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Empiricism won’t take the Congress very far

The Congress’s decision to maintain neutrality on AAP vs BJP was driven by feedback from its workers in Delhi. Should a political party decide its position on all these matters by seeking views from its cadre or should they challenge, say, retrograde and discriminatory values?

analysis Updated: Jun 28, 2018 09:42 IST
Roshan Kishore
Roshan Kishore
Hindustan Times
Congress,AAP,Rahul Gandhi
It’s to be seen whether the Congress has frittered away its credibility among other non-BJP parties by deciding to fence-sit in the AAP versus the BJP stand-off in Delhi in the run-up to the 2019 parliamentary elections(Arijit Sen/HT Photo)

Why did the Congress not side with Arvind Kejriwal during his recent protest against alleged non-cooperation by Indian Administrative Service officers with the Delhi government? Four non-BJP chief ministers and many other opposition leaders expressed support for the Delhi chief minister. Defence of federal structure enshrined in the Constitution was the common cause which brought them together. Hindustan Times has reported that the Congress’s decision to maintain neutrality was driven by feedback from its workers in Delhi. This opinion — around 20,000 workers responded — was sought by using a new database the party’s data division has created. Many in the party seem to be ecstatic about this method, which is in keeping with Rahul Gandhi’s declared goal of “demolishing the wall” between the Congress’s leadership and cadre. What the Congress’s new guard probably does not realise is that such methods can be counter productive to the party’s political prospects in the long run.

Contrary to what many people like to believe, political partisanship does not matter much in determining people’s views on many polarising issues in India. A 2016 CSDS-Lokniti survey among 15-39 year olds shows that there was not much difference among BJP, non-BJP and even non-partisan respondents on issues such as patriarchy, abolition of death penalty, having strong leaders who do not care about winning elections, etc. Although the share of the BJP supporters who saw beef eating as a matter of personal choice was less than half compared to the non-BJP supporters, the figure was below 50% even among the latter. Will the Congress let cadre feedback dictate its positions on these issues?

One can expect that political partisanship will not affect views on issues such as inter-faith marriages and desirability of subsidies as well. The question then is the following: Should a political party decide its position on all these matters by seeking views from its cadre? If they do, we are likely to land up in a situation where there would hardly be any divergence on such issues in the mainstream political theatre. This raises a fundamental question about the role of political parties in a society like India. Should they make peace with entrenched values which are not just retrograde but also discriminatory, or should they try and challenge them? A pragmatic but correct approach for a party which commits itself to a liberal-modern outlook (which is what the Congress claims) will be to at least try and initiate a process of challenging these values within its ranks; which it can hope will influence the larger society as well.

To be sure, most political parties actually compromise with such issues on a daily basis in India. However, the Congress is more likely to lose from such activities. The party was the default political leader when the country got independence. It has slowly but steadily lost ground to both the BJP and regional parties. The BJP is entrenched in the RSS eco-system which thrives on Hindu majoritarianism. Most regional parties have their own patronage networks, often rooted in specific caste groups. The Congress has neither. In short, both the BJP and regional parties can bank on a stable ideology/identity-based support even if they vacillate on key ideological issues. The Congress used to have this luxury in terms of a committed dalit-minority vote bank earlier, but not any more. If it wants to rejuvenate itself, it has no other option but to position itself as a political-ideological force firmly against the BJP-RSS’s ideology. Such an effort will necessarily entail confronting “popular positions” which can even alienate supporters in the short term. Not doing this might seem attractive for a while but can have disastrous consequences eventually.

Rahul Gandhi can learn a lot from his late father’s decisions to first annul the Supreme Court verdict in the Shah Bano case and then allow shilanyas in Ayodhya. Both these decisions, amounting to hypocrisy, were driven by empiricism. The Congress went by opinion which suggested that these decisions will bring greater support of Muslims and Hindus. History is the proof that the Congress lost out big time due to such decisions.

The other example Rahul Gandhi can look at is of his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru’s idea of India as a secular-democratic republic, especially in the wake of a religion-based partition, must have had many opponents within the Congress party. Had he succumbed to the “grass-root” opinion, both India and the Congress party would have had a much more diminished status today.

First Published: Jun 28, 2018 09:42 IST