“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream,” said C.S. Lewis.
So, does the Congress – the oldest political party in India – have an ideological goal for itself, after 138 years of its foundation?
What started as a social revolution, ended up being focused on winning India’s political independence. But there were those, who even during the drafting of India’s constitution, notably Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, were clear about one thing – that India’s political independence will not be complete without securing for it social and economic independence.
What comes first – political independence or social equality – is a classic chicken and egg issue that has formed the undercurrent of ideological thought within the followers of Congress. The amalgamation of the two, into one whole, was best reflected in considered and careful drafting of the Preamble of the Constitution of India, which borrowed the three principles of the French Revolution viz. liberty, equality and fraternity, along with justice, to be the goal for Indian democracy.
In 1976, with the 42nd amendment, the words ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ were added in the Preamble of our constitution. Since then the answer to the question – ‘what is the ideology’ of Congress – has been answered loosely in terms of these eight foundational ideas: ‘liberal’, ‘equal’, ‘just’, ‘secular’ (encompasses ‘fraternity’), ‘socialist’, ‘sovereign’ ‘democratic’ and ‘republic’ India.
Faced with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) vision for India, one that they have been articulating for about 100 years, that has begun to gain prominence only now, that of the ‘Hindu Rashtra’ and the idea of ‘Akhand Bharat’, the need for the contrast of Congress’s ideology with that of the BJP becomes more important than ever before.
So essentially, BJP’s idea for India breaks down to one nation (which includes territories from other nations, somehow bypassing the notion of ‘sovereignty’ of these other nations); one religion (a country for Hindus, with everyone else, including people from lower castes within Hinduism, and Muslims, Christians, Parsis as also women, having only secondary citizen status); and one language (with their attempt to make Hindi a ‘national’ language, as opposed to the current status of both Hindi and English as ‘official languages’).
In order to explain their idea for India to the masses and show progressive realisation of their goal, the BJP has set up some clear definite milestones – construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya; reading down of Article 370 (eroding the special status of Jammu and Kashmir); introduction of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens; attempts at bringing in a Uniform Civil Code to name a few prominent ones. This helps common people to identify what BJP stands for.
In contrast to this – what is Congress’s dream for India, and what are the specific milestones or goals that it hopes to achieve? In the absence of clarity on this question and a rhetorical repetition of ‘liberty’, ‘equality’, ‘fraternity’, in one breath, is not helping the Congress’s or the constitution’s cause. We need to break down these principles into specific understandable and achievable goals, so as to be able to translate our ideology into milestones. So what should these be?
Here is a draft vision along with a proposed roadmap, built on lessons from the 12 states we have traversed through, on foot, as part of the Rahul Gandhi-led ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’. It’s an outline of the issues that need to be central to Congress’s redefined ideology, each of which has to be developed in detail.
1. Strive towards creating a ‘humanity’ centric nationalism and get rid of identity based on religion, caste and gender
In walking across 10 states, over 3,500 kilometres and meeting scores of local, regional and national leaders, one thing stood out – everyone’s politics is centred around a community – most people use their ‘weight’ in politics, based on raising the voice of a community based on caste, religion or region.
What we need instead is to strive towards shaping an Indian identity, which is not based on affiliation to a religion, caste, gender or region. Unlike BJP’s ‘paint all in one picture’ principle, we need to protect our diversity and revel in it, while fighting for equal opportunity for all. This could mean designing a reform movement, such as ‘drop your surname’, where names do not carry the burden of identity defined by religion, caste or gender.
Imagine, all the people, living as one whole, as individuals, without identification as belonging to this or that box alone. Congress’s ideology has always been that of ‘respecting people for who they are, both at an individual and a societal level’, and this is what the principle of ‘right to life and dignity’ enshrined in Article 21 of the constitution boils down to.
This does not mean that people do not have religion – they do. Except those who occupy constitutional positions, and/or are in electoral politics, cannot be seen as espousing any particular religion. State neutrality in religion is the Nehruvian idea of ‘secularism’ in India. The state is for all – especially for those in minorities. This does not mean ‘appeasement’ of any religious community, nor ‘discrimination’ of any religion over another. It just translates into ‘live and let live’, with each religious group having the freedom to ‘protect, promote and propagate their own religion’ as per Article 25 of the constitution.
Moving beyond castes is another quintessential feature of redefining Congress’s ideology towards a humanism-based model. The BJP’s thrust is to impose the ‘Manuvadi’ principles accepting the notion of caste as it is, which inherently promotes ‘inequality’ among the people of different castes based on birth.
So Congress needs to strive for a vision of India, where ‘names’ are used only to identify a person and not as reflective of one’s caste, religion or gender. No ‘equal’ society can be designed without bringing down the discriminatory walls of caste, religion and gender. Congress’s communication and narrative, along with its actions, has to stress upon ‘humanism’ – treating all human beings as equal.
