In the last six months, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has chalked up win after win in state and local elections, reflecting a continuation of the national Narendra Modi wave that began with the 2014 general election. In response to continuing electoral embarrassment, leaders of the Congress Party, including most recently Jairam Ramesh and Mani Shankar Aiyar, have admitted that the party is facing an “existential crisis” and needs introspection. Albeit belatedly, some have begun to understand that the party looks more and more like a sinking ship, and may fall into obsolescence if it gets trounced by the BJP again in the 2019 general election.
However, despite being long overdue, such introspection seems to be anathema to the Congress Party. Many members of the party did not appreciate Jairam Ramesh’s call for new ways of thinking. Their oversensitivity to such comments reflects how deeply ignorant they have become of the party’s current predicament and its likely fate in the 2019 elections. The party’s responses to the recent crises in Bihar and Gujarat epitomize this deep-seated malaise and refusal to understand the truth.
When Nitish Kumar decided to abandon his alliance with the Congress and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar, and form a new government with the BJP, the Congress wasted no time in labeling him an “opportunistic” traitor. Nitish was quick to see which party is floundering under the weight of its own mistakes and which is likely to gain more ground in the future elections. While Nitish’s move can be characterized as opportunistic, labeling him a traitor does nothing to change the Congress Party’s fortunes. Instead, the Congress should focus on analyzing the weaknesses that led Nitish to abandon the “mahagathbandhan”, and they should clearly condemn the corruption charges against the Yadavs that had become a source of conflict within the Grand Alliance. Rather than wasting their breath on histrionics and crying foul play, the Congress should introspect and develop an ethos of rapid response when discontent is brewing in its alliances.
Similarly, when Ahmed Patel, an erstwhile Congress Party heavy-weight, was on the verge of losing his Rajya Sabha seat following the defection of six Congress MLAs in Gujarat, the Congress responded by whisking its remaining MLAs away to a resort in Bengaluru and denouncing the BJP for using money and power to engineer defections. However, the Congress failed to understand why the MLAs might have been so willing to leave the party in the first place. After all, it takes “two to tango” when a bribe is offered and accepted. The Congress might have been able to avoid this fate if it had been more willing to listen to its MLAs in Gujarat instead of running the entire party from the high command in Delhi. And when Ahmed Patel did finally manage to hold on to his seat, largely by virtue of a technicality, the Congress celebrated jubilantly a victory that was pyrrhic at best. Too much time was spent fighting the battle for one Rajya Sabha seat, while the larger war against the onslaught of the BJP continues to be slowly lost.
The Congress Party is not only ignorant of the massive uphill battle it faces, but also overly enamored with its role as the opposition party. Rather than engaging constructively with the government, they have stooped to constant obstruction. Criticism of the government’s efforts at every instance, without offering any alternatives or policy proposals of their own, reflects ignorance of the adage that we teach our children: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Supporters of the Congress argue that the Congress faced the same (and perhaps even worse) obstructionism from the BJP when the Congress was in power. But this “eye for an eye” mentality is a slippery slope. If the Congress really views itself as the party of our founding fathers, then it should stay above the fray, espouse an attitude of compromise, and actively present alternative policy proposals when it disagrees with the approach being taken by the BJP.
Even in the wake of Narendra Modi’s recent Independence Day address, the Congress struck out in an effort to undermine the Prime Minister’s message. They called into question his “sensitivity” on the Gorakhpur tragedy, his “conviction” on Kashmir, his inaction on intolerance, and his “disrespect” for the founding fathers. Such politicking even on the occasion of our Independence Day shows that the Congress Party has lost the ability to focus on the greater good.
While Prime Minister Modi has continued to successfully sell a vision of “Team India” sacrificing together to build a “New India”, the Congress is wasting time by trying to come up with new sensational attacks. Their time would be much better spent working on an actual policy platform for upcoming elections.
The Congress Party’s strategy for the last two years has focused entirely on denouncing the intolerance that has flourished under the Modi government. In response to concerns of intolerance that are front of mind for urban liberals, the Congress has decided to make this issue its clarion call. While intolerance is a serious issue that we should all be concerned about, this approach to politics reflects laziness that has, unfortunately, become the modus operandi for the Congress. In the wake of any issue or event, when Congress leaders can’t find anything else to talk about, they just revert to often-rehashed remarks on intolerance. For younger members of the party, intolerance is an easy talking point because it is clearly in accordance with the party line. The party has not been willing to do the work to study the real issues and propose new, innovative solutions. As a result, the Congress has effectively become a single-issue party.
To be clear, the Congress’s stance on intolerance is unequivocally important. Intolerance has become a very serious issue that undermines not only the fundamental tenets of our democracy but also our nation’s identity as a secular and inclusive society that thrives on debate. While intolerance was once limited to words and vitriol, under the aegis of the BJP it has spilled onto the streets. Hindu “gau-rakshak” vigilantes now advance their own visions for the future of “Hindustan” with impunity.
However, despite its importance, the Congress’s constant obsession with intolerance is a stance that is entirely reactive. It embodies opposition to what the BJP stands for but fails to affirmatively elucidate a new identity for the Congress. There is no forward-thinking salesmanship of “change” or “progress” or “development”. Many long-standing supporters of the party are now asking on a daily basis, “What does the Congress actually stand for?” The Congress’s approach still relies heavily on appropriating the ideas of our founding fathers and regurgitating them for modern-day audiences, beating us over the heads with reminders that Gandhiji would not be proud of what we have become. However, the people are tired of hearing how great the nation once was. They want to hear a vision of how great it will soon become.
