First up, a confession: the only gossip I like is political gossip. Of late, that has left little to no need for my top source of entertainment of streaming high-end political dramas. I am not sure if I quite want to thank the Congress party for failing to tune into my current favourite series. In case you’re interested, it is Baron Noir. Highly recommend it, even though it comes with subtitles.
By now, even I am somewhat bored of the Congress’s gossip that is doubling up as national news. The noise around Ashok Gehlot, Sachin Pilot, Shashi Tharoor, Digvijay Singh, so very many others and now Mallikarjun Kharge somehow seems to be all sound and fury, signifying not very much. If I were a media studies student, I would now riff on the superb blockbuster Succession with last week’s tawdry stories and memes. But I am a historian who takes politics all too seriously. In that vein, and from the comfort of my distant university spires, a different view emerges.
End of Indira’s Congress
It is curtains for the Congress party as moulded by Indira Gandhi. Yes, you read that right. Many of the party’s current stalwarts, especially but not exclusively those huddled under the so-called G-23 faction, cut their young teeth in her era or have been mentored by leaders of those decades. This includes Ashok Gehlot.
This end is not merely a generational shift. But rather a shift that has been demanded by India’s new political reality today. For one, the Congress party, as remade after Indira Gandhi split it in 1969, was overwhelmingly concerned with the pursuit and maintenance of power. Pragmatism or the belief that ideas were only good if they were successful and practical created a distinct and arguably a brutal new polity in India’s history. Good or bad, authoritarian, or populist, some of this is now being debated about her era, at least in scholarship.
In terms of the Congress, what was key is that there was little to no distinction between Indira Gandhi’s massive persona and the party. This in turn created a new kind of politician who was marked by savage self-interest. Indira’s Congress overturned the idea of political work as sacrificial duty that had defined the earlier generations who had transited the party and indeed India from colonial rule, to national self-government. The all too aggressive power-plays in the Indira era overwhelmed idealism or the pursuit of political principles.
The Congress party with Indira Gandhi morphed into a system of patrons and clients as politicians divvied up factions, or sections of society that they represented. Power emanated from her and ended with her. Above all, this arrangement was only possible as the Congress party was the party of power.
In the forty years since Indira Gandhi’s violent death, India’s democracy changed dramatically. Not only has political power been pluralised, it is now distributed along several parties, social groups, and regions. To be sure, the challenge to Indira’s Congress came from highly mobilised social movements of caste, religion, region, and sometimes even just sheer anti-Congress-ism. The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party came precisely as it pursued its exclusive ideology but crucially created a social mobilisation for itself.
By contrast, in the intervening period and despite being in government for ten years, the quintessential Congress party politician remains, with few exceptions, someone who is adept at factional fighting and pursuing and gaining patronage. Therefore, Congress MLAs, whether in Punjab or Rajasthan or Goa, are prime if not easy targets for the party’s opponents. After all, the question remains what is it that they stand for, now that the grand old party is no longer a power machine?
From transactional patronage to ideological faith
Whether or not you want to dismiss them as romantic or useless, principles, in fact, make and break politics. Principles create power. Arguably and in a perverse manner, this is the singular lesson that the ruling BJP has given to Indian democracy. Its ‘principles first’ project for Hindu nationalism has also identified the average BJP party worker as a ‘committed’ political actor. Whilst I am all too aware that it is a cadre-based party with a complex structure in alliance with other organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, at least in popular perception, the typical BJP politician is not up for sale nor in any danger of becoming a turncoat. It has little to do with power. The many now benched ministers and Rajya Sabha MPs of the ruling party seem to be holding their nerve quietly.
This should give the Congress politician a pause and cause for concern. The transacting of patronage between different levels of the party hierarchy is now a withering game of diminishing returns. And that’s true for all in the party, regardless of their position— from the very top to the regional brokers, the media darlings of Delhi, to the faceless backroom operators in party offices.
The two contenders for the party’s official mantle — Kharge and Tharoor — have little in common. Ultimately, it is inconsequential who takes over the vast if now largely hollow Congress party machinery. Without the redefining of the Congress politician, in this era of little power, the task to helm will be fiendish.
The leadership election is a tipping point for the Congress. No, not for its death as that prophecy is as old as the party itself. Instead, it is a critical moment to adjust the party’s default settings to its original inheritance. It is early days for the long Bharat Jodo yatra which seems to be channelling the Mahatma’s ideas of mass contact for the pursuit of principle.
Can the Congress politician sacrifice the search for patronage? Gossip or no gossip, the answer to this question will indeed determine the future of India’s oldest party.
Shruti Kapila is Professor of Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. She tweets @shrutikapila. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)