1-7 March 2013 #645

Can Rahul revive the Congress?

The NC and UML in Nepal may want to look at how Rahul Gandhi confronts the challenges of the Indian National Congress
Ajaz Ashraf
For all the fanfare of the formal anointing of Rahul Gandhi as the new, young leader of the Congress in India, the party faces challenges dating back to more than two decades when his father, Rajiv, was alive. Can Rahul’s Congress retrieve the party’s social base which various groups have cannibalised in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar bordering Nepal?

In many ways, the challenge the Indian National Congress faces echoes that of the Nepali Congress and UML in Nepal because of the rise of new social forces and emergence of new political groups. There might be a lesson for the NC and UML to learn how the Indian National Congress under Rahul confronts the challenges.

The decline of Congress in India was because it failed to evolve to the issues of OBC (‘Other Backward Castes’, or middle castes) reservation and the Ram Janmabhoomi movement 20 years ago. It did not stridently support reservation, fearing it would alienate the upper castes and middle class. Nor did it demonstrate an appreciable resolve to counter Hindutva forces that challenged secularism.

Consequently, the social alliance of upper castes, Muslims, and Dalits that the Congress had assiduously forged over the decades splintered overnight. Broadly, the upper castes in the two states embraced the BJP, the Muslims opted for the different variants of the OBC-dominated Janata Dal, and the Dalits flocked to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

The Congress did not take countervailing measures, believing the allure of the politics of identity would diminish over time. Yet the waning of the politics of identity and the rhetorical shift to development haven’t triggered a Congress revival in the Hindi heartland. It is a riddle to many why the Congress in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar has failed to reap electoral dividends from its wide array of social welfare measures.

This failure arises from the inability of the Congress to identify and court a dominant caste or social group, numerically significant and economically powerful, which could become the nucleus of its new social alliance. Such a dominant caste could help knit together a network of social groups deriving benefits from government schemes and harness it to the party apparatus.

Predominantly upper caste, the propensity of the Congress is not to think of any other social groups as a possible nucleus. The upper castes in Bihar have coalesced around the BJP and in Uttar Pradesh they have tended to swing between the BSP and the Samajwadi Party (SP), depending on who promises to protect their interests before every election.

The challenge before Rahul’s Congress, therefore, is which of the dominant social groups it should latch on to. This is a complex task in a society that has been increasingly radicalised: to continue with the upper castes as the nucleus runs the risk of alienating a mass of people who are opposed to the perpetuation of the status quo. The history of the Congress forecloses for it the option of explicitly invoking religion to consolidate the Hindus.

The other option is to adopt one of the numerically significant OBC or Dalit castes as the pivot of its grassroots alliance. But then it doesn’t have a leader who has an appeal among these social groups across the Hindi heartland. Theoretically, the Congress can overcome this by two possible methods. One, it can bring in OBC and Dalit leaders through the merger of their outfits with the Congress. For instance, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan can bring with them the social groups they represent into the Congress.

Two, Rahul’s Congress can consciously opt for a model in which the Congress accepts the preeminence of its allies in the state in return for ruling at the Centre. Such a formal arrangement, too, has its pitfalls. For one, the possibility of rebuilding the party at the state-level will shrink and make it susceptible to the demands of its allies.

But contradictory pulls and pressures are built into any coalition. In fact, it can be argued, that its debilitating impact can be limited through a formal, enduring arrangement between the Congress and its allies. Symbiotic relationships, after all, tend to check brinkmanship.

Ultimately, Rahul has to ensure that the aspirations of the rising social classes are met and power is widely dispersed which is also the challenge of the NC and UML in Nepal.

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