The Congress often argues that dealing with intolerance is a prerequisite for dealing with other economic and development issues. By their logic, secularism is so fundamental to our country and to our democracy that it serves as the foundation for all other progress. However, the Congress should perhaps take note of the implications of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs on voting behavior. Securing food and shelter is ultimately the primary concern of voters before they can begin to think about higher concepts like “justice” and “democracy”. Voters have even become willing to even give up “justice” and “democracy” if it means having a leader who can actually execute on a vision of economic progress and thereby satisfy more immediate, lower-level needs. Hence, for the hundreds of millions of poor farmers and laborers in India, there is a nascent belief that economic progress is perhaps paramount to social progress.
Many of us today agree with the Congress on social issues and we support the fight against intolerance. But that is all that the Congress has offered us. The Congress once used to fight for “inclusive development,” but even that reputation has been tarnished by several corruption scandals and that focus has been lost. Recently, the Congress has picked up issues ad hoc, ranging from farmer suicides to floods in Gujarat, but it hasn’t really suggested any policies to solve these longstanding problems. There is a lot of drama and accusations, but no alternative vision. As a result of this haphazard approach, the Congress Party doesn’t have a coherent economic or development policy that we can get behind. Realizing this, even social liberals tend to abashedly side with the BJP on its agenda of economic liberalism. Hence, the Congress’s hold even on urban liberals is tenuous at best, dangling from one weak ideological thread. If the BJP somehow came to its senses and stopped condoning intolerance, then what reason at all would we have to support the Congress?
Unless the Congress realizes the primacy of economic and development issues, it likely does not have a chance of stemming the tsunami of public support for the BJP. As the Congress gradually abdicated economic leadership over the last several years, the BJP astutely identified and exploited the void. Since 2014, it has sold a vision of “vikas” that has become a marching cry and anthem for the nation. This new economic agenda, which cuts across religion, language, and caste, brought the Indian middle class into the political dialogue and gave them a reason to vote. Since then, the BJP has continued to dominate the economic discourse, while the Congress is mired in debates about intolerance. It is imperative that the Congress now find its own economic vision to define the future of India.
The Congress was once a party with economic vision and leadership. Jawaharlal Nehru led the country down the road of socialism because he believed that its industries were too weak and underdeveloped to thrive without government support. It was his view that the nation would be better off once the state established basic infrastructure and created a strong base for entrepreneurship and private enterprise to flourish. While this view was not without many opponents, the Congress at least had the backbone and execution focus to deliver upon this vision. Thereafter, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, once the nation’s economy had strengthened, Rajiv Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao, and Manmohan Singh engineered an unprecedented liberalization, which unleashed a period of rapid economic growth that continued through the 2000s and enabled the nation’s aspirations of becoming a global superpower. Even more recently, liberalization of the FDI regime and introduction of the GST were ideas that the Congress Party originally developed but failed to implement, and have now been usurped by the BJP. In recent years, the Congress has claimed to focus on helping the poor (farmers) but hardly has any strategies to do so other than increasing subsidies and handouts.
Why is it that the Congress has recently ceased to come up with good economic ideas, and has completely ceded the development agenda to the BJP? Unfortunately, the Congress has become a party that knows how to play politics but has forgotten how to make policy. To address this issue, young leaders in the party, hungry for change, should be given more responsibility and a voice in setting the party’s agenda and policy platform. Continuing to put the same old hands into positions of power means that the party will lack the fresh ideas it needs to compete with the BJP and will remain a victim of its own groupthink. These young leaders should be given the reins to reform, refine, and clarify the party’s policy platform. In addition, the party should try to attract a cadre of talented economists, businessmen, academics, and other professionals into its ranks to help shape this policy agenda, so that the final product has the imprint of actual policymakers, not just career politicians. On each leg of the platform, the party should seek to develop subject matter expertise so that it can propose concrete policy solutions. To do so, the party should constitute internal committees (akin to “think tanks”) on each policy issue and publicly publish reports that clarify the Congress’s stance and demonstrate its competency.
As the party crafts its new policy agenda, it should refocus the debate away from intolerance towards a new economic and development vision for the nation. For example, could the Congress begin to focus on economic policies for the millions of micro, small, and medium enterprise owners and workers who have suffered under the BJP’s poorly implemented demonetization and GST programs? This group of voters has so far supported the BJP, but is likely beginning to discover that not all of the BJP’s policies have worked in their favor. Could the Congress create new policies to ease the infinite logistical hurdles that these businesses face? Could the Congress provide resources and training to help these businesses compete more effectively in a global marketplace that is increasingly dominated by large industrial conglomerates?
This is only one idea to reestablish the Congress’s economic credentials. India faces an infinite number of economic and development issues that all need new ideas and solutions. The point is that the BJP should not be seen as the only party that focuses on economic progress. The Congress should formulate and promote its own vision for the future of the nation. The years of being able to bank upon the Congress Party’s freedom-fighting credentials are long gone. Unless the Congress can transition from being a backward-looking party to one that can sell a vision for the future, it will likely find further defeat in the next general elections. 4
(Riju Agrawal is currently pursuing the MBA/MPP joint degree at the Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he was selected as a Rubenstein Fellow).