Whatever the party’s many failings, it is hard to see the Congress as a straitjacketed Stalinist outfit in which free speech is frowned upon
The process to elect the Congress president after a hiatus of two decades is well under way. This is a notable event in our political life. In what ways will the party change after the election when the Nehru-Gandhis will not be in formal authority? Will the change reflect the personality of the new president, and if so to what extent? In an organisational sense, does it matter in an all-India party with a deep history that the two candidates are from the same region of the country?
Also, will the Congress ranks feel more empowered with the end of the dynasty? Will the party be differently placed than now in forging links with the various shades of democracy-seekers in the country? Further, can changes in the party organisation after the internal election pose a more viable challenge to the dominance of the Hindu-primacy party that currently dominates the political space?
These are relevant questions for our politics and political culture but do not find reflection in the public discourse. Instead, much media attention is devoted to the so-called “loyalist” factor in the Congress to the near exclusion of everything else.
The tendency is taken to such lengths that some even assert -- offering no cogent argument -- that the new president can only be a rubber stamp of the Gandhis. Whatever the party’s many failings, it is hard to see the Congress as a straitjacketed Stalinist outfit in which free speech is frowned upon. In fact, the opposite seems the case, historically -- unlike, say, the RSS-Jan Sangh-BJP, or parties of the Marxist persuasion. Debates of all hues have flourished in the Congress, similar to our socialist parties.
The “loyalist” approach attributes to the Gandhis strange magical powers -- bordering on magical realism -- that inhibit the independent working of the Congress. The unstated corollary is that the Congress election is therefore a pointless thing. Oddly enough, the “loyalist” factor is not explored for other parties, not even the BJP where the cult of personality is now in the fullest bloom.
Much has gone wrong with the Congress after Jawaharlal Nehru, in whose last years it was already weakening. Under Indira Gandhi, the party even split. This was partly because she steered it somewhat to the Left, annoying entrenched conservative interests. But Indira remained a vote-catcher except for the break caused by the 19-month Emergency. Her charisma with voters was widely seen as the basis for the “loyalty” factor to emerge at various leadership levels.
With the cult of personality growing and internal party organisation growing shambolic, “loyalty” to the top leader came to be seen as the key ingredient for success in the Congress. But Indira is long gone. Her descendants, who succeeded her as Congress leaders, are not automatic vote-catchers (although Sonia Gandhi’s leadership did produce two consecutive, successful, governments). But, inexplicably, overt deference to the Gandhis appears not to have dimmed.
Parsing the Congress purely in “loyalist” terms can hardly yield analysis of value. The more “all-India” sections of the media even ridicule the Congress rank and file, and condemn its leaders, for being overly mindful of the Nehru-Gandhis. It is supposed that this makes the party unfit to appeal to people of democratic aspiration. And yet when the Congress got the votes in 2004 and 2009, the negatives accruing from the “loyalist” paradigm escaped analysts at the time.
In reality, finding limitless virtue in the “loyalty” angle as a tool of analysis has been demonstrated to be of negligible bandwidth even in the recent weeks since the election process for Congress president began. But this has made little difference to the yardsticks of assessment.
Well-known writer and three-term Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor, who is in the running, seems to be the media favourite. Other than his well-known qualities, he’s seen as not being a Gandhi loyalist. This appears important in media evaluations. On the other hand, Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot, initially thought of as a candidate, was only spoken of as a loyalist. But it wasn’t easy to ignore the political merit of a seasoned CM who had fought off the BJP which had tried to break his MLAs and bring down his government.
There was a twist in the tale, though. This loyalist practically rebelled, choosing the CM’s post over party chief when it became clear he couldn’t be both if he won. Now that Mr Gehlot hasn’t filed his nomination for party president, it’s hard to tell whether he’s still a “loyalist”. In any case, is loyalist or rebel written in stone in politics? Late PM V.P. Singh had been both, and ceasing to be PM went on to endorse Sonia Gandhi’s broad political stance.
After Mr Gehlot’s preference was made overt, every prospective name that came up for candidate was run down as “loyalist” in media analysis. Mallikarjun Kharge, a stalwart Karnataka Congressman who was Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha and is the sole challenger to Mr Tharoor in the presidential race, is deemed a super loyalist. He is easy to make fun of as he is 80 years old, but were he a member of the Congress ginger group known as G-23 (as Mr Tharoor was), influential sections of the media are likely to have been nonplussed, given his self-evident qualifications and seniority.
Alas, our journalism has not been able to duck that fate, anyway. Practically every top gun of the erstwhile G-23 (which has eviscerated since its principal leader Ghulam Nabi Azad left the Congress even after his demand was met) -- the very men from different states who were asking the leadership to hold elections and were earning media encomiums for doing so -- have signed up to be in the corner of the super loyalist, rather than Mr Tharoor, who was one of them. Have they also turned “loyalists”? Those who live their professional lives to inform and interpret the daily world are conspicuous by their silence.
How is Mr Tharoor himself to be categorised? Witty, articulate, intellectual, sometimes overtly democratic, he had this to say in an interview to this newspaper last week: “Our party’s DNA is inextricably tied to the Gandhi family, their contributions, their sacrifices, their charisma and authority over the party. No party president will lose sight of it, and in fact, to achieve the goals of the party, we need the Gandhi family…”
Does he overstate it? In the middle of the election, that’s possible. Regardless, the debate needs to go deeper -- and rely on keener, freer, observation.