As the decisive battle of 2024 draws closer by the day and restiveness grows, alignments and realignments will also become more apparent. The tragedy is that while the image of Narendra Modi and his regime has taken a severe beating, there is still no visible alternative in sight. As a matter of fact, the entire opposition seems to be going from one crisis to another. A few state parties do give some hope and the possibility of a federal front with chief ministers of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Maharashtra and possibly, a couple of Congress chief ministers making common cause, does hold some promise in the short run. The point though is, whichever way one looks at it, there is little doubt that in any future permutation and combination, the Congress may not have a leading role to play but it will still have a significant presence. Its present state of dysfunction, therefore, is a matter of worry and concern for a very large number of people outside the normal periphery of Congress supporters and traditional voters. A party without a President and without a functioning Working Committee is not likely to instill hope in its ability to provide any kind of leadership in the near future.
The “Group of 23”
Given this state of the party, the move by a group of 23 leaders (G 23 as they are now called after a letter to the Congress president that 23 of them signed) for reinvigorating it, instituting some kind of collective leadership and halting the drift would have been welcome. However, the fact remains that the group inspires little confidence among people and some of them have been the worst face of Congress’ neo-liberalism in the UPA days. And let us be clear about one thing: The Congress did not lose in 2014 because of its secularism (problematic and opportunistic though it was); it lost because of crony capitalism, widespread corruption and its supreme arrogance in dealing with popular discontent. Remember how they dealt with the anti-gang rape protests by thousands of ordinary students?
It is perhaps useful to remind ourselves that starting with the Niira Radia tapes and the revelation that ministerial berths too were fixed through lobbying, there was an endless expose of the corrupt nexuses. And in the revealing Radia conversations, Ghulam Nabi Azad (a key G23 character) figured as a key go-between, according to Ranjan Bhattacharya (AB Vajpayee’s foster son). Kapil Sibal (another G23 luminary) will long be remembered by the teaching and university community as the minister who started the destruction of higher education in order to make it more US and business-oriented. Ask any university teacher and you will get a sense of the supreme arrogance with which he pushed through his so-called reforms. Many other luminaries from among the group of 23 figure in the sordid story of crony capitalism in the second phase of the UPA government.
In the segment of the conversation between Bhattacharya and Radia, the former cited Mukesh Ambani’s revealing remark that “Congress is our shop now”. Just to refresh our memory, and to remind ourselves as to what had been going on:
RANJAN: He says ‘Sir theek hai’, main bola ki [okay, and I said], ‘Mukesh, once in a while show some bloody emotion,’ I said, ‘Aapka toh sab kaam ho gaya [all your work has been done].’
RANJAN: Motu nahin aaya, yeh nahin hua, toh kehta [Fatso did not make it, it didn’t happen, so he replied] ‘Haan yaar, you know Ranjan, you are right, ab toh Congress apni dukaan hai’ [Yes, you are right, now the Congress is our shop].
In this same segment, Anand Sharma’s name figures as there is some disagreement as to his being in the ministry and finally Radia settles it by saying “I was told by Mukesh” – who clearly was more up-to-date on the ministry formation than either of them. (Sharma too is one of the group)
It is quite evident that a lot of games were being played around the control over the Petroleum ministry and when Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal ordered his government’s Anti-Corruption Branch to file FIRs against former Petroleum minister Murli Deora (now deceased, related to one of the signatories of the G23 letter), then Petroleum minister Veerappa Moily, Director General Hydrocarbons VK Sibal (also related to one of the 23), along with Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani, it clearly had to do with “irregularities in the pricing of natural gas from the Krishna Godavari (KG) Basin.” This FIR was filed in February 2014, just before AAP’s 49-day Congress supported government resigned.
Kejriwal explained that he had acted following a “complaint his office received from former cabinet secretary of India T S R Subramanian, former expenditure secretary E A S Sarma, retired admiral R H Tahiliani and advocate Kamini Jaiswal.” (See report linked above) Though a lot of song and dance had followed this action by the Delhi chief minister, we will also do well to remember that there weren’t just “irregularities” in the pricing of natural gas but, a mega-scam whose nexuses ran very deep. As Business Standard put it, referring to an open letter to the prime minister by Surya Sethi, former Principal Adviser, Power and Energy, GoI: “Former RBI governor C Rangarajan came out with a formula which has been followed nowhere in the world, which has resulted in Reliance (and other players too) getting a price on import parity basis.” Sethi’s letter, published in December 2013, was candid about the extent of undue influence wielded by the “owner of the shop”:
“RIL’s clout was on full display when, despite serious objections from me and the then Cabinet Secretary, the 2007 Empowered Group of Ministers approved the price of $4.20 per million metric British Thermal Units (MMBTU) based on an RIL-crafted formula that was unique in the world for pricing natural gas. The $2.34/MMBTU bid by RIL, in a global tender, for the same gas was ignored. A sham price discovery exercise was permitted to justify the higher price that the approved formula delivered.”
Given this history, the appearance of the Group of 23 now as the “saviours” who want to reform the party does not cut much ice, no matter how correct and urgent the issues they raise are. There is no denying that the party needs to arrest the drift, put its house in order, hold internal elections and work towards evolving a collective leadership. But before we get into that it is important to understand very clearly the nature of the UPA government and the reasons for its defeat.
UPA’s Defeat in 2014
The United Progressive Alliance from 2004 on, functioned at two levels. The first level was concerned with the hard core of governmental activity, which was propelled by the neoliberal creed, mired in crony capitalism and was neck deep in corruption. It is possible to argue that not all of those accused of corruption were personally corrupt. The prime minister Manmohan Singh certainly wasn’t, but neoliberal to the core, he perhaps saw a lot of cronyism as the inevitable price to pay to put India on the fast-track to Development and high growth. His disciplinary apparatus in any case, makes a divine virtue out of being “market-friendly”, which is often very easily rendered as “business-friendly’: How can you be market-friendly without being business-friendly – any incredulous economist will ask you? So even if you have to violate every norm of the free-market by favouring cronies and allowing them to run “entrenched oligarchies” (this was the term used by Surya Sethi in his letter), so be it. That is the theology of neoliberalism for you. Remember that all of this was known at least since 2010, when the Radia tapes became public but none of the media commentators railed against it in the way they did against the “extra-constitutional” authority wielded by the National Advisory Council (NAC) constituted by the Congress President, which constituted its second level.
The second level emerged through an institutional innovation that gave space to a number of social movements with whom the Congress had forged links during the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime – in the course of numerous struggles. Headed by Congress President Sonia Gandhi, in its initial avatar it was supposed to monitor the implementation of the Common Minimum Programme that was jointly arrived at between the UPA partners and the Left parties. It was during the first phase (NAC I) that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), the Right to Information (RTI) and the Forest Rights Act were formulated moved in parliament by the ruling party/government. During the second phase, that is after the 2009 elections, the NAC II, comprising activists, politicians, bureaucrats and industrialists, defined its agenda as “providing policy and legislative inputs to government with special focus on social policy and rights of disadvantaged groups”. It decided that its focus would be on the National Food Security Bill, natural resource management, which would include revitalization of agriculture, development of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, welfare of minorities, poverty alleviation and such other matters. This was clearly an above-board and transparent body that openly stated that it would provide policy and legislative inputs to the government, unlike the one where an “entrenched oligarchy” worked to subvert the Law and established procedures.
It might be recalled that almost from the beginning, the NAC became the target of attacks in the media as it was the modality through which a lot of social and environmental concerns were entering the domain of policy-making and these were seen by the entrenched oligarchy as obstructions in the path of neoliberal plunder. Much of the noise against “policy paralysis” by the corporate sector and its big media in those days was actually directed at the NAC and attempts in the post Nandigram phase, to put a virtual brake on land acquisitions, till the new law (Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition – Relief and Rehabilitation Act 2013) was finally enacted. That was almost on the eve of the UPA II’s departure. Indeed, this law was seen as the final nail in the coffin of the neoliberal designs on farmers’ and adivasis’ land and it should be recalled that it was about the first measure that the Modi government sought to subvert through ordinances.
