City City Bang Bang, Columns

Congress: Jammed in inconsequence?

Perhaps the BJP could have done better in Maharashtra. But if the Congress is seeking to find any comfort in the fact that BJP has not won a majority on its own, it needs to look at its own performance. For the last few months, the Congress has been in a coma of sorts, and has not made even a move of any kind, let alone anything that could be considered a significant political gambit.

The need for the Congress is to shake the cobwebs off its thinking and adopt a new approach altogether. The current poll reverses are not a part of a cyclical ‘what goes up must come down’ phenomenon and it is important for the party to realise that something fundamental has changed. The call to draft Priyanka is part of the deeply ingrained Congress reaction to any challenge but running into the once comforting arms of the family is not going to be an answer today. Regardless of the fact that she might arguably be a better choice than Rahul to serve as the face of the party, she is at best the right answer to a wrong question. The Congress does not need a new face, but a new heart.

The real problem is that the Congress is bereft of ideas. The old mental model of politics as an exercise in knitting together electoral constituencies by creating and then milking targeted special interest programmes has faced severe challenge from a gifted communicator like Modi who has used media to bypass traditional political structures. He has built a strong franchise for himself by showing the electorate grand dreams but giving away little by way of specific promises. Politically, there is a sophistication to the Modi method, that makes the Congress look dated and irrelevant.

Modi’s brand of politics can be described more accurately as the politics of brands. While it is now fashionable to think of everything in terms of a brand, in the case of Modi, this is a particularly appropriate frame to use. The brand as a structure consists of a powerful driving idea that speaks to a deep hope, dream or anxiety which is brought to life in layers of symbolic meaning. Modi represents the idea of a clarity that is simplifying and energising, and speaks to a deep seated desire to be led into a hopeful future. The choice of progress over modernity and of administrative efficiency over social equity echoes the desire of the an increasingly aspirational electorate. The use of media, the appropriation of national icons, the elaborate choreography of symbols that surrounds key initiatives, the staging of every new initiative as a media event are all part of a new grammar of politicking that is designed to create a new mythology of hope. It is interesting that Modi uses icons of the past much more tellingly than did the Congress which had a cupboard overflowing with them, but used only a few from the family and even there, used them with ritualistic lack of belief. In Modi’s scheme of things, past leaders become sources of legitimacy; they also implicitly place him in their company and serve as a reminder of the scale of his ambition.

The idea of the dynasty needs to die. Not only because having entitled people run the party distorts its ability to receive signals from the ground and stunts the growth of other leaders, but also because it will face increasing challenge, if not outright ridicule from the electorate, at least at the national level. The problem for the party is that there is no mechanism for a new leadership to emerge. The reason why after every election debacle, the national leadership is absolved of all responsibility is because there is no way the party can imagine itself without the family holding it together. The Congress is today united by little else than a reflexive obeisance to a leadership that is seen to be beyond challenge.

The only way out for the party is for the family to publicly step back from holding any positions of power, and to anoint a new leadership with its full backing. The current members of the Nehru-Gandhi family have received as legacy, without deserving it in any specific way, the mandate to lead the Congress party and the country and now it is time to return the favour by passing on the baton to more deserving leaders. People with ideas, and an ability to engage with the new realities of politics today. The self-delusion that the country needs the family is no longer sustainable, and it is time to cut the cord and let go of the party and mark a new beginning in a manner that is symbolically spectacular.

And it is not just about a new leadership. The Congress needs to learn new lessons in the art of creating a direct relationship with the voter of today. Its symbolic larder is being raided by Narendra Modi as it watches helplessly, gloriously inept in its grasp of the semiotics of power. In the short term its only hope is to cobble together alliances to stop the speeding Modi express. The fact that even Modi has been unable to move the BJP’s vote share beyond the low thirties in most cases affords the Congress some hope, but given the fractured nature of our polity, alliances work better in theory than practice. But even in the medium term, it has to radically transform itself.

It is unlikely that this will happen. Nothing suggests that the Congress is capable of such a decisive step, indeed it seems incapable of taking any step at all. Unless it means clamouring for Priyanka to take over.