While ‘drop your name’ can be one exercise, there can be several other symbolic ways to move towards an ‘equal’ society, but this goal of ‘equality’ cannot be achieved without first sincerely putting ‘education’ and ‘health opportunities’ for all at the top of the agenda, as these two present the two quintessential planks for the foundation of an equal society. These two alone will also eventually ensure that people move beyond their restricted identities of caste, religion and think of themselves as Indians, nay humans first.
2. Start ‘Speak Up Corners’ across villages, towns and cities in India at public squares and spaces
The ‘liberty’ of Indians is under assault under the BJP’s regime. The party would have a committed judiciary, a committed bureaucracy and a committed citizenry.
Congress, on the other hand, has to fight hard to preserve the freedom of speech and expression, and that ‘heaven of freedom’ where knowledge is free. It needs to design programmes to re-capture public spaces and imbue them with the ideals of ‘liberty’, a dear value emanating from Article 19 of the constitution.
In London’s Hyde Park, every Sunday, people gather with small tables, upon which they stand and speak on whatever topic they choose, without the fear of being imprisoned for their speech, as they are literally and figuratively – ‘above the law of the land’. Many prominent people including Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and George Orwell have used this space to demonstrate free speech.
While Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner started through an Act of the UK’s parliament in 1872, it remains popular as an idea for having public spaces for free speech. But we need not limit ourselves to one place alone, traditionally Jantar Mantar in Delhi, whose use now is also being severely restricted by the imposition of Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code by the police, requiring several permissions, before enabling demonstrations and other forms of free speech there.
Congress needs to create a network of such Speakers’ Corners, in every city of India, where people of all backgrounds can gather and discuss, debate whatever they choose to without the fear of law or state repression. The incarceration of leading human rights activists, the arm twisting of leading media houses, and the overall fear-induction among bureaucrats who dare to speak their minds has to stop.
We need to tear down these walls of freedom, repression and the sheer dread of baseless and widespread use of Section 144 by the BJP.
3. Give music a chance by organising nationwide musical events with participation of artists from different religions and regions
While the BJP is keen on building walls of separation, Congress has to find not just political tools that will rebuild the society but also use the healing balm of music to bring accord where societies have been disrupted with terror, violence and fostered differences.
It needs to consider having a string of musical events in all parts of India, bringing together artists of different religions and regions, singing the message of unity in diversity, of love and kindness. While the BJP spreads the venom of religious hatred, let Congress’s reply be one of love through music.
4. Advocate for self-sufficient villages and spread-out development as opposed to pocket-centric development
The development model of the BJP tries to make the rich richer, both people and regions. Socialism, which is a plank of both the constitution and the Congress, requires ‘development for all’, not just as a ‘buzzword’ but as reflected in the thoughtful economic planning.
While passing through Kerala, as part of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, one thing that stood out was the self-sufficiency of the villages therein. They didn’t really seem like villages in other parts of India, but smaller self-sufficient units, with all the day-to-day requirements taken adequately care of.
Concentrating all the attention on two or three cities in every state is not the way forward. We need to focus on ensuring a common minimum programme, which should include basic road infrastructure, schools and hospital networks, adequate employment and entertainment opportunities, every 25 kms, at least. There will be cities, which will be relatively better off, and part of it is unavoidable, but in terms of planning, developing satellite towns near big cities will not suffice.
We need to capitalise on the strength of each region and use that to boost development therein. This will also reduce the burden of migration and resultant over-crowding, strain on public resources and pollution. This agenda of spread-out development, as opposed to pocket-centric development should find space in the Congress’s manifesto.
5. Give ownership of resources to those who care – a case for adivasis and fishermen
We need a strong plan of action for making the fishermen community, who live along the coasts, and the adivasis, who live in forests, an equal participant in the decision-making that concerns the use of these natural resources. We are witnessing that these communities are being pushed to the level of extinction, with their rights being systematically eroded.
Shared ownership of these resources, and a say in the decision-making of the communities who act as guardians of natural resources, needs to be articulated as part of the Congress’s ideology. When we say ‘we are for the weakest’, its practical manifestation has to reflect in a systematic and structured programme for ensuring such a say.
Several legislations need to be revisited, including the Forest Rights Act, and the process of giving them rights, and recognising their claim over forests needs to be pushed for.
6. Environment matters. Put that at the top of the agenda
While the BJP fights to paint the colour ‘saffron’ in the most political of hues, there is still no seeming space for the green – the green of the environment in Indian politics. Congress’s redefined ideology needs to specifically entail care for all beings by providing political space for green politics. While Indira Gandhi is credited with touching upon the environment issue at the Stockholm Conference, followed by a spate of domestic environmental rules and regulations, we in India, are far from demonstrating a serious space to the environment and environmental concerns.
