For the last two weeks, I’ve been asking myself, what are the primary differences between the Bharatiya Janta Party and the Congress? The answer changes, depending on whom you ask. Whether it’s ideological, economic, moral, political or philosophical, there’s always a ‘versus’ attached to the answer.
Hindu nationalism versus secularism. Economic nationalism & Reaganism versus economic socialism & the welfare state. Majoritarian populism versus inclusive empowerment. Realism versus idealism. Confrontationalism versus collectivism. Conservatism versus elitism. Internal democracy & meritocracy versus sycophancy & nepotism.
For the last two weeks, the latter has stood out, rather starkly.
The mood was sombre and pensive.
The October heat of 1985 was threatening to wilt the Bharatiya Janta Party’s soul at Gandhinagar. This was the Party’s moment of truth: would it disintegrate or evolve?
The mood was sombre and pensive.
Four months had passed since the BJP endured a comprehensive drubbing. All the vigour and ardour of its inception had dissolved. It seemed like this was the beginning of the end. The two leading men of the BJP, Atal & Lal sat on the dais, in melancholic meditation. The BJP won 2 seats in the Lok Sabha elections of 1984, its vote share down to 7% of the electorate. Atal, the national President and the supposed Prime Minister- in waiting, was humiliated at Gwalior by the Scindia scion. If abject failure needed a definition, this was it.
Reflection, introspection and contemplation led them to a change of course and guard. Atal took responsibility for the defeat and resigned. He would have to wait 11 more years to become Prime Minister. A soul searching report was produced. It concluded that the Party needed to change, not to revive and rejuvenate, but to survive and self-preserve. Who would lead it though? How do they look beyond their tallest leader? Deen Dayal was dead. Balraj was out. It would have to be Lal. There was no one else. But would he be able? He hadn’t even fought the elections and his historical record as a mass mobiliser was poor. Lal was the General Secretary during Atal’s reign, wasn’t the debacle as much his responsibility? Atal did not care for these questions or their internal rivalry. The Party mattered more; and if anyone could resurrect the BJP, it was Lal. The bespectacled man from Karachi wasn’t charming or charismatic, wasn’t a powerful orator nor was he a born leader. He was an organiser and he would lead the BJP’s rise from the abyss.
A year later, in 1986, Lal officially took over the reins of the Party. The people in power laughed at the transformation; little did they know, they were laughing at their own obliteration. The detractors and sceptics derided and mocked the internal democracy; little did they know, they were taunting a practice that would come back to haunt them. Vajpayee ushered in the era of Advani.
Immediately, Advani heralded an organisational shift. Younger blood was added to the Executive. Names like Joshi, Mahajan, Govindacharya, Thakre, Sahni and Bhandari, unheard of back then, would go on to, not just distort and disrupt the Indian political narrative, but forever metamorphosise it. The new President also altered the guiding principles of the BJP. Gandhian socialism, integral humanism and the middle course were rejected. They were replaced by cultural nationalism, populism, majoritarianism and ethical purity. Advani and the RSS believed the people of India were tired of timidity and docility; the BJP would drive forward with aggression and machismo.
In 4 years, the BJP’s tally in the Lok Sabha would go up to 85 and two years after, to 120. In two decades, since the passing of the torch, the Party would evolve from political irrelevance to political significance. It wasn’t because of political genius or rare insight. It was because the Party wasn’t afraid to look beyond its leader. It was because the BJP wasn’t fearful of giving new leadership a chance. It was also because of internal democracy, believing in merit and the ability to recognise the need for change, welcoming it rather than resisting it.
The mood is sombre and pensive.
The desert sands of Rajasthan have landed in Delhi and are threatening to bring the ivory tower of the Party down. Defiance has replaced demoralisation in 2020.
The mood is sombre and pensive.
A year has passed since the 2019 rout that shook the Party to its very core. It wasn’t a defeat; it was the sheer scale of it. Never, in its illustrious history had the Congress experienced two consecutive, colossal, mammoth and sweeping defeats. Their leader lost the family bastion of Amethi, their vote share went down to 19% and they were walloped in states, they had earlier carried. If decimation needed a depiction, it was right here. Confidence in the Party was at an all-time low; their Leader finally took responsibility and resigned.
The results of 2019 jolted the Congress Party, but not nearly enough. There has been no study or report or roadmap for a comeback. Discussion, criticism and introspection have been discouraged and leaders who’ve resorted to it have been banished (Sanjay Jha). The haloed Mother has once again taken over the Party, filling her executive with sycophants devoid of mass appeal. Instead of course correction, the Party has gone back to its loyal old guard, the same culprits who led them to the catastrophe of 2014.
