'What Does it Mean to Be a Political Alternative?': Thoughts of a Congress Party Member

'Delivering a political alternative to the country will require my own party, the Indian National Congress to rediscover its true self.'

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The ‘alternative’ and especially the ‘national alternative’ is an idea that figures in many a political conversation these days. Some lament the lack of a national alternative; some claim to be stitching one together. Some are declared to be emerging as the ‘national alternative’ and yet, others claim the identity for themselves.

The idea of an alternative to the current dispensation is of vital importance. Indian democracy deserves not one, but multiple alternatives. But what exactly is it that we need alternatives for? For most people, the answer to this question is limited to providing an alternative to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on election day by any means possible; or an alternative to Narendra Modi’s image as a messianic saviour of the nation.

But neither of these make a party, coalition or leader a political alternative for India. A political alternative must provide not just an alternative to the faces and symbols in government, but an alternative to the structure of power that determines the course of the country.

Three monopolies

The structure of power that runs our country today is a coalition of three monopolies:

One is a monopoly over economic power. This monopoly controls economic decision making so that economic opportunities and national wealth are limited to the few of their choosing. Next is a monopoly of social power. This monopoly defines what is acceptable, permissible and virtuous in society and limits legitimacy, prestige and participation to a few chosen social groups. The third is a monopoly of political power. This monopoly controls the authority of the state to intimidate, purchase and crush opposition so as to limit political voices to their chosen few.

These monopolies are not isolated from each other. They are joined through shared visions, coordinated actions and active support for each other’s agendas.

This coalition of monopolies has delegitimised, impoverished, marginalised and excluded vast swathes of India’s populace. This triumvirate has ‘bulldozed’ constitutional institutions of every variety. It is not just the bureaucracy, judiciary, law enforcement, media, markets and academia that are under attack. Political parties, too, have not been spared. Never mind Opposition parties, the BJP itself is now no more than a hollow front for the political operations of this triumvirate. But the most tragic victim of this assault may be our collective understanding of India.

Also read: The Ruination of the BJP’s Organisation in 10 Steps

In place of India as a nurturing home for all within it, and patriotism as the commitment to cherish the dreams of every Indian, in many people’s minds, India has become an angry idol to be appeased with the blood of her own children and patriotism has been reduced to a hunt for the next sacrifice at her alter.

What passes for politics at the current time is a no-holds-barred contest to get a seat at the high table of the monopolists. The political strategies on display include:

  1. Exploiting – and when necessary, creating – differences of religious, caste, regional and linguistic identity;
  2. Reducing the vast responsibility of running a government to the delivery of one or two services packaged into a ‘model’ to be replicated elsewhere;
  3. The projection of an individual as a supreme leader and messiah with the magic wand to fix, strengthen and bring glory to the country.
  4. The outsourcing of electioneering to ideologically neutral mercenary machines who render services to the highest bidder.
  5. The capture and centralisation of every institution of the state to crush any dissent and stifle any alternative narrative.

All of these strategies are pursued while ensuring the least possible disturbance to the triumvirate of monopolies. The political goal of these claimants to being ‘alternatives’ is, after all, not to change the regime; it is simply to get a piece of the action.

The longer we operate in this politics of pseudo-alternative, the more power concentrates in the hands of the monopolies and the less relevant people become to the political process. The people will drift from being citizens empowered to set the agenda of the country, to voters limited to choosing sides in agendas set by others; to finally being subjects whose vote can be manipulated in support of any position sought by those in power. In short, we will be treading a path back to colonisation.

To be a ‘political alternative’ in the current context requires more than just providing an alternative face to vote for. It requires a genuine alternative to the prevalent system of politics. It requires an alternate formulation of India that unifies rather than divides us. It requires an alternative architecture of power that decentralises power and challenges the monopolies that have us under their vice-like grip.

Congress workers on the Bharat Jodo Yatra, eat at a tent. Photo: By arrangement

A political alternative requires an alternate conception of politics that restores people to their rightful role as citizens rather than subjects whose votes are to be nudged in the requisite direction. It requires an alternate conception of political organisations that emerges from the people and transforms their aspirations into political power. It requires an alternate conception of political action and funding that challenges rather than perpetuates the monopolies in power.

Also read: The Price of Opposition’s Silence on Matters Affecting Minorities

The task that confronts us is mammoth. It is nothing short of a collective rediscovery of India and the reinvention of our politics. Not much can be predicted about a national enterprise of such scale and scope. However, some things are certain.

The changes needed in society and politics will not be incremental. Our challenges are not limited to improving electioneering, doing the same political activities with greater efficiency or staffing the same political organisations with better people. We will have to rediscover, and possibly reimagine, our political ideas, communications, organisations and resources to effectively challenge the current order.

Such a reimagination of politics is too important a task to be left to those leaders and parties to whom society has delegated its politics. It will necessarily have to be a mass movement that draws in the imagination, energy and devotion of an entire generation of Indians spanning every field of social, economic and political activity. There is no one to whom this problem does not belong.

To borrow a line from U2’s ‘Walk On’, those who participate in this mass movement to reinvent politics “will be packing a suitcase to a place none of us has been; a place that has to be believed to be seen.”

It will be a pioneering journey with no guarantees and certainly no answer to that persistent political question, “Mera kya hoga?” (What will happen to me?). These will be times of transition and will demand that we live and work for something greater than ourselves.

Finally, delivering a political alternative to the country will require my own party, the Indian National Congress to rediscover its true self. In the words of that great Congress-man, Jawaharlal Nehru: “What is the Congress? It is not some select band of people but the organised strength of the masses. It is not something apart from the people of India. It belongs to all of you…”.

The Congress will once again have to become the platform that enables the Indian people to bring voice to their political aspirations.

It is this spirit that I see in Rahul Gandhi and hundreds of my fellow Congress leaders walk on the ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’. As a fellow Yatri said yesterday, “May this be just one of the thousands of Yatras that Indians undertake”.

Jai Hind. Jai Jagat.

Sachin Rao is walking parts of the Bharat Jodo Yatra. He is in charge of training in the Congress.