What Sonia Gandhi Did In 2004, Rahul Must Do Now

Published: March 16, 2017 13:04 IST
As I found myself through most of last Saturday being battered in TV studios by the election results as they inexorably poured in, there was one illuminating moment when I suddenly understood what this election was about. Asked why the BJP had not found one candidate to contest any of 403 seats in UP, Swapan Dasgupta replied that it was perhaps because they were not able to find any Muslim who "adhered" to their programme. 

Amazing! Of 40 million Muslims in UP, who constitute about a quarter of the population of the state, the BJP were unable to find even one Muslim to field who, adhering to their programme, could win a seat for them. Yet, the BJP won 324 seats of 403. All those who did field Muslims lost badly, and those who won did so because they wrapped all Hindu communities into a single Hindu saffron flag. That was Savarkar's "idea of India" - the marginalization of the minorities to promote the unity of Hindu India. The UP outcome is the first major political triumph in nearly a century of the Hindutva Idea of the Indian nation. It is that which we have to fight. This moment of disaster is not, therefore, the moment to surrender. We have to remain in the contest. But how?

The starting point is to underline that while both in 2014 at the all-India level, and now even more in UP/Uttarakhand, the BJP has made a clean sweep of the seats, our electoral system is such that a clear majority of the electorate - 69 per cent in 2014 and 58 per cent in UP in 2017 - did not fall for Modi, the BJP, or the ideology of Hindutva. This is not new, it is the nature of the system. It was the scattering of the non-BJP vote that handed a clear majority of seats to the BJP. Therefore, moving towards a higher Index of Opposition Unity might at present be the only feasible way of retaining the Idea of India that won us our Independence, and assured our unity and integrity over the initial decades of nation-building in independent India. The challenge is not one of merely winning another election to wrest power from the current dispensation, but of preserving the Idea of an inclusive India that has motivated our sense of nationhood since at least 1857, and certainly since the founding of the Congress in 1885.

The differences of the Congress with several of those who have bitterly fought it all these years are, of course, real - but underlying these differences is a shared distaste for the kind of India that the saffron brigade stands for. The challenge today comes not from the Congress - that is no longer the natural party of governance - but from the forces that seek to secure the unity of Hindu India by "othering" those who fall outside the Hindu fold. It is the unacceptability of their undermining our Idea of India that provides the philosophical basis for uniting the alternative forces who do not accept the saffron concept of a Hindu India, but constitute together the majority of the Indian electorate both at the national and at the state levels.

Till the Pachmarhi chintan shivir in 1998, the Congress believed in going it alone because it considered itself with reason as the "natural party of governance", a role it had won for itself during and in the aftermath of the Freedom Movement. Basically, this was because the Congress promoted the concept of an "inclusive" party in which all Indians had a place, none was excluded, anyone was welcome, and all interests were subsumed in a common drive towards freedom first, then building modern, post-Independence India. That was the secret of Mahatma Gandhi's success in wresting freedom, and then of the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, who had nurtured and given expression to the "Idea of India". His masterpiece, The Discovery of India, traced the evolution of our composite civilization over millennia and portrayed with magisterial brilliance the vital importance of including all sections of our society in the forging of our contemporary nationhood.

Notwithstanding the trauma and communal horrors of Partition, the electorate responded avidly to this inclusive view of India, decisively rejecting in three successive general elections - 1952, 1957 and 1962 - the alternative sectarian or special interest views espoused by the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the Hindu Mahasabha and several others, even though many of the latter were led by men of great eminence such as Rajaji, Ram Manohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan, Acharya Narendra Dev, Chaudhury Charan Singh and CN Annadurai.

