There have been two views among opposition parties on how they should respond to the ongoing protests against the National Population Register, the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or the NPR-NRC-CAA.
One view is that they should take the bull by the horns. Ignoring it would be suicide. The NPR-NRC-CAA trio has the potential to disenfranchise many Muslims and reduce opposition votes. So, it affects opposition parties most directly in the long run.
The other view is that NPR-NRC-CAA is yet another Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ploy to polarise voters along Hindu-Muslim lines. Proponents of this view believe that opposition parties should let students and Muslim groups fight the CAA fight. The opposition itself must concentrate on economic and development issues to take on the Narendra Modi government.
Pinarayi Vijayan of Kerala and Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal have taken the first view. Hemant Soren in his election campaign in Jharkhand and now Arvind Kejriwal in his Delhi election campaign, have both taken the second view.
There are pros and cons to both these approaches. But the point is, one must take a decisive approach and push it in a big way. The most important strategy is to have a strategy.
Neither here nor there
The Congress party seems to have both views within it, as any party would. But it is not clear which view it wants to take. Almost a month after the CAA was passed in Parliament, the Congress is not the face of the opposition to the law.
If the Congress party was taking the other view, of cornering the government on economic and development issues, then it should have used the moment to launch a strong campaign in that direction. By launching a solution-driven campaign, such as one asking for a minimum basic income for India’s poor, the Congress would have been able to show it is a party that talks solutions — while the BJP is creating problems.
Once you are able to put the BJP and the Modi government on the mat on economic and development issues, then the BJP’s Hindutva moves like NPR-NRC-CAA will appear to be coming not from strength but from desperation. That is why the second strategy can be wildly successful, especially on the polling booth. Hemant Soren just showed us as much, and Arvind Kejriwal is perhaps about to demonstrate it as well.
Yet the Congress has taken neither of these approaches fully. It talks about how the poor will be the worst hit by NRC, makes token visits to those affected by police brutality in CAA protests. The Congress organises its own protests but even Asaduddin Owaisi’s protest in Hyderabad gets more attention. The Congress says it opposes NRC but its five chief ministers are too afraid to say their states will suspend NPR work, or pass a resolution in the state assembly against the CAA as Kerala has done.
The neither-here-nor-there problem of the Congress party is what gives the impression it is doing nothing, even as it may be doing something or the other every day.
The lack of clarity in the party’s approach is a direct result of its leadership crisis at the top. Between the so-called old guard and new guard, the party remains a slow and inchoate decision-making machinery. Since there is no all-powerful leader at the top to make a final decision, the Congress looks like it’s trying to do everything, and, as a result, doing nothing at all.
The popular perception is that there are two camps in the party but there may well be three. Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi are three different individuals with their own coteries around them. And they may have different ideas of politics, different objectives to achieve.
Sonia Gandhi’s objective is to establish Rahul Gandhi’s career. Rahul Gandhi’s objective is to establish he’s not the wrong one but the wronged one, the sinner being the “old guard”.
Priyanka Gandhi’s objective is also to help establish Rahul Gandhi’s career and to revive the Congress in Uttar Pradesh at the same time. Trying to save the Congress, save her brother, play the game in UP, manage the differences between old and new guard — she’s trying to do everything and will end up doing nothing.
That is why her political interventions are episodic and not a sustained campaign with a defined end goal. Even in Uttar Pradesh.
In other words, it is no one’s objective in the Congress party to try and get the better of Narendra Modi. They’re trying to defeat each other and not the BJP.
If instead of three people, the Congress was being run by only one of them — any one, even Rahul Gandhi — it would be a much stronger party.
Abdication of responsibility
In the first week of the protests, Rahul Gandhi was in Seoul. As a result, the Congress did not do any big protest, completely losing the opportunity. Priyanka Gandhi’s India Gate appearance was a flop show with no crowds mobilised.
They waited for Rahul Gandhi to return to do an event for which the Delhi Police denied permission. So, they happily didn’t try to defy the police and court arrest like other protesters were doing. They took a little trip to UP and were sent back by the UP Police. Instead of sitting on a dharna for their democratic rights to travel and protest, they happily returned. They had the Christmas party to attend to the next day.
What we get in the end — be it in Raj Ghat or in Congress-ruled state capitals — looks like lip service. No one can say the Congress didn’t protest, but did its protests make any difference to the political landscape? No.
No one can say the Congress didn’t try to steer it away from looking like a Hindu-Muslim issue. But did it succeed? No, it is the protesters who used the Indian flag and the Constitution to do that.
Unable to resolve its own leadership crisis, the Congress party is failing to stand up even for its own voters before an increasingly authoritarian government. When the history of these times is written, this abdication of responsibility by India’s main opposition party will be noted.
Views are personal.