One of the most important purposes of opinion writing is to hold those in power accountable through criticism of their policies and actions. Although, as academician Pratap Bhanu Mehta argues that “your credibility as a critic lies on the presumption of praise, when it is called for”, it is usually superfluous to praise the government because it is usually in a good position to do that job itself. Your puny whistle won’t make a difference to the orchestra of trumpets that the government commands.
Opinion writers are often asked why they don’t criticise the opposition as much as they criticise the government. While many columnists do indeed have ideological and partisan biases, it is not the most productive use of time to criticise parties and politicians who are not in power. What they say does not affect people’s lives until they win elections, come to office, and are in a position to do something. Of course, this does not prevent many of our brave television anchors who valiantly hold powerless opposition figures to account, while studiously ignoring those from the ruling party. They bask in the warm glory of kicking a person when he is down.
Congress indictment is necessary
In normal circumstances it would have been pointless or craven to criticise the Indian National Congress when it is in the opposition. But at a time when the BJP enjoys unprecedented political dominance and massive popular support, when constitutional institutions and norms are crumbling, the national interest requires a credible opposition. While the government of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah has received severe criticism for its policies, the Congress has largely been excused for its failure to effectively hold the end of opposition. Too many people are too understanding and too forgiving of its internal problems and leadership woes. Yet, to prevent a “Congress-mukt Bharat”, it is necessary to severely indict it for its failings and compel the grand old party to get its act together. And you don’t have to be a supporter of the Congress party to want an effective opposition in Parliament.
My indictment of the Congress is threefold: most of its leaders do not know what they stand for, its organisation is hopelessly out of date, and — quite obviously — it lacks the quality of top leadership that the situation demands.
There is space for Congress
Just as power abhors a vacuum, politics abhors a monopoly. Human nature and democratic structure suggest that there is a space for credible counter-point to the BJP. But few Congress leaders seem to know what that space entails. Given the absence of a motive, coherent party ideology, all that Congress leaders seem to want to do is acquire power for the sake of its spoils. We saw the bewildering situation in Karnataka last year when Congress leaders were destabilising a fragile coalition government of which they were a part, in one of the only big states their party was in power, while facing a massive BJP juggernaut.
Why would people vote for the Congress when its leaders are going to be more interested in ministerships than in governance? Instead of fighting for the soul and structure of India, the Congress sometimes projects itself as a pseudo-BJP; at other times, it convinces itself that clever caste-combinations and freebies will do the trick. Despite being the party that gave us the economic reforms that created two decades of prosperity and pulled 300 million people out of poverty, many of its leaders and supporters criticise markets and capitalism.
The ultimate step
While Amit Shah has exploited technology and built processes and transformed the BJP into a 21st century political party, the Congress remains in a previous era. Its supporters will cite the reorganisation of the Youth Congress, better use of social media and data analytics, but also complain in the same breath that “the old guard is the problem”. The Congress does not have a functional party organisation anymore – it only has a last-minute rush with money as the only means to mobilise opportunistic workers a few weeks before elections. A national election is as much a contest between organisational effectiveness as it is about ideologies, personalities and policies. To be able to challenge the BJP, the Congress must recreate itself organisationally to match or counter it.
Finally, the leader the Congress needs is not the one it will want. While some of its younger leaders have indeed turned into mass leaders in their own right, what the party needs is a palace coup. A leader who rises to power by overthrowing the old guard will capture public imagination just as a certain BJP leader did in 2013. The BJP has turned many parts of the Congress legacy into a debilitating political liability. That’s why the New Congress leadership that comes to power in spite of the Old Congress will enjoy public credibility. It might then be able to sharpen what the Congress stands for, rebuild the party organisation, and pose a real challenge to the BJP.
The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.