Congress and the invisible hand

The January jamboree was a 'chintan shivir', organised to think about ways the Congress could return to power.

Published: 19th January 2020 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th January 2020 08:04 AM   |  A+A-

The Congress has been routed in two general elections returning with two-digit figures.

The Congress has been routed in two general elections returning with two-digit figures.

A week is a long time in politics. It has been 365 weeks since the Congress welcomed the ‘Rahul era’ at Jaipur in January 2013. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, once the grand patriarch of Soviet Union, said, “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” The Congress party is waiting for that kind of a week since seven years now. It is as if the Jaipur observation, ‘power is poison’, has come to reside and haunt the party.  

The January jamboree was a ‘chintan shivir’, organised to think about ways the Congress could return to power. The ensuing months saw a rash of chilling shivers, following a succession of defeats. Consider the legacy of the ‘Rahul era’. The Congress has been routed in two general elections returning with two-digit figures and if it was not for the alliance with the DMK, its tally in 2019 would have been worse than the 44 seats in 2014. It has fought in over 40 Assembly polls across India and has been drubbed in most. Of the total 4,100-plus Assembly seats in India, the Congress has less than one in four, or just over 850.

For sure it won in Punjab riding brand Amarinder Singh, in Rajasthan thanks to the ground-work by Sachin Pilot, in Madhya Pradesh due to the coalition of Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh, and shrewd tactics by Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh. Effectively, the individuals triumphed over a beleaguered institution. Indeed, the verdicts in the three recent Assembly elections, in Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand, define the state of the Congress eloquently.

The party hashed an opportunity by hemming and hawing on the call to back Bhupinder Hooda and Kumari Selja, a Jat-Dalit combo, in Haryana. In Maharashtra, both the party and its leadership were virtually missing from the campaign. Seats came as dividends of the combative campaign by 80-year-old Sharad Pawar and the places in the Maharashtra Cabinet due to the munificence of mathematics.  In Jharkhand, it continues to yo-yo between also ran and also won. And in the forthcoming elections in Delhi, the contest is seen between the BJP and the AAP while the Congress is barely mentioned.

The fortunes of political parties rest on leadership and clarity of ideology. The Congress expected Rahul Gandhi to grow into the role, get a grasp on the demands of leadership and acquire gravitas. The succession plan of the grand old party is in a shambles — coronation of 2013 culminated in resignation in 2019, the face of hope left the party in despair. His appearance and disappearances have left Congressmen baffled. It would be seductive to see parallels with what Prince Harry is petitioning for in Britain — a unique alchemy of access to authority and abdication of accountability. The flirtations of the scion with ardour and aversion has left the party adrift.

Whether a party flourishes or flounders depends on the connection with the people, on what they stand against, and what they stand for.  Beyond issuing sporadic statements, the party has flailed at making policy accountable to people. The state of the economy is a case in point.  Economic growth, Adam Smith observed, is the grand social outcome of the invisible hand, the aggregation of individuals acting in self-interest. For a party which claimed it did better, the Congress has failed to propose alternate solutions. The party which was in power when liberalisation was unleashed, is yet uncomfortable with free-market principles and struggles to articulate what it sees as the right or left way. The challenge is all the more because the organisation of the Congress is, rather the ‘hand’ is invisible.

For weeks now, the nation is wracked by agitations across universities and cities in almost every state on the acronym soup of CAA, NPR and NRC. The issue of the constitutionality of the CAA is a subject of litigation and will be ruled upon by the Supreme Court. The BJP launched a ‘outreach’ programme, to explain the CAA. Yes, Amarinder Singh has pushed a resolution in the Punjab Assembly opposing the CAA in its current form, as have two other states. But where is the Congress programme to convince people?

What about the NPR? The Congress implemented the National Population Register during its tenure. Congress-ruled states have announced they will not implement the NPR but the party has struggled to articulate its objections. Why not present the format the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance implemented and suggest it is agreeable to that as a resolution?

It is true that the Congress has historically tried to be all things to all people, has been a coalition of ideologies populated by votaries of free market and statist ideologues, by proponents of soft Hindutva and hard secularists. It is equally true that the 130-plus years old party has waffled its way for the past two decades on core principles — the theology of the party oscillating opportunistically to expedient extremes. There is the fog around leadership and there is a miasma enveloping the leadership on what the party must stand for. Politics is essentially a contest of ideas and cannot be just an argument industry.


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