It's becoming clear that Narendra Modi's call for a 'Congress-mukt Bharat', made back in 2014, when he was the prime ministerial candidate, wasn't just a rhetorical tool but a serious statement of intent.
But what exactly does the expression signify? And more accurately, what do Modi and Amit Shah mean by the slogan? Does it mean the end of Congress as a political entity? By this parameter, it has to be said that they have been quite successful; Congress has been reduced to just 44 Lok Sabha seats, and has governments only in a handful of states. The grand old party has been driven almost to the point of political obscurity.
But even as Congress undergoes a period of existential crisis, as admitted by senior leader Jairam Ramesh, BJP seems insatiable in its desire. Consider how Congress' power-broking backroom czar Ahmed Patel was caught in a desperate struggle to retain a Rajya Sabha seat he used to once take for granted.
Or do Modi and Shah mean the death of Congress as a monolithic patron of power at the Centre, one that created, nurtured and sustained a veritable ecosystem of incestuous elites who tightly control all avenues of intellectual, social, political and economic capital?
As economist and author Sanjeev Sanyal wrote last year in Project Syndicate, "Many countries have powerful elites with outsize influence, but in India, dynastic elites control the top echelons in every sphere of public life: politics, business, the media, and even Bollywood. Many of these dynasties have roots that stretch back to the colonial era, implying at least seven decades of dominance. Every point of leverage — from government contracts and industrial licenses to national awards — is used to maintain this ecosystem of power."
But by this yardstick, BJP has failed to make much headway. Though the sheer political power that it wields has enabled it to corner the top constitutional posts in the government's executive wing, it simply lacks the bandwidth to challenge Left-Congress' hegemony among the entitled elites who still hold sway over intellectual and political discourse despite facing pressure from social media that allows a greater democratisation of voices. BJP would be aware that this is a much bigger and longer battle.
But is Congress only a political entity? A patron and ringmaster of an ecosystem? No. It is simultaneously also an ideological fount. And it is here that it is at its most powerful and hardest to defeat. Any effort to make India truly 'Congress-mukt' must confront this reality. The idea of Congress is synonymous with the idea of India as we know it. And it is here that Modi, who envisions for India an alternate idea, must fight his bitterest battle.
By far the greatest challenge to BJP's rise as the new pan-Indian hegemonic force comes from Congress' rich legacy of icons and luminaries who have collectively defined India's struggle against British colonialism and left indelible imprint on its national consciousness.
Critics might point out that the Congress party that shaped the idea of India as an independent, democratic, nation-state out of an ethno-linguistic cluster of competing cultures, religions and nationalities is long dead, replaced in the 80s by a wing that perpetuated a dynasty at the cost of nation-building. But this is a quibble. For all purposes, the current version of Congress — hobbled, crippled and bankrupt of ideas — continues to enjoy the fruits of that rich legacy, and uses the past as a crutch to mask its present inabilities.
The task before Modi's BJP is to challenge this legacy. This is an extremely difficult project because he must find a way to marry two stark incompatibilities. On one hand, BJP uses nationalism as a pan-Indian ideological platform to spread its footprint, on the other hand, it suffers from a paucity of easily recognisable national political icons, nearly all of whom are tied to the Congress.
It is fascinating how the Modi government is trying to address this dichotomy. There has been a relentless attempt to de-contextualise illustrious leaders such as Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, BR Ambedkar, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and even Mahatma Gandhi from their Congress roots and project them simply as great leaders of nation-building project who were way above partisan party lines and constraints.
This is essential, because it makes it easier for Modi, who has fashioned himself as the nation-builder of India in the new millennium, to lay a claim to their legacy and project BJP as the true torchbearer of nationalism. Modi's job has been made somewhat easier by Congress' blinkered focus on one dynasty to the exclusion of other luminaries in its ranks and the last three years have seen the party making a mad scramble to hold on to Ambedkar or Patel's legacies.
In his 30-minute Lok Sabha speech on the 75th anniversary of the 'Quit India Movement', Modi did not make even a single reference to Jawaharlal Nehru or Congress, which in its AIC session on 8 August, 1942, had passed a resolution for the movement. Instead, Modi made frequent references to Gandhi, Ram Manohar Lohia, Chandrashekhar Azad, Jayaprakash Narayan, Bhagat Singh, Subhash Bose, Rajguru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Sukhdev.
Neither did Arun Jaitley, who in his speech merely mentioned that two former prime ministers have fallen prey to terrorism. This is not an accidental overlook but a continuation of a well thought-out strategy. Consider the number of times Modi and some ministers of his Cabinet have made salutary references to Ambedkar, Bose, Sardar Patel or Gandhi.
This naturally forces Congress on the defensive, and we find Sonia Gandhi or Ghulam Nabi Azad hasten to defend the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty's role in Indian political history and the primacy of Congress and its icons.
But even as it does so, the Congress unwittingly gets boxed into a narrower ideological prism, pushes itself into the past and increasingly fails to connect with the young demography. This consequently reduces Congress' position as a greater ideological threat. Modi seems to be winning the intriguing battle of ideas.
Updated Date: Aug 10, 2017 18:14 PM