As the Bharat Jodo Yatra passed through Bellary in Karnataka, one could not escape conversations about what Bellary once was – a beautiful green land, and how it has been robbed and denuded with illegal mining of iron ore, at the gun point of power and money. Bellary may never look the same when our next generation visits it in 25 years from now. So it is imperative to act now.
Besides, one will do well to remember that all that beauty is not forever. So for our beautiful Himachal Pradesh to last, for Uttarakhand to survive, for all environment zones to exist and thrive, we need to ensure to put ‘environment’ at the top of our priorities, and ensure no ideological departure from prioritising it.
7. Demolish the rule of mafias
Mafias exist. This wasn’t a new learning, but in Telangana, it seemed to be commonly accepted knowledge that to move anything, you need the mafia. Killings of opponents (anyone who opposes you) is the norm of the day.
One begins to think how far one is in a Mexico-based cartel inspired series, before realising what everyone knows but no one talks about – mafia needs to be addressed. This is not like choosing between ideological purity and pressures of electoral success, but merely doing what will ensure future constitutional foundations of the State – deal with, nay, demolish the mafias.
8. Revamp the organisation. Cohesion not fragmentation
The need for ‘unity and cohesion’ in a fragmented political structure becomes most visible in Madhya Pradesh, which is set to go to polls in November 2023. Any attempt to ideologically redefine the party, will have to be accompanied by systematic, not sporadic attempts to define the party structure.
The Congress needs to create a party structure based on the design of a ‘circle’, not ‘triangle’, so as to give space to those who have been systematically kept out – the first timers, those from the politically disempowered or under-represented communities, those without backgrounds, young, women, and minorities of all kinds, while ensuring inner party discipline and clear pathways to taking action on crucial matters in time.
Clarity in progression through party ranks, weightage and role given to those who are in organisational politics as opposed to electoral politics, clarity in the weightage of those who make lateral entries as opposed to those who rise through party hierarchy ranks, etc. needs to be defined. All in all, as opposed to the BJP’s clear hierarchy, Congress needs to redefine its own party structure design, incorporating the principle of clarity, effectiveness, discipline and circular structure.
9. Revolutionise the conception of women in politics. Start with the language.
The Congress needs to target ensuring equal representation of women in all spaces in the next 25 years. This will mean creating spaces by both – reservation and long-term policies to empower women. A good start can be using a non-discriminatory language.
The Congress communiques should use gender neutral language unless the context otherwise requires reference to men, women, or the third gender. This will send out a strong message as regards to commitment to creating a gender equal society. But beyond signals and symbols, the party needs to form a committee to put a concrete roadmap for ensuring a holistic work on women-related issues. This may include, but should not be restricted to, introduction of policies to empower women, such as the latest – ‘Gruha Lakshmi’ policy announced by Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra; assured representation of women in upcoming electoral states; inclusion of women leaders at all forums ; taking a strong stand on women-related issues; maintaining a strong stand against those who are found violating women’s dignity or playing ‘hand in glove’ with those who do.
10. Be solution-centric, not ‘problem-raising’ centric
The Congress is in the opposition but their ideology has to be solution-giving centric. It is not sufficient to raise issues, the party has to create programmes which requires our volunteers to help address the problems faced by the common people and stand with them.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Congress did laudable work, especially with leaders like Srinivas B.V., Indian Youth Congress president, going out of their way to help people with access to oxygen cylinders. But this plank of ‘individual social responsibility’ for all Congress volunteers needs to be systematically incorporated in the party programme.
11. Be futuristic and be ready to adapt to the future
Being 138 years old means that there are set ways of doing things. But this should not prevent us from asking ‘what does the future belong to’ and adapt to changing trends – be that of technology or best practices.
The Congress needs to move away from the conventional ‘file’ system and become tech savvy. It needs to have a team of experts who can keep abreast of the latest changes in futuristic technologies to be able to keep India at the top of the game and also keep the party itself youthful and efficient.
12. Win with love, not hatred
The secessionist movement in Punjab seems to be gaining ground with a weak government in place. In Jammu and Kashmir, ‘fear’ is being used to suppress any domestic dissent. But what Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra has reignited is the belief in the power of love, as an integral part of the Congress’s ideology.
Before taking any decision, one common question that all Congress workers need to ask themselves is, “Is this inspired by love, or hatred?” If the answer is love – march on. And so will the party.
The Congress is the only hope for saving the spirit of India and of the constitution. It is imperative for this reason that it redefines itself and does so while putting its ideology at the centre of all its activities. But first, the ideology needs to be put on paper, and second, it needs to be widely disseminated. The march into the future depends on how well this is done.
Avani Bansal is an advocate in the Supreme Court of India and a Congress party member. She tweets at @bansalavani. She is currently walking with Rahul Gandhi from Kanyakumari to Kashmir as part of the Bharat Jodo Yatra.