Is the Congress Crawling Out of Its Self-Imposed Shell?

Between university elections, Rahul Gandhi's speech in Berkeley and the BJP's defensive attitude, it seems as though the grand old party may be re-emerging as a political alternative.

NSUI members celebrating after students' union election results were announced in Gauhati university. Credit: NSUI/Twitter

NSUI members celebrating after students’ union election results were announced in Gauhati university. Credit: NSUI/Twitter

Is the Congress re-emerging from its own shadows to challenge the BJP’s stronghold over Indian politics? Is everything alright within the BJP’s rank and file, especially at a time when the Narendra Modi government is facing criticism from various corners? Or is the growing public concern over issues such as rising prices and the surging unemployment rate pushing the saffron party to rethink its tactics? These are some of the questions which political observers have been asking of late. With the 2019 general elections only a year and a half away, these questions are difficult to ignore.

Three separate but interconnected developments in the second week of September signal that political equations in the country may well be in a state of transition.

Rejection of ABVP in university elections

First, the National Student’s Union of India (NSUI), the students’ arm of the Congress party, and students affiliated to Leftist parties like the Students Federation of India (SFI) and the All India Students Association (AISA) have performed exceedingly well in different university elections held in the month of September. Most of their campaigns were focused against their primary contender, the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), attached to BJP’s ideological guru, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Left students groups have always based their campaigns on structural issues plaguing the educational system and have remained the most vociferous ideological force against Hindutva politics in universities. However, this time around, the NSUI too broke away from merely resting its campaign on conventional university-level issues and focused on attacking the ABVP, calling it a group which either indulged in or patronised incidents of hate crimes and mob lynching, which have become an eyesore in India’s development narrative.

Its success in Delhi University, also the largest students’ body in India, and many other state-level universities shows that the ideological posturing against ABVP has reaped benefits for the NSUI. The saffron students’ group, largely considered to be the biggest political force in Indian universities, was rejected not only in central universities like Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University but also in Punjab, Tripura, Rajasthan and Assam, to mention a few.

Most analyses credited a large share of the BJP’s unprecedented victory in 2014 general elections to the Indian youth, which, as more than than 50% of the country’s population, forms the largest political demographic. The results of recent university elections then perhaps mean that a sense of exhaustion with BJP’s politics may be setting in among the Indian youth.

While the anti-Hindutva rhetoric may have found an appeal among a large section of voters, anyone who is familiar with the power dynamics of university elections would know that caste equations in the region spill over to play a significant role in deciding the fate of a party in many Indian universities. For instance, two communities – Gujjars and Jats – dominant in the maximum number of colleges play the most significant role in Delhi University students’ union polls. In trying to share the power between themselves, the students belonging to these caste groups articulate the immediate political concerns of their community leaders, who are often active in regional politics.

Both the ABVP and NSUI select their candidates keeping this aspect of patronage politics in mind. In the last few years, the ABVP had consolidated the two communities within its fold, explaining its series of victories in DUSU polls since 2012. Its loss in 2017, therefore, indicates that even caste loyalties in Delhi politics are witnessing a transition, and the trend is not in favour of the saffron forces.

Similarly, the losses that the ABVP suffered in state-level universities signal an element of disillusionment among dominant caste groups with saffron forces. It may be too early to say whether these trends will carry over to national politics in the days to come, but a shift is clearly visible.

Rahul Gandhis Berkeley speech

Rahul Gandhi speaking at Berkeley. Credit: Facebook/Rahul Gandhi

Rahul Gandhi speaking at Berkeley. Credit: Facebook/Rahul Gandhi

Second, the much-discussed speech by Congress scion Rahul Gandhi at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was the guest of honour, can be singled out from his previous speeches on one visible count – clarity of purpose.

He premised his speech on both political and ideological fronts. Not only did he hold the Modi government responsible for a declining economic growth rate and rising unemployment in India, but also invoked the age-old Gandhian doctrine of ahimsa or nonviolence to launch an attack on right-wing politics, which he said is the reason behind increasing hate crimes.

Clearly positioning himself and his party in opposition to the BJP, he stressed that India is a country comprising diverse communities and practices. He added that any government should include all stakeholders in the Indian democracy. The BJP has since tried to portray Gandhi’s speech as an insult to India, but many observers have also said that the Congress scion showed a deep sense of belonging that was so far unseen in any of his speeches.

He offered a different economic narrative, focusing on re-energising multiple small- and medium-scale industries, claiming that these units are the “bedrock” of the Indian economy and its “innovative strength.”

