In its long and tortuous history, the Indian National Congress has faced many trials and tribulations. But never before has the image of the 127-year-old political entity been subject to such public ridicule. Indeed, as it gets flung back and forth virtually every other day from controversy to controversy, even otherwise thick-skinned Congressmen are squirming at the unending downpour of muck drowning their party.
Last Friday evening, flipping through the four main English television channels was revealing. On display was the astonishing variety of the Congress’s current woes. In a two-hour exclusive, NDTV offered viewers graphic details of the vast amounts of money paid out by a private steel firm to a certain “VBS”, implicating veteran leader Virbhadra Singh, the party’s spearhead in next month’s assembly polls in Himachal Pradesh. Times Now, meanwhile, was alternating between a Haryana Congress leader’s absurd remark that 90 per cent of raped women in the state had asked for it, and the antics of a gun-brandishing Congress MP in Gujarat. Headlines Today focused on its own sting operation exposing the shenanigans of Union law minister Salman Khursid’s charity trust for the handicapped. Even CNN-IBN offered no respite—it had just unearthed some fresh dope on the dubious real estate deals of Robert Vadra!
Much worse is the hostility towards the Congress on social media platforms like Twitter. The choicest invective, often in poor taste, is hurled at members of the Gandhi family, the PM and his ministers, along with Congress leaders and spokespersons. On the other hand, it has also inspired some brilliant satire in web magazines like Unreal Times, which almost daily brings out rollicking spoofs on the Gandhis and Congress luminaries. These, in turn, are relayed in a flash on Twitter and Facebook.
The print media has been less explicit in their critique, but brought no real relief. There has been the unholy sight of a senior cabinet minister almost coming to blows with reporters of the India Today group, abusing its chairman and filing defamation suits worth several hundred crores, that would ensure the antagonism of at least one major media outfit to the ruling dispensation. Moreover, even staid and sober dailies like The Hindu have chosen to take the lead in publishing fresh follow-ups to the Khurshid trust scandal and about attempts by the Haryana government to scuttle investigations into Robert Vadra’s land deals.
Congress leaders privately lament that the party did not have to fight on so many fronts even during the stormy days that led to the Emergency crackdown in the mid-’70s, or the political turbulence that accompanied the Bofors scam in the late 1980s. One big difference is that there were no 24/7 news channels to hound the government then. Nor was there cyberspace to vent anger for the urban middle class, which itself has burgeoned to a more vociferous, demanding group. A more crucial difference may well lie in the comfortable majority held by the Congress when it faced similar challenges in the past, compared to the vulnerable minority government the party leads with unreliable outside support today.
Yet, there is another vital distinction from the past. On previous occasions when the Gandhis and the Congress had come under attack from the middle class, they had taken shelter behind the claimed support of a wider constituency—the poor and oppressed of India, who supposedly still believed in the party and its leadership. Even such rhetorical bluster is missing today. Instead, we have Vadra’s wisecracks about the “Mango People” and Khurshid’s tantrums about “people of the street” and “guttersnipes”, both betraying a certain elitist arrogance and disconnect from common folk that has characterised the Congress in recent years. Thus the party leadership has allowed Arvind Kejriwal not only to capitalise on middle-class disenchantment but also represent the aam aadmi.
Where does this all leave the Congress? The party leadership will be fooling itself if it seeks consolation from Kejriwal’s potshots at the BJP and other parties on corruption. Make no mistake, regardless of the maverick leader’s assertion that all political parties were greasing each other’s palms, it is the Congress which will pay the heaviest political price. There is an overwhelming public perception today that the party—mainly because it is seen as the ancien regime that has ruled the country for decades and for its present long stint—is the mother of all corruption.
It remains to be seen how long a regime can rule after being so visibly stripped of credibility among the middle-class intelligentsia, and without the buffer of a wider support base. Perhaps it may be better for all concerned that the denouement comes sooner rather than later.
(Ajoy Bose is the author of Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati)