Ramachandra Guha is one of the foremost public intellectuals in India, and he has also stood his ground against a muscular Modi-mania. He minced no words in expressing his contempt for Brand Modi politics. The problem with the Guha kind of critique, even against Modi, is that it is based more on reading personality-centric psychological factors that are completely disassociated from the political economy of such imageries. Even as we critique the social psychology of growing majoritarianism, it needs to be necessarily connected to the nature of changes in India’s society and economy over the last three decades.
The myth of Modi is deeply connected to the myth of neo-liberalism. Modi’s aggressive posturing speaks to a disgruntled aspirational generation, so does his critique of dynastic politics. His mode of centralisation of power (more than any family-rule could achieve) is connected to the demands of global capital at one end and to the growing, and consciously-provoked, anxieties among the citizenry at the other. Modi has filled a vacuum that was created by growing aspirations for mobility and declining propositions of realising them. Modi succeeded in replacing mobility with retributive justice.
It is in this context that one needs to analyse the role of the Congress party and its leadership. What is depicted by Guha as a pure crisis of leadership and of the Gandhis, is in fact a larger crisis of the social democratic vision in politics, which we see globally. By merely reducing the situation to the Gandhi family as the source of the crisis, Guha is not only simplifying but also falling for the bait Modi has set up. The real crisis is in what Guha himself wrote about in an earlier article, and later said in an interview to The Wire—the nature of “accommodative” politics of the Congress, where they flip between economic reforms and welfare and between secularism and soft Hindutva. This is not about Rahul Gandhi not being consistent or the Congress party, but a crisis of liberalism in our times. Merely demanding the replacement of Rahul Gandhi will do next to nothing. Rahul is not the source but a part of that crisis. It is wishful thinking to say once we remove the Gandhis, a new set of dynamic leaders will pop up out of the blue. This is like a version of the same myth that propped up Modi by claiming that he will do magic once he is in power.
There is no mass leader in the Congress other than the Gandhis and that is the real crisis. They do not have such a leader because most of the known faces of the Congress, including former prime minister Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Anand Sharma, and other stalwarts of the party, perhaps will not be able to win even a civic poll as they remain representatives of neoliberal proclivities and blocked welfare tooth and nail when they were in power. It was the Gandhis, especially Sonia Gandhi and her National Advisory Committee, which was filled with the likes of Aruna Roy and Jean Dreze, that kept pulling back the neoliberal gurus and forced welfare on to the agenda. Corporates hate the Gandhis and the Congress for this reason, not because they are “dynasts”.
Modi came to power with the promise of excelling at what the Congress could not do and perhaps was unwilling to do. The critique offered by Guha is misplaced, even if it is well-intentioned. Rahul Gandhi, whatever might be his personal limitations, is finding it difficult because his brand of welfarism is being rejected for something more, and Modi has falsely captured that space. In spite of the Congress being at its nadir, the BJP and Modi do not miss a chance to discredit and attack the Congress, even more than they attack the regional parties. If dynastic rule was the reason, there is hardly a party that has not perpetuated the trend, including the DMK, TDP and TRS in the south and the Samajwadi Party and RJD in the north. What the Congress stands for is a social democratic vision and it is the only national party today that can counter both the BJP, and more so, the RSS—and this is what the attacks on it are about. Rahul Gandhi is perhaps the only national leader who is taking on the RSS directly but perhaps failing to connect with voters. Here, Guha and other commentators are right in pointing out that his privileged upbringing is one factor that disables him from having a “mass lingo”—and here Modi holds the advantage.
Still, merely replacing the Gandhis cannot be the central issue but the deeper crisis of accommodative politics. Earlier, Yogendra Yadav had wished that “Congress must die”, while the sense of urgency and concern is well taken, one must not forget that without the Congress there is no national party that can possibly challenge the BJP and the RSS. And that is precisely why the BJP and the RSS wish for—a Congress-mukt Bharat. Guha is only (unwittingly) adding to that process and Arnab Goswami did not miss a chance to project it on primetime.
Critique needs to take the context seriously. Guha is not suggesting a more radical alternative to the Congress’ version of social democracy and, in fact, Guha himself stands for economic reforms and would not have a different view from the Congress’ when it comes to reform as well as secularism. We are in midst of a deeper ideological and ethical crisis as a result of neoliberalism and its current structural crisis.
Prabhat Patnaik, rightly so, feels what we might be witnessing as a result is a kind of “Permanent Fascism”. What we really need is a vision for that alternative economic model and on the political front we need, as things stand today, the non-BJP forces to gather together and in this the Congress and Gandhis will have an important historical role to play. The point is those alternative forces today lack credibility not because they belong to a family, which is a red herring, but because they lack an alternative policy beyond the neoliberal model of growth. The focus has to be on more radical welfarism, from free and compulsory education to right to work and health and basic income. If the opposition parties manage to do this, against the odds posed by global corporate finance, the same leaders who look like “well-intentioned dilettantes” today will look more authentic in time.
The author is associate professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU. The views are personal.