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Shashi Tharoor: Obituaries for Congress premature. Here are 9 ways to correct its course

Congress is rightly accused of having lost touch with the grassroots in many states. It must focus more on local government elections.

Representational image | Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg
Representational image | Anindito Mukherjee | Bloomberg

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.


Also read: Congress underestimated Modi ‘cult’, NYAY was announced too late: Shashi Tharoor


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.


Also read: Nehru-Gandhi family nostalgia is just not enough to win elections in India anymore


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.


Also read: Harsh criticism of Rahul Gandhi unjustified because Congress slide began in 1996


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.

26 COMMENTS

  1. You too refer to our “rule”. The days of rulers are gone. I wish you would separate yourself from the other politicians and use the word administration instead of ‘rule.’ The Congress party needs to differentiate itself from the BJP on economic factors but that will happen only if your party has a clear understanding of what it takes to make an economy grow. A philosophy based on smaller govt, greater economic freedom, rule of law, and personal responsibility should be the Congress’s calling card.

  2. I think the INC should stop referring itself as the party of independence. That was a different era and a different party then. That party had expelled Indira Gandhi and she formed her own party called Congress I, with the the hand symbol and today’s Congress has descended from that, not the party of independence. The stalwarts of that era would have baulked at excesses such as rewarding Jagdish Tyler for his excesses during the Sikh riots. Nehru, himself would have been aghast with where his progeny have taken such a great institution and its time we stopped associating today’s Congress with that of the independence struggle.

  3. No need to work so hard. Even if you do, it might not work. I will share a simple way. Just declare Congress as a Hindu party. Make Ram Mandir, Hindu Rashtra and Uniform Civil Code as your agenda. Throw all muslims out of your party. Let Rahul talk more about Hinduism. Completely, ignore 14% muslim votebank, concentrate on 79% Hindu votebank. You should cut off all affiliations with any muslim political parties. That is the only way you can win elections in 2024. Rest is upto you.

  4. It’s not late than never. If ‘Nyay’ policy is really ‘kalyankari yojna’, why not this be started in Punjab, Chhattisgarh etc. first.

  5. Replace identity politics with Constitutional politics! It would give ample time and space within mainstream landscape of polity!

  6. But also need to understand what you’re fighting. The whole politics of BJP populism is to get a ‘permanent’ 50% of the vote using polarization plus weaponizing any affirmative action as ‘appeasement’, thus getting a large share of the majority to vote as a single block. Most often, this cultural-nationalist mobilization can bypass real issues such as unemployment as happened in the current election, and get large swathes of the poor in the majority faction to actually vote AGAINST their own self-interest. In this way, the extremely wealthy elites neoliberalism has created post 1980 in the West, and post1988 in the second and third worlds can keep this system going, using a combination of thug squads, huge crony capitalist funded smear and divide propaganda networks using ‘friendly’ mainstream media houses and social media, plus generous dollops of bribery (using crony capitalist ‘election bonds’ or Citizens United black money) to co-opt any remaining elite opposition. This is the infallible, unstoppable strategy that India’s Chanakya Amit Shah follows in his state by state takeovers as we march onwards to Opposition-mukt Bharat. Of these, the polarization arm rests everywhere on dog-whistling and stigmatizing the minorities, whether it is in Russia where the KGB probably originated the technique as a way of destroying western democracy as payback for the West destroying Communism, or in Italy where Berlusconi was its first mass practitioner in an advanced democracy, to the second world populisms of Erdogan, Orban, the rising neo-Nazi fascism in Mussolini’s old heartland around Milan,
    Bolsonaro in Brazil etc. India has perhaps its most adroit practitioner and practising party, both in terms of subtlety of execution and the oratory used in its cover-up

    • This is tone deaf elitist thinking. You suggest is that people were fooled and voted against their self-interest. This is classic elitist thinking: you were able to figure out Modi but everybody else who is not so smart was fooled. Every person gets to decide what is in their self-interest. Don’t assume that we are fools who don’t know what is good for us.
      Left has completely dominated the intellectual space for decades and you are complaining about propaganda! We even falsified our history in the service of political ideology. In our English language newspapers, three are pages after pages of write-ups attacking Modi. These papers don’t even bother to present another perspective. They even censor comments. They do this just to ensure that the (simple) people won’t be taken in by propaganda (sarcasm).
      People throw around words like “crony capitalism” without understanding what it means. The fact is that 70 years of unfettered socialism created a suffocating system of licenses and regulations. Businesses thrived by paying rent to politicians and bureaucrats. That was crony capitalism. As an example, read about the origins of Maruti. We are finally moving to a rule based system. There is a bankruptcy code in place. Reliance Telecom has gone bankrupt. Efforts are on to bring back Mallya and Nirav Modi. This never happened before.
      Do you know that young people voted heavily for BJP? This is where all these analogies with Trump break down. In America, older people left behind by technological changes voted for Trump. In India, it is exactly the other way around. Modi supporters are aspirational – they see a vision that will help them do better economically. What you and the left peddle is a story of victimization and powerlessness. It is a story that keeps our left wing elites in power.

