The period of 18 long years, beginning in 1979, marked by successive defeats of Britain’s left-leaning Labour Party to the right-wing Conservatives, is often characterised as the ‘wilderness years’ for the party. Many are beginning to wonder if the phrase can be borrowed to define what may lie in store for the Congress in India.
While the ‘wilderness years’ may well reflect a similar identity crisis for the Congress as it did for Labour, it also gives the former a unique opportunity, especially at a time when it celebrates 130 years of its existence, to consult the past and apply some of Labour’s solutions.
The Congress, some insiders hint, may have a special strategy session in March to discuss a revival plan. What the party needs now is more action than brainstorming. As Tony Blair, Labour’s longest-serving prime minister, once put it: “The problem of Labour during the 1980s was that society had changed and the party didn’t.” The simplest diagnosis of “what went wrong” for the Congress would be similar — an honest recognition of its failure to tap into the aspirational mood of the masses and to adapt its political communication accordingly.
The current communication set-up within the Congress has been disastrous. Ineffective control over the narrative despite a below-par performance by the Modi government, lack of credible voices to articulate its position, the sheer lack of creativity to alter the political message to suit the dynamic requirements of a new-age media and, worst of all, the inability to be proactive in information dissemination and propaganda countering, especially on social media, have ended up evaporating much of the political capital enjoyed by its leadership.
Labour found its solution in not one but two Tonys, namely Tony Blair, a charismatic orator, and the lesser-known Tony Benn, Labour MP, whose sense of idealism helped it retain its sacred convictions drawn from the workers’ movement. One is certain, especially after conversations with scores of party workers, that much like Labour, the Congress will find its answers in two Gandhis — Rahul and Priyanka. Benn, much like Rahul, was not a careerist and despite having several opportunities to become the undisputed leader of the party he chose not to.
Benn had appeared on the scene much before Blair and worked selflessly to reconnect the party organisation with its base by allowing greater internal democracy to prevail. Rahul, much like Benn, shows a deep commitment to vest the power of policy making and party leadership selection in the hands of ordinary party supporters.
But it was Blair who arrived with clarity that Labour could not be reduced to a mere ‘pressure group’. Then, as if on cue, Blair, along with political consultant Phillip Gould and media strategist Alastair Campbell, set out to script the campaign ‘new Labour, new Britain’. A few years after that effort Labour won not just the 1997 elections but also the 2001 and 2005 polls under Blair! This is what the Congress needs. Adopt new strategies, adapt to new mediums, shed the old baggage like Labour did and connect with the masses using a fresh message. Priyanka may be in the best position to usher in some of these things.
Rahul’s integrity and leadership are necessary and healthy for the party, providing a stability that will allow it to undertake meaningful socio-politico reforms in India. But like Benn, Rahul needs a tag-team partner of stature and appeal, who compliments his ‘Bennite’ idealism with a ‘Blairish’ pragmatism. The only person who can provide this seems to be Priyanka.
Shehzad Poonawalla is a lawyer-activist and Congress ideologue
The views expressed by the author are personal