The point of this long narrative is to underline that the UPA government was a battleground, an arena of the “material condensation of major class contradictions in society”, “a field of struggles”, to borrow the words from Nicos Poulantzas’ characterization of the state. Under the UPA regime, the popular had a more visible presence in terms of determining at least some key policy interventions. The popular traversed the institutions of the state in a way that was never quite seen in that fashion before. The conflict unfortunately saw most members of the Group of 23 play on the side of the entrenched oligarchy, while the attacks on the NAC were displaced on to the figure of Sonia Gandhi (and “the dynasty”).
Where We Stand Now
It should perhaps also be emphasized that while the Congress of the UPA period was riven with contradictions, it was really this non-neoliberal and social democratic element that became the target of the attack in the name of fighting the dynasty. Our choices in that sense are difficult: the neoliberal, corrupt champions of “inner party democracy” versus the social democratic dynasty. (Remember that in the run-up to the 2019 general elections, it was Rahul Gandhi who brought in issues like Nyunatam Aay Yojana and environment and climate change in the party’s manifesto). Personally speaking, therefore, I want to underline that a dynasty out of power, a dynasty in struggle does not overly bother me. For the very prospect of a revival of the Congress that would simply replicate the first level of neoliberal plunder without the second level of the NAC, makes me shudder.
At the moment, the only section of the Congress that one can see out on the streets, and attracting some new, young blood are those who stand on the side of the Gandhis. This is certainly true of the state where the Congress had reached rock bottom but the induction of of a street fighter like Ajay Singh Lallu as the state president seems to have galvanized the younger activists in the state in the past year or more. The minority cell of the state Congress too has been quite active right through – from the time of the anti-CAA protests. This does not, of course, mean that there is going to be a revival in the near future but given our options in 2024 – if things continue to remain the same – we might do well to start thinking of the Congress state by state, for that is where the action will most likely be.
Looking Beyond 2024
The search for a different or new platform with a different kind of politics will of course, have to continue beyond the 2024 general elections, regardless of what its outcome it. Whether the Congress manages to reinvent and recast itself completely for that kind of role is difficult to say and it is entirely possible that some totally new outfit will emerge to take on that role. It is also possible that one or more of the existing state parties make common cause and are able to present a new formation in the medium term. All that is really in the realm of speculation today. But what one can say at the moment, is that if there is one political formation today, where any kind of rejuvenation is possible, it is the Congress. First, it is the only party apart from the BJP that commands the support of about 20 percent of the voters. Second, it is the only party that has an appeal that is broad enough and an organizational structure that is loose enough to provide sufficient leeway to even enthusiastic new entrants to work in un-regimented ways. Third, it still has a broadly left-of-centre positioning – despite years of neoliberalism, largely because of its otherwise very opportunistically deployed “secular” politics. In fact, this last one is an area that requires serious rethinking and rectification.
In the history of political parties across the world, it is not unknown for parties to undergo transformation and where they are unable to reinvent themselves, they simply disappear from the scene or remain, as Gramsci would say, as documents of a bygone era, with no relevance to the present whatsoever. In the rare cases that they are able to change, they acquire a new life. Today there seems to a shift taking place in the relationship between parties and their mass following. Earlier, big centralized parties would set the agenda or “serve the menu” so to speak and the “voters” would have to passively choose. In recent years, starting with the Obama campaign in the USA, followed by transformation of the Labour Party during Corbyn’s rise (with supporters organizations like Momentum) and during the Bernie Sanders campaign, we have seen the rise of an active community of supporters who want to have a say in the direction their parties take. This kind of a situation is certainly possible with respect to the Congress, at least in some states but it is something that can happen at the all-India level too and the point can be strongly made that the agenda and direction must be decided in conjunction with the active community of supporters. The positive factor in the party’s favour is that a large number of people who weren’t traditional Congress supporters, are also prepared to make common cause with it and who knows, that itself could trigger new beginnings.