In asserting that his party belonged to the political centre as opposed to the “conservative right” – influential Hindutva ideologue Ram Madhav bracketed the BJP within this category recently – he opposed the idea of “arbitrary centralisation of power” which, he thought the Modi government has been enforcing.

“Creating jobs in a democratic environment” is the only possible sustainable model for inclusive growth, he said. However, he felt that this is being prevented at present because only the top 100 companies are paid attention to – laws are shaped by them and banking systems are monopolised by them, he said. Claiming that an “opposite energy”, reflected in the growing violence against minorities and “ad-hoc decisions” like demonetisation, have derailed India’s socio-economic fabric, he said that the Congress party can steer a new development model in the future.

Gandhi also accepted that Congress has been arrogant in the past and acknowledged the problem of dynasties in Indian polity, but also chalked out the way forward for his party if he is to be placed in the driving seat.

What Gandhi did in the process was to break away from his own party’s economic understanding, which has often seen big corporates as the primary drivers of growth. By doing so, he also appeared to crack the consensus between the Congress and the BJP, which too, under Modi, has emerged as a big advocate of big capital investment in every sector.  Essentially, Gandhi appeared to have articulated his desire to significantly alter the architecture of his party towards a direction reminiscent of the Nehruvian idea of welfare.

Also read: Modi Doesn’t Like to Be Asked Questions, Says BJP MP from Maharashtra

If not for anything else, the Berkeley speech marks the rebirth of Gandhi as an assertive leader who is ready to take up a big job. He has made it clear that his fight against the BJP will be ideological in the future. The clarity with which Gandhi talked about his vision seems to be percolating down in the campaigns of Congress party’s offshoots, as NSUI’s campaign showed in the university elections.

In the last few months, the Congress has attempted to restructure its organisation with new appointments and new roles for young leaders, and also by opening up new portfolios to channel the technical expertise of many of its senior members. The most significant example of it is the formation of  the All Indian Professional Congress, headed by Shashi Tharoor, which will include experts from various fields who will influence the grand old party’s long-term socio-economic agenda.

Response of the BJP machinery  

The third sign has come from within the BJP itself. The strong responses that Gandhi’s speech elicited from the BJP machinery indicated that the saffron party did take his words seriously. Several senior leaders, including cabinet ministers Arun Jaitley and Smriti Irani, BJP president Amit Shah and even the vice-president of India M. Venkaiah Naidu, took a turn to attack Gandhi. Most of them interpreted Gandhi’s speech as belittling India at an international stage and justifying dynastic politics.

Gandhi, in response to a question about him being a dynast, had answered, “Most political parties in India have this problem, so don’t go after me. Mr. Akhilesh Yadav a dynast, Mr. Stalin a dynast, Mr (Prem Kumar) Dhumal’s son a dynast…Even Mr. Abhishek Bachchan is a dynast…I mean that is how India runs. So don’t get after me because that is how the entire country is running…but saying that I do try to sort of change it in the Congress party.”

 Also read: Is the Narendra Modi Bubble About to Burst?

While Irani called him a “failed dynast” who chose to speak about his “failed political journey in the United States”, other leaders too got after him on this sole question. That none of them chose to retort to the larger criticisms against the government indicates that the BJP leaders were merely doing a hit job. This is significant as senior BJP leaders have often only limited themselves to ridiculing Gandhi and his criticisms of the government.

The BJP has shown visible signs of nervousness in the last few days. Its master strategist Shah has attempted to come to the rescue but only to betray the sense of unease within the rank and file of the saffron party. Shah’s recent statement that the decline in GDP growth rate is due to “technical reasons” or his appeal to the youth of Gujarat to not fall for the anti-BJP social media campaign are a few cases in point.

These defensive statements, which have come months ahead of the upcoming assembly polls in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, indicate that bigger political determinants may not be in favour of the BJP. Many media reports have claimed that the BJP in Gujarat is struggling to form a caste coalition in its favour as it is set to lose out on a large chunk of its Patidar voters, who had remained loyal to the party for the last three decades. The Congress-led social media campaign, “Bhajapno vikas gando thayo chhey (BJP’s development has gone crazy)” has caught the BJP, which has been the biggest beneficiary of social media propaganda in the last few years, unaware.

The BJP, India’s biggest political outfit, appears to be battling its own demons at present. The demoralised Congress, on the other hand, seems to be seriously thinking about reviving itself as a credible opposition force. Looking at recent political developments, the dividends of such efforts have started to show.

While the grand old party still lacks a leadership structure that can comprehensively challenge Modi’s popularity, its possible emergence as an alternative ideological and political party to the BJP will likely deepen Indian democratic values. However, after a good start, it remains to be seen where the Congress will go from here.

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