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Congress Must Play its Nehrutva and Priyanka Cards

Secularism set Nehru apart from his contemporaries. The Congress party must look to his ideals to resolve its ideological crisis before the 2024 Lok Sabha election.

The Indian National Congress, the grand old party of India, is facing an existential crisis as never before. Ever since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, we have been hearing about his one-point agenda to make India Congress-mukt, that is, Congress-free.

Lately, Mamata Banerjee, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo, has also joined the fray, though from the opposite end. Her argument is that the Congress party is not sufficiently combative to confront the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) head on. Setting aside her personal ambition to become India’s prime minister, she has a point.

Both ideologically and organisationally, the party does not instill enough confidence in its habitually loyal and still large and widespread constituency. On the one hand, its commitment to secularism keeps wavering; on the other, the face of its leadership, Rahul Gandhi, appears at best a half-hearted politician. Put together, these two factors undermine any serious challenge to the BJP, which is eager for a third consecutive victory in 2024.

Keeping this premise in mind, the central argument of this essay is that if Congress is solemn about challenging the Modi-led BJP in 2024, it must do two things. One, it must unhesitatingly announce Nehrutva as its ideological plank; and two, it should project Priyanka Gandhi as its leader. If it is too much to expect Rahul Gandhi to sideline himself completely, then let him be like Sonia Gandhi in 2004. Let him act as the party’s conscience-keeper and allow his sister to become its public face.

What is Nehrutva? It is a word I have taken the liberty to coin. It is the antonym of Hindutva. In a way, it is the vernacularisation of what we know as Nehruvianism. That Nehrutva and Hindutva rhyme is an added allure. Of late, far from presenting an ideational alternative to Hindutva, the Congress has been guilty of peddling it themselves, much like the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

Sadly, even Rahul Gandhi has indulged in this game. Prior to the 2019 general election, he flaunted his sacred thread (janeu) and advertised himself as a twice-born Brahmin. He plastered his forehead with vermillion to identify himself as a ritualistic Hindu. The strategy, of course, boomeranged. Not only did the BJP take full advantage of his play-acting to mock his secularist stance, even those opposed to the BJP found his posturing ludicrous.

Nehrutva is a package, a complete philosophy of governance that includes both domestic and international outlooks. It is naïve to argue that the world today is the same as it was during the days of Jawaharlal Nehru. But having seen Modi in action for seven long years, it is conceivable that many Indians are no longer as enamoured of him as they were in 2014. This is the constituency that Congress must address. The BJP has suffered consecutive losses in state Assembly elections held recently, the most humiliating of these the West Bengal election earlier this year. Runaway unemployment, a struggling economy, combined with the state’s aggressive push to reduce its role in public life through aggressive privatisation, has started pinching a large section of Indians, from the economically weak to the not-so-rich middle classes.

The recent victory of the agitating farmers is a shot in the arm for many disgruntled sections of society, including the minorities, frustrated youth, and the vast masses of workers in the unorganised sector who most directly faced the catastrophic brunt of demonetisation. For many of them, Nehrutva might appeal provided it is appropriately adapted to offer a better balance between private capital and state intervention, especially in the social sector. No other party can bridge this ideological hiatus better than Congress. Not only does it have a legacy to build upon, but it also continues to be the only party with a national presence.

The Congress would also do well to draw upon Nehrutva’s strong credentials in the international arena. Nehru, along with Josip Broz Tito and Gamal Abdel Nasser, was the founding father of the Non-Aligned Movement. It was the time of the first Cold War, which was defined by a fundamental ideological divide. Today, a new Cold War between the United States and China may well be in the offing, but the situation is much more complex because the struggle appears to be ideology-neutral. The Americans may like to see the world divided between democracies and the rest, but that is not how the Chinese see it. They have countered it by claiming to be a truer democracy than the United States, and in doing so, they also implicitly displaced India from the mantle of the world’s largest democracy.

Given Narendra Modi’s foreign policy record, it is clear that his government does not have a foreign policy; it has only foreign relations. That too, in most cases, they are reactive and personalised, as is evident from his extravagant use of hugs, often at the cost of COVID-19 protocols. A country of India’s size, geostrategic location, and economic potential can ill afford the absence of policy visions to forestall the challenges ahead.

None of the anti-BJP political parties, other than the Congress, talk about foreign policy. The TMC’s involvement in foreign policy begins and ends with India’s relations with Bangladesh. The Samajwadi Party has no position at all on foreign policy issues, though its super-patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav was once India’s defence minister and had lent critical support to former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s controversial nuclear deal with the United States. The foreign policy interests of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam are largely Sri Lanka-centric because of the Tamil factor. The Shiv Sena is pathologically anti-Pakistan, which is another manifestation of its Hindu supremacism. The party goes to the extent of opposing Pakistani artistes from performing on Indian soil.

In short, there is much to be desired across India’s political spectrum insofar as foreign policy thinking is concerned. By contrast, the Congress party has brilliant minds like Jairam Ramesh, Shashi Tharoor, Salman Khurshid, and others to fill the vacuum in long-term strategic thinking, as their thoughtful writings amply demonstrate.

Turning to our second point, how should the Congress settle its leadership dilemma? It is being suggested that let Priyanka Gandhi be tried for the role. I sense that Rahul Gandhi will ultimately decline to become the Congress president because he is a reluctant politician. As the saying goes, one can take the horse to the pond but cannot make it drink the water.

Compared with Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi seems to be a more participatory politician if her public face in Uttar Pradesh politics is any indication. She appears to have three distinct advantages. One, since the beginning, the BJP has ridiculed Rahul Gandhi as a pappu, meaning immature, misfit to rule India. Deprived of its bête noire, BJP may find itself in a quandary to manufacture a new face upon which to direct its hateful ire.

Two, Priyanka has the gender advantage, which the rise of Mamata Banerjee has underlined. Her commitment to earmark 40% of the Assembly tickets to female candidates in the forthcoming Uttar Pradesh election was not an off-the-cuff promise. It may not rattle the bigwigs of state politics just yet but remember that Congress is preparing for the 2024 test. Uttar Pradesh is merely net practice.

Three, Priyanka bears a striking resemblance to her grandmother, Indira Gandhi. We academics and intellectuals may decry the latter as the destroyer of India’s democratic ethos by imposing a period of Emergency (1975-77), but for the teeming masses of Indians, she was a no-nonsense politician who put Pakistan in its place. Through astute military planning and diplomatic finesse, she chopped the country in two and helped create Bangladesh as an independent nation.

Postscript: Nehru’s unadulterated commitment to secularism set him apart from his contemporaries, even within his party. He could therefore afford to take politically risky steps, even go to the extent of hurting Muslim sentiments. One such instance came during the initial days of India’s independence. Delhi was inundated with millions of Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan, and the government was at its wits’ end to accommodate them. To resolve the crisis, Nehru allowed mosques and Muslim graveyards to be used as shelters and Wakf Board lands to be sold to refugees. As related in Ata-ur-Rahman Qasimi’s book on the historical mosques of Delhi (Dilli ki Tarikhi Masajid, 2001), Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, Minister of Education in the Nehru cabinet, was perturbed by these developments. He expressed his uneasiness about the destruction of Muslim tombs and graveyards. Nehru explained: ‘Maulana, half of Delhi is graveyards and mosques. Our schemes will fail if we don’t have room to build.’

The author is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. He was an ICSSR National Fellow and professor of South Asian Studies at JNU. The views are personal.

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