‘Out With the Gandhis’ a Cry of Despair; With No Obvious Replacement, Cure May Be Worse than Disease

The party’s future lies in defending federalism from Modi’s assaults and building regional coalitions around a programme of development and reform.

Ramachandra Guha’s description of the Gandhi family’s leadership of the Congress as a ‘gift to Hindutva authoritarianism’ is a cry born out of despair. Tragically, the description is accurate. The last eight years have seen a planned, creeping destruction of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy that the founders of our republic created. The road the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is taking the country down can easily end in civil war and even disintegration of the Indian Union. But to warn the people of this danger and seek their vote to avert it, a political party needs to identify the early signs of danger, and flag them convincingly for the voters to see. But the Congress’s leadership has not raised its voice to warn the people about the peril they are facing.

As a result, today, the Congress is a party without a programme. Its appeal to voters is based solely on the dynastic connection of Rahul and Sonia Gandhi to Jawaharlal Nehru, his closeness to Mahatma Gandhi and his seminal contribution to the making of modern India. Implicit in this is a sense of entitlement and a demand for trust based on lineage alone. As the Congress’s rebound after the Emergency showed, this was a powerful appeal till 40 years ago.

Dynasty is the past

But the generation that responded to it has passed away and for today’s youth, both Nehru and Gandhi are just a part of history. With innumerable existential problems to face, the current generation has neither the time nor the desire to dwell on the past, let alone pay homage to it. So the appeal of dynastic rule has faded, and will keep fading.

In 2014, the youth of northern India voted overwhelmingly for the BJP because they believed Narendra Modi offered them hope of a better, more secure future. He failed to deliver it, but in 2019 they still voted for him because the opposition had offered no alternative vision of the future either. Three years have passed since then and there is still no consolidation within the opposition, still no clear perception of the threat that a continuation of BJP rule poses to India’s future – and still no offer of an alternative, better future. So, it is looking more and more as if the BJP will win the 2024 general elections too.

If that happens, there is an even chance that by 2029 the Indian Union will cease to exist. This is not an alarmist prediction. It arises out of the pattern that the BJP’s actions have been weaving since it came to power, and especially since its second electoral victory in 2019. For virtually from day one, Modi, Amit Shah and their advisers have spared no effort to dismantle the multi-ethnic, federal India that  Mahatma Gandhi gave his life to create, and replace it with an intolerant, lawless, Hindu-dominated unitary nation-state.

Home minister Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: PTI

Assault on the federal state

Had Modi and Shah been students of Indian history, they would have known that any such effort is doomed to fail. Even the Mauryan empire, which is the model that advocates of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ wish to emulate, was more an empire than a nation-state – a collection of socially and culturally independent principalities held together by the promise of peace and help in hard times, backed by the threat of retribution if they rebelled against central authority. When the central authority became intolerable, the empire came to an end.

The first explicit warning that this could happen again was given by DMK  member of parliament S. Kanimozhi on March 16 when, during the Lok Sabha debate on the railway budget, she asked why the Union government had allotted Rs 59 crore for development to Southern Railways, and Rs 13, 200 crore to Northern Railways. “You keep talking about India being one nation,” she said. “The railways also has to understand that it is one nation”.

The depth of anxiety this has aroused in the South can be judged from the way her statement has gone viral. The railways may have a legitimate explanation for this enormous gap but, in a manner that has become this government’s trademark, no one thought it necessary to prepare southern governments for the shock they were about to receive.

This high-handedness is only the latest of a succession of decisions that reflect the Modi government’s contempt for federalism. One of his first decisions in 2014 was to dissolve the Planning Commission and replace it with the NITI Aayog. The change looked cosmetic but was anything but that. Outwardly, Yojana Bhawan remained entirely unchanged. Not a soul working there lost his or her job. The only change was that the NITI Aayog no longer had the responsibility exercised for 65 years by the Planning Commission – of disbursing the annual plan grants to the states upon a consensually agreed basis.

Till 2014, the devolutions had been based upon the famous Gadgil Formula which was a function of a state’s population, GDP, per capita income and level of industrialisation.

The Planning Commission’s abolition opened the way to making plan grants discretionary. The government sought to give it a veneer of justification through a report published under the auspices of NITI Aayog, ‘Central Transfers To States In India Rewarding Performance While Ensuring Equity’. But this year’s railways budget has shown how easily, and even unintentionally, the discretionary power arrogated to the centre can be abused.

Modi’s second essay in centralising power at the expense of the states was his virtual abolition of the National Development Council – the forum of chief ministers that every prime minister since V.P. Singh had used to coordinate social and economic policies after the era of Congress party dominance came to an end in 1989. In January 2015, Modi observed that with the formation of the NITI Aayog, there was no need for the NDC and that it should be dissolved. Since the state governments demurred, he did the next best thing: in eight years he has not called a single NDC meeting.

