History repeats itself, goes an old saying. As the Congress comes out of its Chintan shivir, mellowed but still confused, the biggest question that stares the grand old party on the face is-will it, won’t it.
If history is any guide the party needs to remember that Congress was in a somewhat similar predicament, around 100 years ago, when Gandhi emerged on the scene. That was the time the party consisted largely of lawyers and some Western educated elite groups whose protests were limited to letter writing to appeal to the goodness of the British rulers. But people in power are seldom unable to reason, and so were the British.
And then Gandhi emerged on the same. Fresh from his essay in South Africa, his credentials were impeccable and he seemed to be the man for the hour -the right man,for the right job,at the right time. Gandhi was the first Indian nationalist leader who identified himself with the masses, filling the leadership void that Congress desperately needed. He symbolised the poor India, the nationalist India and the rebellious India.
As the Congress struggles to make itself stand as the face of the opposition, there is a leadership question that must be answered. Today also, the Congress needs a Gandhi. But a mere name may not be enough.
Gandhi, it must be realised, was more than just a leader. He was a personality who typefied the copy book definition of a leader as given in classical social psychology-one who is seen heads and shoulders above his followers, yet he is also seen as one among them. The man who knew how to walk the talk. Someone who was believed to have the guts to fight for the right and the rights.
Whatever transpired at the Chintan shivir points out to one very significant reality that the party faces today. It’s growing irrelevance. The Chintan shivir was more of a chinta shivir, an exercise to find out how to reinvent a fighting fit Congress to reoccupy it’s space on the political map of India. It is now or never for the party as the BJP is at its aggressive best when it proclaims to create a Congress mukt Bharat. BJP fully knows that even now it’s only the Congress that can throw a challenge to them at the Pan India level. Congress leadership has rightly raised the alarm, although a bit late.
But mere concern may not be enough. The party leadership needs to remember that some 37 years ago Rajiv Gandhi had raised a similar concern at the Bombay centenary celebrations of the party. In fact, his speech is a must read today if the party wants some plan of action. It still has two years to go for the next Parliament election. And two years is certainly a long time in politics. But plan, strategy and action must be put in place. A detailed SWOT analysis is what is needed.
The one major weakness of the GOP is it’s poor think tank. Congress today appears to be a case study in marketing. Strength wise it is an old and established brand with a pan India presence and credible legacy. There is brand awareness and appeal as a possible alternative.Yet it is not able to position itself as a viable alternative to replace BJP. Quite an irony that despite dissatisfaction with the quality of services of BJP, people still like to prefer them over Congress. Maybe,the weaknesses of the Congress outweigh the strengths. They need to introspect honestly. The Congress leadership has proved to be a poor listener and needs to pick some right men to replace yes men. The hangover of being in power for long could be a reason why the leadership of the party doesn’t listen. The greatest tragedy of the party has been lack of feedback. So those who have access do not know, whereas those who know do not have access. This has to be corrected immediately. Only then the outcome of the Chintan shivir will be of some use. Superficial analysis of the situation will be of no help.
The problem of the party leadership is that it is dependent on coterie.The problem with coterie driven leadership is that their views become myopic.They only like to believe what they want to believe. When Gandhi came from South Africa he took up the challenge of experiencing things first hand. Meeting people, interacting with them and listening to their views is what gave Gandhi a clear idea of how he could take Congress to the masses. Something similar has to be done today. But the difficulty is that the party is not clear on leadership. Who should the mantle fall on.
It is true that someone from the present Gandhi family is a good bet. But identify one person. Let the party know who is in command. Confusion should give way to clarity. And let that leader be accessible. Congress was always a mass based party and never cadre based. Let it regain its original form. Running the Congress like a corporation is not going to yield dividends. Congress has a DNA of its own and it’s better to work on that rather than trying to create new chromosomes. The biggest mistake of the Congress has been that it has given ideology a go- bye and is trying to mimic it’s competing parties. There is no need. It has to be remembered that BJP came to power on the plank that it was a party with a difference. In course of time it has become a party that is indifferent. It is now the turn of the Congress to prove that it is the party with a difference.
Reinventing the Congress is possible and also an imperative. Slowly the people are realising this truth. It is time to make sincere efforts and give the people an option they are looking for so desperately. But the party is not going to replace the BJP by default. Due diligence has to be exercised. It is a do or die for the Congress. And there is also need to understand that spin doctors with experience in selling fast moving consumer goods are no use. Politics is the art of the possible and there is a need to look at the possibilities.This is what Gandhi did 100 years ago. Congress is still the best bet for the country but people have to be made to realise this. And the most important instrument in this is leadership.A Gandhi is needed but a Gandhi who can take the party to the masses not the one who shies away from people.
(The writer is retired professor of IIT ISM Dhanbad and a political analyst)