An inside take on a road map for the Congress
At last I can see signs of life in the Congress! Having lain inert for months, it’s starting to twitch. Unless I’m horribly mistaken, the dormant giant is stirring itself out of slumber. If it actually stretches, raises its head and attempts to stand up, that can only be good news.
Now, you can’t have failed to notice how a succession of Congressmen have started expressing concern about the state of the party and suggesting what needs to be done. Some have spoken before, like Shashi Tharoor and Abhishek Singhvi. Others have darkly hinted at why the Congress hasn’t appointed a successor to Rahul Gandhi. Sandeep Dikshit claims that senior leaders are “scared” in case the job goes to a rival. They prefer the continuation of an interim arrangement. But none has been so clear and comprehensive as Manish Tewari.
First, he disagrees with Tharoor and Dikshit that the Congress needs to immediately elect a new president. “There’s an overwhelming consensus in Congress that we need Sonia as president for the foreseeable future,” Tewari said in a recent interview he gave me for The Wire. Having steered the Congress to two election victories, she has the skills to tackle the present crisis. According to him, the majority of Congress Lok Sabha members of Parliament (MPs), general secretaries and working committee members agree. He says this is also true of the Youth Congress and the National Students Union of India. The only people he can’t speak for are the Congress’ Rajya Sabha MPs.
Second, Tewari says that the really urgent task is to amend the party’s philosophy so that it is in sync with the needs of the country on critical issues. The ones he has identified are secularism, nationalism, entitlement and privilege as well as the Congress’ economic thinking. He says it needs to convene a series of Pachmarhi-style conclaves for this purpose. The process could take a year or more. Sonia must continue till it is completed.
Tewari believes there’s a need to go back to the original constitutional definition of secularism as “a strict separation between church and State”. Over the years, it’s been reinterpreted as sarva dharma sambhav in the mistaken belief secularism is part of a 1,000-year-old Indian tradition. He insists it’s not. He says it’s an import from the West, deliberately introduced into the Constitution by BR Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru. The problem with sarva dharma sambhav is that it dilutes secularism, and thus permits a slide towards the majoritarian positions of the Right. Only the restoration of the original interpretation can stem this descent.
On nationalism, Tewari says the challenge is to define a concept which is different to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Hindutva-based vision but also more appealing. He suggests this can be done by borrowing and building on Barack Obama’s concept which is defined by the phrase ‘Together we are one”.
Tewari believes there is “a general revolt in the country, especially in the youth, against entitlement”. The Congress has to respond to this. He suggests it should start by distinguishing between entitlement and legacy. The Pilots, Scindias, Deoras and Chidambarams are products of legacy, not entitlement. The Congress must articulate this and convince the country.
However, it’s on how the Congress’ economic philosophy must change that Tewari is most forthright. The party ushered in economic liberalisation in 1991, but continued with socialist rhetoric for the next three decades. Consequently, there’s a huge mismatch between the economic policies it implemented and the language it speaks. This must be bridged if the Congress is to appeal to millions of young Indians who are aspirational.
I’m not sure how many Congressmen will endorse Tewari’s views although he makes a lot of sense. What’s more important is that his comments are an undeniable sign that the Congress is awakening and attempting to revive. I only hope this sleepyhead doesn’t doze off again.