Sachin might not mean much to cynical Congressmen, other than another name in the long list of recent embarrassments, a list that includes the names Sarma, Jaganmohan and Jyotiraditya. They were all branded opportunists or traitors, for quitting the Party over personal ambition. The case of the former deputy chief minister of Rajasthan is different though. He hasn’t quit the Party; instead, borrowing a leaf from his late father who challenged the likes of Rao & Kesri, he is leading a slow and improbable charge, not just to defy the leadership but usurp it.
In the 2013 Assembly elections, the Congress was wiped out of the map of Rajasthan. It polled its lowest ever seat tally and vote share. The sitting government losing power has never been alarming in Rajasthan; it is a state famous for anti-incumbency waves and oscillating from one party to another. What was shocking, however, was the enormity of the defeat; most of the Gehlot cabinet was crushed and the Chief Minister himself won his seat with a minuscule margin.
A 37-year-old Sachin Pilot was roped in as state Party president to restructure, reorganise and reconstruct the Congress. Power, that for so long rested in the hands of old satraps was passed on to the young and dynamic. This was a new way forward. Youth would lead and experience would take a back seat. All the states of the Hindi heartland followed suit, this new leadership believed in unconventional politics and learning from the mistakes of the past.
Sachin would reform a Party that was not just out of touch with the electorate but was riddled with factionalism, caste divisions and lack of organization. For the next four years, the PCC chief spearheaded grassroot movements, united the Gujjars and the Meenas, capitalised on agricultural strife and exploited the discontent of unemployment. All of his hard work bore fruit in the 2018 Assembly elections when the Congress romped home with a majority. It was a fantastic comeback story, a young man armed with an MBA from Wharton destabilising the traditional politics of a parochial state. It was his crowning moment, it was the new leadership’s crowning moment; except, it wasn’t. Power was passed back to the old guard, the two upstarts were perceived as threats to the Gandhi leadership; Sachin & Jyotiraditya were sidelined as a consequence of insecurity and myopia.
There probably is a lesson here. Talent does not matter in the Congress; after all the decisions are taken by people who are bereft of political potential. Toiling does not matter in the Congress; what matters is how well connected you are with the Gandhis. Victory does not matter in the Congress; after all the control of the Party rests with a man who has never won a political campaign.
And so, learning these lessons, Sachin Pilot continues his slow charge in defiance of the Congress leadership. Perhaps, this is not about the future of the Party, perhaps this is about personal aspirations or a confrontation with the old guard. Regardless, of what it might be, Pilot’s defiance has awoken every single Congressman from a slumber of apathy and anguish.
Rahul Gandhi has been in Indian politics for the last 16 years. In 2007, he was elevated to the post of General Secretary, which was a declaration of his intent and ambition. Curiously, he led the campaign of the UPA I even while there was a sitting Prime Minister. The 2009 victory was about good governance, the welfare state and stability; yet, it emboldened Rahul Gandhi as he took undeserved credit. The spectacular failure of the 2012 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections weakened his resolve. By 2013, he was appointed Vice President and declared the Party’s prime ministerial nominee. In a year, he humiliated the Prime Minister while also humiliating himself in an interview where he appeared not just out of touch and out of sync, but also out of depth. The Indian population concluded that he was unfit to lead their nation and rejected him emphatically.
Rahul Gandhi has evaded and shunned responsibility like the plague. It is not reluctance but a desire to wield power without accountability; much like his mother when she headed the NAC to oversee the PMO. He has been invited to join the cabinet on numerous occasions, refusing every single time. Why someone, viewed as the future Prime Minister would desist administrative experience is anybody’s guess. Why he continues to unofficially lead the Party is another. Since he assumed leadership, the Congress has lost two Lok Sabha elections, 36 out of 49 Assembly elections and over 30 senior leaders. Why the Family continues to run the Congress like their personal property is the last question. The Gandhi family has symbolised corruption (political, moral, sofcial, financial and competency) for the last decade, and yet, the Congress has not been able to dissociate itself from their name.
Today, the Party of the Mahatma & Patel & Nehru & Shastri & JP & Morarji lies in ruins. Why can’t Congressmen seem to look beyond the Gandhis? Why don’t they realise that India is hurtling towards accepting meritocracy as a way of life? Why don’t the Gandhis realise that they have/ will consume the Party? Why can’t the Congress look at new and experienced leadership? Why can’t they prepare a roadmap for the future? Why?
Maybe because the last primary difference between the BJP and the Congress is the only one that matters. Lack of internal democracy (the last Congress elections were held in 1997) leads to decadence, collapse and extinction.
“Defiance should never be mistaken for disloyalty.”
– Edward R Murrow
Dr Sujay Iyer, MD, Delhi.
Doctor, Writer, Nationalist.