Sep 13, 2008

India - When the congressmen come marching in

When this Saturday (September 13) the 200-odd members of the upper echelons of the Congress leaderships gather at the Parliament House Annexe for a meeting of the “extended” Congress Working Committee, they could go about their business in one of the two ways. The easiest, the traditional and the most comfortable choice would be to reduce the entire exercise to a massive endorsement of the leadership of the Congress president and the Prime Minister.
The second, the more difficult and the most needed option is to be in a position to tell the country, at the end of the day’s deliberations, why the Congress ought to be voted back to power. The country has to be given a coherent intellectual justification for continuing to repose its faith in the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh leadership, even after five years of fitful governance.
In other words the Congress will need to market itself as something much more than a mere instrument for furthering the interests and ambitions of a particular political family. In May 2004 the party made a historic choice that bestowed nobility on its leadership and introduced a large dose of decency in an otherwise unedifying political matrix. Much of that nobility, as also the element of “tyaag,” stand worn off. The party needs to devise new formulas for renewing its political respectability and acceptability — as a group of leaders that has the stamina, hunger and the clarity of goals to steer the country in these difficult and exacting times.
Now, instead of harping on the 2004 “tyaag” or relapsing into old-fashioned family mantras, the Congress can legitimately try to project Ms Gandhi as the iconic leader around whom a new intellectual and ideological narrative can be crafted. Leadership alone does not sell, especially in this cynical and irreverent age; a leader must be marketed as representing certain values, as subscribing to some ideas on how to fulfil the society’s aspirations, and as advocating some solutions to the polity’s current inflictions.
The Congress has to rediscover the world of ideas and ideology. For instance, even after the party leadership took the biggest of all political gambles over the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement the Congressmen remain charmingly innocent of the ideological and policy issues, immediate and long-term, at stake. The Congressmen’s confusion is the party’s business, but the country needs to have from them a glimpse of the passion and urgency underlying the nuclear deal and all that it entails for our collective fortunes.
For that matter, the country also would like to know what the Congress thinks or stands for in the current bloody turmoil in Kashmir or what was the Congress position in the stand-off over the Amarnath controversy; and, while we are at it, the country may also want to know what the Congress thinks of the anti-Christian violence in Orissa — or of the stand-off at Singur, or the anti-north Indian agitation in Mumbai, or the ever expanding reach of the Naxalite groups. Not only it needs to spell out its views and ideas, the Congress has to reassure the nation that it is equipped than other political parties to promote national welfare.
As a political group that fancies itself as the natural party of governance, the Congress owes it to itself and the country to re-energise national consensus around key strategic and policy issues. Clarity on what its core values can have the added advantage of framing political action around those convictions; a re-statement of values and ideas imposes a cohesion and a sense of identity on the entire political organisation as also defines parameters for the newcomers to the party.
Admittedly in this election year the Congress’ pre-occupation naturally would be with winning the coming Assembly and the Lok Sabha polls. Also admittedly, the all too obvious organisational infirmities (mostly self-inflicted) cannot be wished away. But if the Congress hopes to break out of its limited electoral real estate, it can do so only by giving the non-Congress voters a reason to favour the party. For a change the party must humour the citizen rather than its leader. The September 13 congregation is an opportunity for the party and its leadership to craft a new appeal.

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