  7. i admire you a lot. you are fit to be the congress face in parliament or even the next congress president.

  8. Number one is to eliminate all Gandhi’s from leadership. Leader like Shashi Tharoor should take over. Maybe include Jyotirmay Scindia.

  9. To revive itself, Congress should reclaim the middle ground and try to push BJP further away from the center. NYAY is absolutely the wrong way to do it. Asking to remove AFSPA at a time when the lives of security forces are under attack is the wrong way to do it. Opposing the law outlawing Triple Talaq is also a problem. In other words: Congress has to be much less socialist, more nationalistic, and support a version of secular that isn’t tantamount to appeasement. Now this may appear to be too much for Congress. But once upon a time Congress supported Uniform Civil Code. Congress tolerated a private banking system all the way up to 1971. They even cut Pakistan down to half. So the template for success requires Congress to jettison a lot of Marxist and Socialist and Communal baggage that was acquired in the last 70 years. This is a process that will take years if not decades, but they need to start walking on that path now.

  10. CWC should seriously Consider to rename INC= Indian National Congress to IMC= Indian Muslim Congress as it got seats in the states where the Hindus are in minority—like Punjab, Kerala, Meghaliya Etc. Assembly Segment wise analysis will also show it Got vote in those assembly segments where Muslim are major force. If the renaming exercise is not taken on urgent basis this vote bank will wither away earlier than thought. Flight of Rahul to Wayand gave clear signs to voters how to save himself from defeat Commander of Congress was shivering before Elections and how much Congress and its maharathis were ready for election combat.

  11. “5. Do not allow the BJP to monopolise the nationalist narrative.”

    That is impossible for the Congress. The problem for the Congress, and most of the caste-based parties is that they owe a lot of their intellectual heft to the University Left, which disdains nationalism. Most of their new cadre comes from the Kanhaiya-Kumar part of the academic world, and that is the Ultra Left; they are beholden to it – if they want to sound respectable, they have to borrow its phrases, and coerce the reality of India into its paradigms. Trying to sound nationalistic and credible at the same time is going to be incredibly difficult for these parties.

    On the other hand, the BJP owes the Left and the academia nothing, especially after the Advani-Vajpayee cabal has been compulsorily retired. Modi-Shah are explicitly hostile to such people and institutions, and their followers and admirers come with a history of actually battling such institutions. They can credibly sound nationalistic, especially after the surgical strikes.

    • Great points. Actually the some of the readers’ comments are much more incisive than many articles and opinions, even if these are written by the erudite such as Tharoor Sahab.

    • Agree with this. For the sake of India, we need to break the intellectual monopoly of the left over the entire spectrum of social sciences. BJP needs intellectuals rooted in modern science to bring greater balance. This is a long term process; it takes time for young people with fresh ideas to climb up the ladder.

  12. Dear Tharoorji…we are proud that you represent our constituency…All your suggestions are well accepted
    The problem now with the congress is lack of discipline …I think no second opinion in this point…Immediate dismissal is the only remedy..Dont be democratic in this account…A typical example is Abdulla kutty 2 tlmes CPM ..M.P ..Then joined congress
    again 2 times MLA in congress ticket…Now being denied to contest this election wanted to move on with BJP….
    Congress got 20% votes…If Rahulji shoud not disappoint these 20% voters
    Lack of electoral arethmatic is another issue
    The HUGE MARGIN won by UPA candidates in TAMILNAD and KERALA need a social auditng and reasearch on the voting pattern
    DMK Chief cleverly accepted RAHULJI AS THE P.M. and won handsomely
    Rest of the country it was MODIJI vs NOBODY

