The Udaipur match result: Gandhis 1, Congress 0
When the gods and the demons together churned the ocean of milk, in their search for nectar, they had to contend, first, with deadly poison. Eventually, the ocean did yield up a pot of nectar. When the Congress held its brainstorming session in Udaipur, and, for three days, senior Congress leaders churned their ocean of woes, hopes, history and histrionics, in search of rejuvenation, they ultimately came up neither with toxin nor life-giving serum, but with gripe water. Just enough to soothe the 23 Congress babies who have been crying themselves hoarse about not being taken seriously when they point out how the leadership has to change if the party is to survive.
The central demand of the Group of 23 Congressmen, who had found the courage to suggest that the Gandhis were not quite cutting it as party leaders, and had to be replaced with collective leadership, was to revive the Congress Parliamentary Board, a body that could supersede, according to the party’s Constitution, the Congress Working Committee as the highest decisionmaking body of the party, and would contain senior leaders other than the Gandhis.
That demand has been scuttled. Instead, as a gesture of accommodation, the Congress president would appoint an advisory panel of members chosen from within the Congress Working Committee. The CWC, packed as it is with appointees by the Gandhis and special invitees who could never have hoped to get elected, is just a projection of Rahul Gandhi’s ego: each individual member carefully chiselled into a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, which, on its own, has a humanesque shape, resembling a KC Venugopal here or a Gaurav Gogoi there, but when placed alongside other pieces in fitting complementarity, produces a grotesquely amplified Rahul Gandhi.
Rahul Gandhi’s leadership faculties were in full public flow right at the end of the three-day brainstorming session. While organisational elections are to be held by October, he anointed himself as the presumptive leader of the party and putative alternative to the BJP, asserting his corruption-free virtue as the chief qualification for that job. Further, he rubbished regional parties, claiming they lacked the ideology to counter the BJP. It so happens that eight of the Congress’s 53 members of the Lok Sabha have been elected on the strength of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam, a regional party of Tamil Nadu with a distinctive ideology that is tailormade to counter the Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan perspective of the BJP. The DMK has kept the BJP at bay in its region, unlike the Congress in its areas of claimed influence and ideological clarity.
The concrete programme of action the Udaipur session has come up with is to stage a march from one end of the country to the other. This might serve to boost demand for footwear, bottled water and deodorant, but is unlikely to enhance the democratic quotient of the average Indian’s political sensibility. The Dandi march succeeded because of not so much the novelty of the move then as its precipitation of mass defiance of colonial power, in asking people to not pay the salt tax that had been introduced by the British. Another cross-country political excursion that made an impact was LK Advani’s Rath Yatra. It succeeded because of its call to people’s religious sensibility, invoking their support for building a temple to one of the most revered Hindu gods at a site many believe to be the place of his birth. If democracy were a deity and the proposed Kashmir-to-Kanyakumari march were to carry a tooth, a strand of hair or another body part of the deity, it could conceivably invite some interest.
However, at a time when bulldozers flatten democratic rights of society’s disempowered groups, instead of taking such assault head-on, as the CPI(M)’s Brinda Karat did in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri, if the Congress wants its workers to stage a walkathon, it would do little to convince Indians that the Congress is the party to defend Indian democracy.
Ideology is what is expressed in a party’s conduct on the ground. People see the Congress’s ideology not in Nehru’s collected works but in the words and deeds of party workers and the party’s actions in general. The party’s conduct has been to avoid confrontation with the state and the BJP’s overtly anti-Muslim activities, on account of the concern that the party would be dubbed a Muslim party that, after such characterisation has stuck, can be asked to go to Pakistan.
To shirk defending the minority’s democratic rights for fear of being labelled a minority party is to abdicate the party’s core democratic responsibility. To defend democratic rights and be dubbed minority appeasers or to escape that label and retain electoral viability by leaving the minorities to defend their rights on their own — that is not a dilemma but a false choice. It is a self-imposed false choice for the Congress because of past pandering to wholly undemocratic demands from self-appointed guardians of minorities, essentially, the Muslim elite, in the hope of patronising the entire community.
Minority communities must rejig their interpretation of religiously sanctioned conduct to align it with contemporary, democratic values, instead of seeking to diverge from democracy to pursue deemed religious mandates of medieval vintage. The simple reality is that it is democracy that protects minority rights from majoritarian excess. To seek selective derogations from democracy in the name of faith is to weaken democracy and weaken, in the process, minority rights. Political parties must find the courage to assert the primacy of democracy over faith, when faith conflicts with democracy. Rather fortunately, core principles of few faiths militate against democracy, even if certain religious practices do.
The way forward is for the Congress to subsume minority rights within the rubric of broader democratic rights. A practical fallout would be to oppose demands from sections of the Muslims to defend, in the name of religion, undemocratic practices such as polygamy, instant divorce and suppression of women’s rights in general. In Kerala, for example, the Congress joins the dominant CPI(M) in keeping mum over radical Islamist excesses, for fear of alienating the Muslim vote. This must stop. When that happens, attempts to label the Congress’s defence of minority rights as pandering will stop.
Instead of declaiming that the party has the right ideology to defend democracy, the Congress must reveal its ideology through democratic practice. That means political action to advance democracy at every level in every segment of society and in every sphere of social life — every day, everywhere, and not just special campaigns. Clever tweets or sage statements issued to the media by self-important spokesmen are no substitute.
Udaipur gave no indication of any such thinking at the highest echelons of the Congress. Instead, it merely revealed the absence of thinking in those rarefied circles.