The BJP’s electoral success in 2019 seems to have increased the Sangh parivar’s appetite for undermining the federal state. The cavalier disregard with which Modi passed the three farm laws in 2020 by ordinance – and bulldozed their ratification through the Lok Sabha – when agriculture is the single most important subject on the state list of the constitution, reflects his growing impatience with the constraints imposed by Indian federalism.

From Article 370 to The Kashmir Files

By far Modi’s most blatant act of contempt has been the reading down of Article 370 of the constitution, the abolition of Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood, and his push for fresh delimitation of constituencies so that more seats can be added to Jammu’s share.

In doing so, Modi has ignored the fact that Article 371 of the constitution gives protections of autonomy similar to those enshrined in Article 370 to seven other small states, six of which are in the northeast.

The decision to tinker with the boundaries of J&K’s Lok Sabha seats shows that the BJP has no intention of respecting the Centre-state consensus not to change the number (or composition) of seats allotted to each state in the Lok Sabha. It also demonstrates how easily this can be done without the consent of the affected state governments.

The threat that a politicised delimitation exercise poses to India’s unity must not be underestimated. The present composition of the Lok Sabha is an essential pillar of Indian democracy and federalism because, in the past 60 years, the population of the northern states has grown far more rapidly than that of the south. If a report by Congress MP Manish Tiwari is correct – that the new Lok Sabha hall in Delhi is being designed to seat 1,000 MPs – then the possibility that Modi intends to swamp the South with additional seats allocated to the North can no longer be ignored.

Also Read: We ID’d Anti-Muslim Sloganeers at ‘The Kashmir Files’ Screenings. What We Found Won’t Surprise You.

Sinister pattern

These body blows to India’s federalism have been punctuated by innumerable smaller attacks such as the sustained victimisation of Muslims, journalists, civil society activists and students – by the police as well as a private army of self-appointed vigilantes bent upon ‘protecting’ Hinduism, Hindu women, and the cow. Then there is the tinkering with central service rules and the attempts to “arrest” state government police chiefs and hustle them to Delhi, ostensibly to face “justice” but in reality to warn other Indian Police Service officers that they must be ready to serve as agents of the Union government even if this means disobeying the orders of their own state governments.

Taken together, these seemingly disconnected initiatives create a terrifying mosaic of the Hindu Rashtra that the Sangh parivar is bent upon building. It is of a centrally-ruled nation state in which the federal structure becomes no more than an administrative convenience. To mask this regressive vision, the Sangh has stepped up its hate campaign against Muslims. It seeks to portray them as Hindu haters and sexual predators determined to increase the Muslim population of India and raise the banner of Islam over the Red Fort.

The most blatant example of the official demonisation of Muslims is the support that Prime Minister Modi gave to The Kashmir Files, a film whose narrative is that the Muslims of Kashmir drove out the Kashmiri Pandit minority from the state in 1990. There have been several films made in the past decade on terrorism and insurgency in Kashmir. Most of these have correctly portrayed Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence as the instigator of the violence. However, The Kashmir Files goes out of its way to lay the blame upon the ordinary Muslim population of the valley. Why did the prime minister endorse a film that demonises Kashmiri Muslims – and, indirectly, all Indian Muslims – as a threat to Hindus?

Anyone who has the least knowledge of Kashmir’s reshi (corruption of ‘rishi’) Islam knows that it is one of the most syncretic versions of Islam in the world. Even if Modi and his colleagues do not know this, they surely must know that Kashmiri militants have killed many thousand more Kashmiri Muslims than Hindus, for this data was released annually to the public by the Union home ministry till the early 2000s.

Every prime minister – from V.P Singh and Narasimha Rao to Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh – understood this and adopted policies designed to wean the JKLF and Hurriyat away from the extremists of the Hizbul Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Mohammed. To a large extent they succeeded. But, out of sheer ignorance and ingrained prejudice, Modi reversed this policy and went for the stick instead of the carrot.

A survey done for Chatham House by Gallup and MORI in 2009 – three years after Manmohan Singh and Musharraf began their back-channel dialogue on Kashmir – revealed that only 2.5-7.5% of the inhabitants of the four most militancy-affected districts in the Kashmir Valley wanted to belong to Pakistan. Today, after eight years of relentless demonisation of Kashmiri Muslims and a virtual war against ‘separatists’, it is doubtful whether even half of the residents of the Valley still prefer India to Pakistan. Modi’s endorsement of The Kashmir Files will make the situation worse.

Director Vivek Agnihotri speaks during a press conference for his newly released film ‘The Kashmir Files’ in New Delhi, March 14, 2022. Photo: PTI/Kamal Kishore

No one to sound the alarm

The country needs to be warned, and warned unceasingly, of how the BJP is dragging it towards the greater risk of communal violence and political disintegration.

