress' poor show in Lok Sabha election, Rahul Gandhi must find a new way for party and self to connect with people

The disastrous performance of the Congress in the 2019 Lok Sabha election will prompt many to deride party president Rahul Gandhi, who fought hard to pull his party out of the existential crisis in which it has been permanently trapped. He and his party promise, intermittently, to rise from the ashes, only to collapse all over again. Perhaps the most eloquent example of it was Amethi voting to turf Rahul out, even as he was busy predicting the demise of the Modi government.

Yet another example is the rout of the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh — the three states it had won in December last year. Instead of consolidating its gains in those three states, the Congress frittered away its energies in Uttar Pradesh, where nobody had given its candidates much of a chance. Its alliance with the Janata Dal (S), strong on paper, underperformed spectacularly in Karnataka, where the coalition government is likely to collapse.

Hubris had the Congress reject alliances in some states, making demands its potential allies thought its strength did not justify. This isn't to say that it could have improved its tally, so comprehensive is its defeat. But it does show that the Congress is clueless about its prospects. It was hoping to bag more than 100 seats, but discovered, to its rude shock, that it has added just a handful to its 2014 tally of 44.

The Congress will claim its wings were clipped because of the Pulwama terror attack and the Indian air strike on the terror camps in Balakot, Pakistan, which the people interpreted as the triumph of Hindu India over Muslim Pakistan. This, overnight, turned the electoral terrain advantageous for the BJP’s Hindutva ideology, nurtured and propagated over the last five years. Hindutva, the Congress will claim, washed away Rahul's attempt to keep the electorate focussed on other significant issues, such as the alleged corruption in the Rafale deal, a slowing economy and the shrinking job market.

 After Congress poor show in Lok Sabha election, Rahul Gandhi must find a new way for party and self to connect with people

File image of Congress chief Rahul Gandhi. News18

The Congress should ponder why it took the Balakot episode, with debatable enduring returns, to bring Hindutva back to centre stage. Introspection will have Rahul admit to his own role in deepening the Hindu consciousness and identity. Over the past five years, particularly months before the state Assembly election in Gujarat in 2017, he went on a temple run, flaunted his Hindu identity, and was projected as a devout follower of Lord Shiva and a sacred thread-wearing Brahmin. The 2019 Lok Sabha election testifies that imitation politics, like imitation jewellery, has little currency.

Rahul's self-conscious turn to Hinduism was to counter the BJP's charge that the Congress is pro-Muslim and favours the minority community over the Hindus. There was a political logic for him  to unambiguously portray his religious identity to neutralise the campaign against him and the Congress. But he failed to go beyond the display of his religiosity, about which people, rightly or wrongly, had doubts about, as he hadn't displayed such an inclination in the past

He needed to distinguish Hinduism from Hindutva, create an eclectic religious framework as an alternative to the BJP's and debate whether it was justified for Hindus to nurse grievances, both historical and contemporary in nature. Rahul needed to question Hindutva politics, not simply the performance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

To challenge the politics of Hindutva, Rahul needed to enter into a sustained dialogue with people, to even display courage in questioning their beliefs and actions. The party and its president did neither, apprehensive that they could be labelled anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim. He rarely visited the families whose members had been lynched by cow-protectionists. In fact, after Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched in Dadri, near Delhi, in 2015, Congress leader Digvijaya Singh tweeted to remind people that the ban on cow-slaughter was first imposed by Congress chief ministers in the 1950s.

A party enters into a sustained dialogue with people through an organisation that functions round the year. It requires footsoldiers willing to engage people on ideological issues. The Congress, however, springs to life months before an election – and then slips into slumber. In the years of Congress dominance, its leaders would form committees to repair the periodic breakdown in community relationships. The party no longer has an organic relationship with people.

The Congress is a party that has an upper caste leadership structure, but wants to woo the masses, the bulk of whom are lower castes. Yet Gandhi, in his attempt to highlight his Hindu identity, seldom visited temples patronised by lower castes. It is debatable whether the Congress has a sense of the cultural milieu of subaltern groups. This is largely because the party’s leadership structure is dominated by Hindu upper castes, many of whom are dynastic and urbane.

The absence of a robust organisational apparatus implies its leaders have little clue to the changing worldview of subaltern groups. For instance, the favoured model of the Congress to weld Dalits and the Other Backward Classes to its social base is through accommodation. It is unlikely that social groups will feel satisfied with a few party tickets when their aspiration is for a leadership role and a share in power. This reality has led to the fragmentation of the Other Backward Classes and the emergence of sub-regional parties representing a caste or two.

It is difficult for the Congress to woo sub-regional parties because it is no longer in sniffing distance of power in many states, particularly Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which together elect 120 MPs. Unlike the BJP, the Congress cannot fulfil the aspirations of sub-regional parties for power and participation in governance. The party's base has shrunk; it does not have a dominant caste group backing it in the two states.

For far too long, the Congress has waited for the upper castes, particularly Brahmins, once the party's mainstay, to return to it. But they have remained steadfast in their loyalty to the BJP. In the Assembly elections of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, there was evidence of Brahmins deserting the BJP. But the BJP has managed to stem it by granting 10 percent reservations to the economically weaker sections among groups not in the reservation pool until now.

The Congress needs to focus on other social groups to rebuild itself. This means not only giving space to OBC subgroups, but assigning them a leadership role. It is only then influential castes can rally behind the Congress. But this measure will likely be opposed by its upper caste leaders. The party has to address the contradiction of an upper caste-led party, weak and out of power, wooing subaltern social groups.

As a catch-all party, the Congress cannot exclusively appeal to people in caste or religious terms. It implies that it can widen its base through a social movement. Its leaders, however, are often missing from the site of resistance and protests, let alone lead them. For instance, the Left spearheaded the peasant protests in Rajasthan and Maharashtra, even though it was the Congress which ultimately gained from rural distress.

The significance of popular movements is best illustrated by how the BJP grew because of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and, in more recent times, the Aam Aadmi Party out of the anti-corruption movement. It is hard to think of a significant movement that can be credited to the Congress in the past 30 years, out of which it has been in power for 15 years. It implies that the Congress does not use its time out of power to engage in street politics. It prefers to wait for the people to become disenchanted with the ruling party and hopes they will then return them to power.

Perhaps the Congress will not repeat the same mistake in the next five years. Rahul kindled hope during the press conference he convened to accept the 2019 verdict and his defeat in Amethi. He asked the Congress followers not to lose heart and wage the battle of ideologies. For the Congress ideology to succeed, he needs to create symbols with which people can identify. Think of what the Bhima Koregaon and the birth and death anniversaries of Dr BR Ambedkar mean for Dalits. Can the Congress create powerful symbols through a movement espousing, for instance, composite culture? All that the Grand Old Party offers are the rituals of visiting the samadhis of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi.

The Gandhis have to also take into account the factor of dynasticism that has rendered the Congress vulnerable to the charge of elitism. It has enabled Modi to present himself as a subaltern leading the charge against elites, whose self-serving politics has become the bane of the masses. This isn't to suggest that Rahul should distance himself from politics or the Congress, which, however, must dispel the image of elitism stuck to it. He needs to connect with people in an intimate way, not just speak from the dais or hold roadshows. In the age of social media, he might think of going on a yatra to discover India and himself.

Click here to read an opposing argument about Rahul Gandhi's future in the Congress

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Updated Date: May 24, 2019 10:51:43 IST