Last week, I spoke to a senior politician from another country who had travelled to India to attend the Congress party’s commemoration of the 125th birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru. A keen observer of India that cuts across partisan lines, he was curious to assess how the Congress, once the country’s most formidable political party, was coping with the devastating defeat it suffered in the 2014 general election.
As a point of inquiry this was of legitimate interest. Victory and defeat are normal in democratic politics but what is of exceptional interest is how parties cope with both. His impressions were quite unflattering for the Congress. The Congress, it seemed to him, was unwilling and even unprepared to assess the larger concerns that stemmed from the victory of the BJP and Narendra Modi. The Congress, he felt, was basically playing a waiting game, waiting for the BJP to make mistakes and for popular disenchantment with the Modi Government to emerge.
In this context, the over-emphasis on the Nehru event was quite significant. Rather than use the memory of Nehru to assess how democracy and society has evolved in the past six decades, the Congress seemed intent on using Nehru (and, for that matter, Indira Gandhi) as a symbol of frozen principles. It is almost as if a modern Communist Party felt it necessary to deify Leninist principles of party organisation and the debates of the early decades of the Soviet Union to approach the modern world.
In particular, the foreign observer was struck by two examples of foolhardy certitude. First, despite the scale of the defeat, the Congress was unwilling to approach the vexed question of leadership with an open mind. As far as the Congress was concerned, there was nothing to discuss about a leadership that had failed to inspire. Secondly, rather than tap the creative instincts of Young India, particularly its restless desire to force the pace of change, the Congress was intent on basing its political appeal only on those who were yet to be fully drawn into a new world centred on entrepreneurship, self-improvement and opportunities.
The second observation was particularly significant. By its very nature the Congress was always a broad church party. During the national movement and notwithstanding the unquestioned moral leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, the Congress operated as a broad platform for divergent tendencies ranging from conservative and right-wing to the moderately socialist and the Marxist Left. Later, under Nehru and his daughter, the party veered towards statism and welfarist populism, and under Rajiv Gandhi it embraced a variant of confused modernism.
It is interesting that under Rajiv, PV Narasimha Rao and even patches of Manmohan Singh, the Congress did appeal to the modernising impulses of an India that was exasperated by the over-regulation of society. There are academic studies based on surveys that suggest that it would be imprudent to equate popular exasperation with the inefficiencies of the state sector with a full-throated endorsement of the free market. India, it would seem, is anxious for a deft balance between state regulation and the market economy. The importance of political positioning lay in knowing how much to tilt in which direction and the timing of the move. It was the unresolved conflict between the two tendencies during the UPA decade that explained the incoherence of the Congress during the general election.
Judging from the contrived nostalgia among Congress leaders over the Nehru commemoration, it would seem that the Congress has chosen to take two steps backward. The decision may have been influenced by the reading that the Modi Government is, in sloganeering terms, “pro-rich” and insufficiently mindful of an elaborate welfare net for India. Whether this is a fundamental misreading of the impulses that drive the BJP Government will be determined by subsequent events. What is important for the moment is the emerging reality of Congress non-cooperation towards all important ‘reform’ initiatives of the Modi Government.
During the Budget session of Parliament, an impression had grown that a demoralised and dejected Congress would, at best, delay the passage of important legislation such as the increase in foreign investment in insurance, the modification of land acquisition norms and labour flexibility. In a sense that is what Opposition parties are often expected to do: delay but not obstruct. However, it now seems that the Congress will utilise its strength in the Rajya Sabha and its growing proximity with the rump Left and the unity-seeking Janata parivarto prevent all reform.
The calculation is simple: if it can be demonstrated that much-needed reform legislation will face parliamentary turbulence, the investing classes (both domestic and foreign) will gradually lose their interest in India and once again look elsewhere. If this happens, the Modi Government will falter and may even become a victim to a backlash centred on disappointment.
The cussedness of the Congress is directly linked to the perceived indignities heaped on the “first family”. The Congress remains angry that it wasn’t gifted the status of the official Opposition and the loyalists are seething with rage at the Haryana Government’s “harassment” of “private citizen” Robert Vadra. As of now, the Congress doesn’t realistically believe it can stage any electoral comeback: the Punjab election of 2016 is thought to constitute its end of the beginning. But, meanwhile, it has declared war in the belief that all roadblocks in the path of India touching a 8.5 per cent growth rate is legitimate.
Modi is not one to disregard challenges. The next few months will determine the contours of both the BJP and Government fightback. It will be exciting politics but India could well have done without the excitement.