The Editor’s request for a piece discussing the way forward for the Congress party puts me in something of a quandary. I am conscious that, as a freshly elected third-term MP, I am hardly a veteran in the party. I am not a member of the Congress Working Committee, nor of any of its decision-making bodies. But as an elected representative of the Congress, I am dismayed by so many premature obituaries for my party.
Let it be said up front: Reports of our demise are greatly exaggerated. The Congress is very much alive and well and retains a significant hold on the affections of the public. That we obtained just under 20 per cent of the national vote hardly makes us an irrelevance in a divided and competitive polity. We are in power in four states (five with Karnataka) and retain a pan-national presence second to none. Yet, to be reduced to 52 seats in the Lok Sabha is sobering and points to the need for a course correction. What might that consist of? Here are nine suggestions embracing both policy and practice:
1. Decide what we stand for and communicate it effectively and repeatedly.
The Congress’ core message has been the values it has embodied since the freedom struggle – in particular inclusive growth, social justice, communal harmony, abolition of poverty and the protection of the marginalised, including minorities, women, Dalits and Adivasis. These have been distorted and portrayed as pandering to vote-banks rather than as the genuine, indeed visceral, convictions they are. We are the political embodiment of India’s pluralism and have been a strong and committed voice for the preservation of secularism as its fundamental reflection. We need to reaffirm our belief in these values and keep reiterating them at every opportunity.
We made a beginning in recent years with our top leaders eschewing their habitual reticence and speaking out more often, more spontaneously and more loudly, including on social media. Doing so consistently would set an example of accessibility and transparency about our values, our actions, our motives and concerns. If we share our thinking with the people, we will find it easier to bring them to our side. The media-driven mass politics of the 21st century requires open communication, which the Congress in the not-so-distant past had shied away from. That must change for good.
2. Start the revival of the Congress in the states.
We have received a major setback in the Lok Sabha, but there is no time to lick our wounds: there are three important state elections looming just four months from now, in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand. Before May we would have fancied our chances in all three; and there is no cause for despair. The fact is that many voters said they were voting for Modi, not for his party’s candidate. That option is not on the ballot in the state elections. Let us test the effectiveness of our local messaging and our ability to exploit anti-incumbency in these states. And where we are in power, start implementing some of the excellent ideas in the 2019 Congress manifesto, to the extent that it is possible to do so without power in the Centre.
3. Explore pragmatic coalitions so as to strengthen the anti-government space.
It is time to construct a coalition of regional parties in the Lok Sabha to join us in the visible and audible task of opposition to the BJP government. We are the largest national opposition party and must reach out to embrace them in our common efforts to resist unacceptable BJP policies. Political arrangements and adjustments will also permit us to put up a stronger fight both in Parliament and in state assembly elections. We have understandably been concerned not to let our own local party structures in some states atrophy as a result of such arrangements. With the larger interest in view, we must put aside our ambitions in those states where we have not been in power for a quarter century or more – especially UP, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu – and work with the regional parties who are strong in such states.
4. Wield leverage on the central government through the issue of Centre-state relations.
This is an issue on which we can make common cause with regional parties. Non-BJP parties currently control 11 state governments and have a political interest in resisting an overweening Centre. At the same time, we must use our performance in state governments to demonstrate that we are the natural party of governance – the very status that the BJP is seeking to usurp. This will mean sending some of our national stalwarts back to their states to strengthen the party there, rather than congregating in Delhi where they are less needed in the new dispensation.
5. Do not allow the BJP to monopolise the nationalist narrative.
As the party that brought freedom to India and valiantly preserved it for decades, and therefore has critical experience in safeguarding India’s national interests, the Congress must proudly articulate its own nationalism and remain vigilant on security and foreign policy issues that could be mishandled by the BJP government. Though our tradition is that political differences stop at the water’s edge and that foreign policy is India’s, not any one party’s, we must not allow the BJP to use its governmental position to be identified as the sole protector of Indian national pride, which we may define very differently.
6. Be a constructive opposition inside and outside Parliament.
Being constructive does not imply meek surrender to the BJP majority. But knee-jerk opposition for the sake of opposing (the style adopted by the BJP during UPA rule) will put us out of sync with the mandate given again by the people of India to Narendra Modi and invite public rejection. There is a broad sentiment in the country saying “the Congress have ruled for so long, why won’t they give him a chance?” Especially in the initial phase of his second term, it is in our interest to co-operate whenever the government lives up to Modi’s conciliatory pronouncements and truly governs for the benefit of all Indians, but to oppose him robustly whenever he pursues a sectarian or divisive agenda.
7. Devote most of the party’s attention to the grassroots.
The Congress is rightly accused of having lost touch with the grassroots in many states. We must focus more on panchayat and local government elections, and pay more attention to the petty problems of governance and corruption that beleaguer most Indians and which voters blamed us for when they occurred under our rule. Democracy is not just about elections every five years, but also about what happens to the daily lives of ordinary citizens between elections. We have to return to the ethos of politics as social work for those who cannot help themselves.
8. Promote inner-party democracy and rein in internal dissent.
Rahul Gandhi has been consistently right on this. Open up the party to internal elections for its key positions, including membership of the CWC. Allow, indeed encourage, the emergence of local, state and regional leaders, ratified by periodic votes of party members. At the same time, crack down severely on the disloyalty and dissidence stoked by those who put their personal ambitions above the party’s interests, a habit visible in many places during the recent elections. When such behaviour occurs against elected leaders, it is easier to discredit than when it is conducted against those who can be portrayed as unelected courtiers.
9. Articulate a vision for the future that embraces the aspirations of India’s majority – the young.
A startling 40 per cent of voters this year were under 35. They need to hear what we can do for them, especially in areas where the Modi government has so far failed them, like education, skill development, and job creation. We need to implement policies in these areas in the states we rule and then advocate them at the Centre. Young Indians must believe we understand their aspirations and can be trusted to promote them in government.
These suggestions are by no means an exhaustive list. But in my view, they offer some pointers to the way forward for India’s oldest, most inclusive and most experienced party to restore its past glory.
The author is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied History at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 18 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is The Paradoxical Prime Minister. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor. Views are personal.