As the leaders of the party that forced the British out of India, this responsibility falls most heavily on the shoulders of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. But neither of them has sounded, much less endlessly repeated, a clear, unambiguous warning to the nation of the danger it now faces.

The replacement of formula-based plan grants with discretionary ones, implicit in the replacement of the Planning Commission by the NITI Aayog, went entirely unnoticed by the Gandhis, as did Modi’s winding up of the NDC through disuse.

When Modi destroyed Article 370 and turned Kashmir into a Union Territory, the Congress did not file a petition against it in the Supreme Court. Both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul remained silent and left it to Chidambaram to speak out in his individual capacity.

Two years later, during a visit to Jammu in September 2021, Rahul Gandhi only demanded restoration of full statehood to J&K, and never mentioned Article 370. He forgot that Rajiv Gandhi had ended decades-old insurgencies in the northeast through the guarantees of ethnic autonomy enshrined in Article 371, which was modelled on Article 370.

Finally, the Congress’s silence on the deadly nature of The Kashmir Files is clinching proof that without a drastic change in its idea of itself and its future role, it is incapable of even framing, let alone leading, the counterattack on the government’s ill-advised and dangerous policies.

Also Read: Only AAP Understands the Challenge Posed by BJP and Knows How to Fight It

Why the Congress footprint shrank

It is the Congress’s silence on the threat to India’s future that the BJP’s rise to political dominance has created which has triggered the widely shared view that the Gandhi family must retire from politics and allow the party to reconstruct itself.

But that would be a cure worse than the disease. For the Congress of today bears no resemblance to the great mass party that Gandhi, Nehru and Patel led. Published in 1967, Stanley Kochanek’s The Congress Party in India – Dynamics of a One -Party Democracy describes in detail how the party had degenerated from a mass to a cadre party, and from a cadre party to a coalition of moneybags held together by the prospect of further enrichment through the sale of government permissions.

By 1967, this degeneration had alienated a vast section of the urban elite and civil society, and earned the collective leadership of the party the derisive sobriquet of ‘the Syndicate’. Despite this, and the many setbacks the country and the party suffered in the early 1960s – the China-India war, Nehru’s death, two consecutive droughts, massive inflation and a critical shortage of foodgrains – the Congress won the 1967 elections because it still retained the single most crucial feature of its pre-independence organisation. For all the disrepute that it had fallen into, the Syndicate remained a collective of powerful regional leaders who controlled the Congress organisation in their respective states. The grassroots structure of the party remained strong and delivered the votes necessary to retain an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha.

The Congress split in 1969 – and the subsequent marginalisation of the ‘Organisation’ Congress (Congress O) – not only ended consensus-based leadership within the party, but began the shrinkage of its national ‘footprint’. Today, the Congress holds power in just two states. The vacuum this created was in the states’ influence on national – as distinct from state – policy. This is the vacuum that the BJP has been filling.

File photo of Congress workers holding party flags. Credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

File photo of Congress workers holding party flags. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Where the future lies

The rank and file of the Congress has been very slow to recognise this. In the 2019 general elections, the Bihar elections of 2020, and even before the recently concluded assembly elections, the party clung to the illusion that the evocation of the Gandhi-Nehru legacy could still revive the Congress organisation in the states where it had withered away. But Sonia Gandhi’s decision to reach out to the ginger group of senior party members suggests she recognises the need to create a collective leadership that relies on credible policy commitments for the future instead of the legacy of the past.

But this is only the lesser half of the battle that lies ahead. The greater part is the recreation of a party organisation that can carry the message to the people. Given its unending succession of defeats – which represent a failure to make headway on its own – the way ahead clearly lies not in creating an entirely new grassroots organisation but in partnering with regional parties and relying on their cadre to spread the coalition’s message.

The Congress has already done this once, when Rahul Gandhi offered his party’s unconditional support to H.D. Kumaraswamy’s Janata Dal (Secular) after the Karnataka Vidhan Sabha elections of 2018. The experiment did not last because 16 Congress and JD(S) MLAs defected to the BJP in 2019. But Rahul Gandhi’s willingness to allow the Congress to play second fiddle to a smaller regional party suggests it can be persuaded to go back to the consensus-based coalition with regional leaders that had been the backbone of the pre-1969 Congress – the difference being that the consensus will now be with regional groupings outside and not inside the party.

As Karnataka showed, such coalitions will inevitably be looser than the coalition that existed in the pre-1969 Congress. But the way to strengthen them is through the adoption of programmes that meet the most urgent needs of the poor, and publicising these well before the elections.

The Congress’s elections, scheduled to take place this year, will create the base from which a collective leadership can emerge. Finding a new egalitarian basis for collaborating with the non-BJP opposition around programmes of reform and development is the challenge that lies in the future.

Prem Shankar Jha is a veteran journalist.