    • Dmk now must be regretting as to why it gave 10 seats to congress…
      It’s not worth it..
      If congress stands alone in tamilnadu..
      It’s fate is as good as bjp in tamilnadu..
      Dmk reaped the total anti incumbency wave created not by dmk but by new parties..
      Dmk failed to capture power in local assembly polls…pls note that

  13. The article is written under the wrong assumption that Congress was defeated in a democratic election process. Therefore it fails to address the burning issue how to restore democracy again in India. Even if you do 10 more additional reforms as long as the EVM´s are manipulated, the election commission, the supreme court, CBI etc are biased, Congress will never come to power. Remember these are no longer institutions which we used to know. BJP´s new generation leaders like Amit Shah and Modi has rewritten all the equations and hijacked all those machinery. Corrupted individuals hypnotised by religion, power and greed are leading this controlling authorities. Congress can reform and do a lot of things but will never come to power again unless some radical changes happens in the current corrupt system.

  14. Agree with Tharoor. Media management of the Congress is appaling. Make space for youngsters. Design a retirement plan. Implement the Nyay and all that of the Manifesto in Congress ruled states immediately. No one should get more than three terms. Once defeated should not get more than one chance. Rejig all PCCs. Elect party presidents through internal elections. Refrain from nominating them. “Great artists steal ideas”, understand the phrase. It’s a 24/7 job. Have research teams to nail the government on its wrong policies issue by issue. Groom youngsters. Design an effective campaign policy. And heaven’s sake don’t sulk. One learns through setbacks. Don’t forget the history of Congress. There isn’t a substitute to hardwork. Reward them.

  15. #3 “As the party that brought freedom to India and valiantly preserved it for decades, and…”

    What does this line mean sir?🤔
    The party brought freedom to India then what did the freedom fighters do??????

  16. The author has served the UN, so he has a knowledge of what is going on in the world, especially in the big democracies. Pardoxally, this experience does not appear in this article! Why? ShashiTharoor should know that the bipartisan political system is in crisis. He is in crisis in the United Kingdom. The elections that have taken place in various countries show that the old order is in crisis. Is not this the case in India too? This is a question that Shashi Tharoor could have asked? It’s a shame, because the reconstruction of the party of Congress cannot ignore that the political change that affects the major democracies also affects India!

  17. Despite Tharoor’s brave face, his party has many structural problems that will hinder its revival. (1) Congress is inherently anti-Hindu. Its philosophy is to crush the Hindu identity, promote caste divisions and minority privileges. This has been its winning formula for decades. They have been putting lipstick on this pig and selling it with lofty semantics like secularism, etc. and other fakery, but it is still a pig. But suddenly Hindus are waking up to this monumentsl fraud and Congress has no answer. I think the party’s anti-Hindu attitude originates from its first family and its close coterie. (2) Unlike BJP, Congress has no core ideology beyond high sounding empty semantics. For Congress leaders, politics has been a business venture, to loot and make obscene amounts of money effortlessly. As a result, the soul of the Congress party is hollow, it could be seen in its recent election campaign, which consisted of lies and hail maries. They have nothing substantive to offer. (3) Congress is a family owned firm. The qualification to serve on the CWC is unconditional loyalty to the family. Such a feudal party must die, it has no place in modern India. Everything that Tharoor says is meaningless in a family owned firm.

    To sum up, Congress party in its current form is rotten to the core and is like a deadly virus eating away India’s soul. It does not deserve to live. It must die.

  18. Nothing even remotely defining. Or useful. Here are my ten:
    -CWG resigns en masse
    -President too
    -New President appoints 10/12 new members from elected MP and some vets. Non Gandhi
    -War room, data, strategy team, hanger ons removed.
    -Message to be redefined
    -Messengers too
    -State President s and Secy resign
    -New president and g sec and some org restructuring/delayering
    -Local folks and grass roots to be given shot at new leadership in states
    -CM of Raj, MP should resign
    -Scindia and Pilot to be appointed.
    -Karnataka to be reset. One way or other from new interlocutors and fresh blood.
    -CLP new face. Non Gandhi.

  19. Lot of work required. Cultural overhaul must start with divesting the first family of their extraordinary power and exalted status. Rahul Gandhi is right in his decision to quit. It will send a positive signal and surely set in motion the natural process by which a CAPABLE LEADER is likely to emerge. Congress is NOT a party with child members (though the transaction between the high command and the members is mostly parent-child); GOP has grown-ups who are experienced and capable of making sound decisions for survival and growth. If that’s not the case then let Sonia retake the reins of the party..

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