That started changing from the fourth general election of 1967. Many of the hitherto marginalized parties of the Indian polity rose to the fore, so much so that it was said you could travel from Wagah on the West Pakistan border to Jessore on the East Pakistan border without traversing an inch of Congress territory. There were, of course, specific reasons for this huge change in the fortunes of the Congress, notably the dramatic defeat in the India-China war of 1962 and Nehru's demise two years later. But underlying the circumstantial reasons was the far more enduring fact that the Congress as an "inclusive party" was no longer attracting the kind of nation-wide endorsement it had enjoyed through the seven decades of the Freedom Movement and the first two decades of Independence. The constituent communities of the Congress accepted that while indeed they had been "included", they had not all been taken forward at an equitably equivalent pace. Some sections and some individuals had, indeed, blossomed and bloomed, but whole communities, such as the Other Backward Classes, had been left where they had been. Muslims had certainly received a measure of security, dignity, constitutionally-guaranteed rights and national acceptance that was astonishing, given the emotions stirred by the slicing off of Pakistan from Mother India, but in economic and social terms, they wallowed in worse conditions than before Independence and Partition, particularly because most well-off Muslims had departed for Pakistan with their carpet bags, leaving behind in India the vast majority of poor and very poor Muslims. But special attention to the special needs of this very deprived community attracted the charge that later led to the spiteful politics of 'mandir-masjid', 'tushtikaran' and 'vote-banks'. In the south, the Dravidian formations leveraged linguistic nationalism to definitively oust the "inclusive" Congress, starting a trend in language-based identity politics that has only gathered momentum into the 21st century, and now spans most of the east coast states and other non-Hindi-speaking regions. 

Thus, for the last half-century, the USP of the Congress as the sole "party of inclusion", encompassing all classes, all castes, all creeds, and all languages, has been chipped away. Specific events, such as Indira Gandhi's stunning election victories of 1971 and 1980, and Rajiv's massive win in 1984 after his mother's assassination, obscured, from time to time, the trend towards moving away from an "inclusive", all-India party towards avowedly exclusivist, identity-based formations. And since 1989-90, the Congress and its brand of "inclusion", as well as its claim to, and self-image of being, the "natural party of governance", has been slowly and surely eroded.     

This is at the heart of the existential crisis in which the party finds itself. Where the Congress sought, and still seeks to be, a party of everyone, many in our electorate believe it has therefore become a party of no one. The fractionating of the Indian polity has left the Congress picking up the left-overs. How fractionated is our polity is well-illustrated by the fact that while the Dravidian parties are totally dominant in Tamil Nadu, none of them can secure a seat in Andhra Pradesh; similarly, the Telugu Desam might carry all before it in AP, but cannot win a seat in Odisha; in Odisha, the Biju Janata Dal wins again and again and again, but cannot even contest a seat in West Bengal; in West Bengal, Didi rules but has not been able to encroach into neighbouring Bihar; in Bihar, Nitish is unbeatable from Purnea to Mughalsarai, but cannot win Varanasi on the other side of the Bihar-UP divide, despite the language being the same on both sides; equally, neither the Samajwadi Party nor the Bahujan Samaj Party have been able, in any meaningful sense, to cross the frontiers of Uttar Pradesh. This is why, even on its worst day (May 16, 2014), the Congress, despite its most terrible drubbing ever, emerged as the largest single party of the Opposition with a mere 44 seats in the Lok Sabha. This points to the need to replace, at least for the present, a single "inclusive party" with a wide-ranging "inclusive alliance", a coalition of the willing, as it were, whose most important common bond that distinguishes them for Hindu nationalism is that they are jointly and severally committed to the quintessence of the "Idea of India", that is, the emotional integration of the Muslim and other minority communities within the composite nationhood of India.

