One slogan for Udaipur: Carpe Diem
If the Congress has to get out of this morass, it must take a standing leap. A touch of surprise, even the buzz of a minor shock treatment, would not be amiss.
What brainstorms will hit Udaipur as the Congress pantheon engages in collective contemplation this weekend? Rahul Gandhi and senior leaders will be on view riding a train into town even as you read this—a nice touch for the photographers, indicating a desire for a public connect rather than one of reclusion. But the mode will soon shift to self-reflection. That is the idea, after all, even if it is accompanied by the sounds of robust debate and controlled dissent.
Over the three days of the chintan shivir, the temperatures outside in southern Rajasthan will be in the 42–43 degree Celsius range. The air will be partly cloudy, both inside and outside. But if the churning of the oceans does not throw up anything more than a cipher—a relapse into the old ways of manufactured consensus, delivered via bland, pasteurised statements by party spokespersons—a real chance would have been lost.
For, the fact is that the present organismic crisis of the Congress—which attends both its body and mind, its structure and function—is so deep that there is an opening in what has hitherto been largely a closed space. Despite the bad name the excessive control of the Indira years brought, the party organisation is traditionally not a closed, dictatorial system—its satraps and second-rung leaders were partly autonomous entities, with their own mini-ecosystems, independent trajectories, ambitions, friends in the media, all set in a slightly out-of-control framework of endless factional feuding. A picture that generated ennui but one that was, paradoxically, a sign of its vitality, a mode of being.
It was the centre that held it all up that was a cryptic enclosure. And the torchlight that is shining now is making that space visible, subject to scrutiny and open to wider claimancy.
This is a positive moment, and must be seized. Neither the First Family nor its army of loyalists need to view this openness with alarm, or as a veto against it. Sonia Gandhi, as interim president, has of late been seen making concerted moves to bring things towards a resolution, using all the political skills she has acquired over the last two-and-a-half decades. That presence has enduring value, as even Prashant Kishor’s idea that she continue as UPA chairperson suggested.
Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi are not about to be deleted out of the centrality of their presence either—both have a future, in the immediate sense and over the long term, as core Congress figures speaking to a new India. Enfolding another vital presence into that space will not automatically mean something bad—instead, it has all the chances of vastly improving the party’s health indices.
The Congress labours under, and exudes, a sense of inertia and stasis. It is usually found to be unable to gather its wits around on most counts. Nor is its ability to self-inflict damage any breaking news. If the party has to get out of this morass, it must take a standing leap. A touch of surprise, even the buzz of a minor shock treatment, would not be amiss.
But how and what? Leaving aside the centre—the touchy question of party presidentship—what must be examined is its relation to the vast political landmasses out there in the ‘regions’. It’s a no-brainer that the GOP’s visible meltdown in recent years has much to do with two consecutive, and demoralising, losses in Lok Sabha elections. But there’s something that preceded that, and became accentuated by the electoral gloom of recent years. That is an extraordinarily high degree of attrition it underwent in its state units.
The Congress is, ultimately, not made up by its centre but by its provincial extensions. It’s a conglomeration of local, regional satraps, if you will. A kind of centrifugal force has been at play for years, pushing mini-satellites further and further away, till they become full-fledged planets. This has been so from the days when the likes of Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee exited. And with each departure, a section of the party’s support base went. The bigger the leader, the worse the hole in the vote bank. Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Maharashtra and West Bengal hosted buzzing party ecosystems at one time—each was stilled one by one.
In the era of the earlier Gandhis, the universal legacy vote was substantially intact. Indira Gandhi, as astute as you want, had the capacity to absorb the older splits, and recreate the party out of that pan-India vote—even when she was thrown out of power. That vote still survives but the capacity to pivot on that to create a stunning new story is substantially reduced. So it is essential that the party thinks anew.
The Prashant Kishor affair—where jaded, old leaders nearing or past retirement age thwarted change—spoke to only one part of that need. It perhaps showed that the world of political caucuses, the enclosed spaces where ideas moved in circles of committees and subcommittees till they ran out of steam, cannot create a future. But the idea of getting Prashant Kishor in was also essentially a sign that the GOP has gotten so fatigued and battle-worn that it was outsourcing its faculty of thinking itself. Not the best sign of vitality.
Now that they are all getting down to the business of thinking for themselves, they could ponder over one possibility. By looking at a stasis-ridden centre as if it’s a zone unto itself, they may be looking at the wrong place—and making the wrong diagnosis. This is the time for the party to think federally, so to speak, right at its centre.
Executive Editor, The New Indian Express