This is precisely what Sonia Gandhi achieved when in 2004 she led her "party of inclusion" into a "coalition of inclusion" - the UPA, a rainbow coalition comprising most of the votaries of special interest politics. It so successfully ran UPA-I that the voters rewarded the alliance with a second successive victory in 2009 that carried the Congress from about 140 seats in 2004 to a new high of 206 in 2009. The existential crisis of "inclusive politics" through the dominance of a single national party was overcome by giving a ten-year further lease of life to "inclusive politics" through an alliance of parties that provided a stable government for a full decade. It was the unraveling of that coalition in 2014, with the Congress fighting it all alone, that brought on not only its own crushing defeat, but that of its erstwhile partners as well. Opposition disunity, not the Modi miracle, was the fundamental cause of the BJP's stunning victory with only 31 per cent of the electorate voting for them. This has now been repeated in UP, where the BJP has won over three-quarters of the seats, but with an overwhelming majority of 58 percent of UP's voters decisively rejecting the BJP. If the Bihar victory has not been replicated, it is precisely because Bihar saw a Mahagathbandan (a Grand Alliance), while UP witnessed a mere gathbandan (a partial alliance). Where Nitish and Lalu came together in Bihar, Mayawati remained separated from Akhilesh. The BJP was thus able to sneak past both (and the Congress), taking the breath away from most its opponents.

What, therefore, is now required is a restoration of the spirit of 2004. Inclusive India lost in 2014 because the rainbow alliance of the decade 2004-2014 withered away. What could restore Inclusive India is for the UPA's rainbow alliance to come together again. There are, admittedly, many hurdles in the way - but not many more than there were in 2004 when "India Shining" seemed to be holding sway. Then, it was a bogus publicity campaign that needed to be stopped. Now, far more seriously, it is the undermining of the Idea of India that needs to be stopped. The incentive to come together is stronger than it was even in 2004.

Also, it is only after this strategic objective is clearly spelt out that tactical issues relating to the composition of the alliance, the sharing of seats, and the nature of the leadership need to be tackled. Sonia Gandhi did it then; Rahul Gandhi needs to do it now. 

Even more important than promoting the composite alliance is for the Congress to put its own house in order. What Congressmen and women need to do is hark back to a long-forgotten Presidential Address by Jawaharlal Nehru to the Lucknow Congress in 1936: 

"We have largely lost touch with the masses and, deprived of the life-giving energy that flows from them, we dry up and weaken, and our organization shrinks and loses the power it had."

What an accurate description of the Congress in 2017! We have largely lost touch with the masses; we have dried up and weakened; our organization has shrunk - and so we have lost the power we once had! Yet, within a few months of his doleful assessment of the condition of the Congress in 1936, Nehru led the party to a massive victory in the first-ever general elections held in 1937. He did so by renewing the Congress as a mass movement and re-hauling the organization of the party. Nehru, within months, brought the party back to "the power it once had". Of course, we no longer have a Jawaharlal, and, of course, we no longer have a Mahatma - so what took the Congress a few months in 1936-37 will take us many years to accomplish now. 

Meanwhile, there are elections to be fought and the nation won urgently back to the inclusive path. For that, Nehru's analysis of 1936 needs to be combined with Sonia Gandhi's pragmatism of 2004. We must needs move in the present context from being a "party of inclusion" to becoming once again a "coalition of inclusion".

Fortunately for the Congress, it does not have to reinvent the wheel. Gathering dust in its mouldy shelves at 24, Akbar Road are a series of "introspection reports" going all the way back to Uma Shankar Dikshit's monumental thesis of the late 1980s that the Congress Working Committee endorsed in full on 4 April, 1990 and the AICC plenary adopted in July 1990. There is also the first AK Antony report - an Encyclopaedia Congressica - covering every state and Union Territory. Some of its more radical recommendations were rejected,  but most of its organizational suggestions were endorsed. The same holds for Antony II and Antony III. Digvijaya Singh was, in my view, quite right when he emphasized on the day of our mammoth defeat that "the time for introspection is over, the time for action is now." Rahul Gandhi has since outlined much the same theme in his statement at parliament. Let's not waste any time crying over spilt milk. Let us move, both strategically and tactically, to giving back to the people of India their sense of our millennial nationhood that is being insidiously stolen from them by forces that cannot find one electable candidate who "adheres " to their programme from among 200 million of our fellow-citizens. 

India is great because despite being 85 percent Hindu, we have among us the world's second-largest Muslim population, making it as impossible in the 21st century to conceive of India without Islam as it is to conceive of Islam without India. 

Jai Hind!

(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)

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