Acult of per­son­al­ity has taken over pol­i­tics in re­cent times. Not only in In­dia, but also the US, Rus­sia, China, Turkey, Ja­pan and Brazil. This is a fall­out of the deep pen­e­tra­tion of 24x7 TV and so­cial me­dia, and the si­mul­ta­ne­ous de­cline of nar­ra­tives rooted in po­lit­i­cal and so­cial val­ues. It is al­most as if peo­ple ev­ery­where have con­ferred on charis­matic lead­ers some mirac­u­lous pow­ers to usher in their ver­sion of achhe din. Mir­a­cle moves such as the (in)fa­mous de­mon­eti­sa­tion of Novem­ber 2016—played up by an oblig­ing me­dia as Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s brah­mas­tra (ul­ti­mate weapon) in the war against black money—of­ten back­fire. But in an at­mos­phere where fawn­ing me­dia, in a bizarre car­i­ca­ture of re­al­ity, had us think Modi might even win In­dia the cricket World Cup, it is not hard to manufactur­e con­sent for misad­ven­tures mas­querad­ing as mir­a­cles.

In such a sit­u­a­tion, it is only ex­pected that some per­son, rather than pro­cesses, will be held re­spon­si­ble for the de­mor­al­is­ing de­feat of the Congress in the re­cent general elec­tion. The blind­ing spot­light is on Rahul Gandhi. Those urg­ing the Congress to sim­ply curl up and die or those hold­ing Rahul solely ac­count­able for the de­feat choose to con­ve­niently for­get that only re­cently un­der Rahul’s lead­er­ship the Congress gave the BJP a run for its money in Gu­jarat and formed govern­ments in Mad­hya Pradesh, Ra­jasthan and Ch­hat­tis­garh. In­stead of re­sign­ing, Rahul might have fo­cused on con­tin­u­ing to re­vi­talise the Congress and ad­dress the real causes of de­feat. But that course might not have forced the Congress lead­ers out of their busi­ness-as-usual mind­set. Rahul Gandhi’s res­ig­na­tion, then, is a re­minder to the po­lit­i­cal class that it must al­ways be ac­count­able to pub­lic opin­ion, and to Congress party satraps that there is a larger ide­o­log­i­cal bat­tle to be fought.

The BJP has emerged as an un­prece­dented ex­is­ten­tial threat to the Congress. This has hap­pened even though the BJP has hardly any real achieve­ment to show­case in its first term. It didn’t even bother much with its elec­tion man­i­festo. The Congress, on its part, ran a vig­or­ous cam­paign against the Modi gov­ern­ment and put in con­sid­er­able time, ef­fort and en­ergy in pre­sent­ing its vi­sion of gov­er­nance. So what went wrong for the Congress and what worked for the BJP?

The an­swer lies in notions of ‘na­tion­al­ism’. The BJP, with the help of its sym­pa­this­ers in the me­dia, suc­cess­fully pro­jected it­self as a party ded­i­cated to the dream of a proud, as­sertive In­dia—and the Congress as in­dif­fer­ent, if not hos­tile, to this dream. The Congress pre­sented a vi­sion of gov­er­nance, but failed to re­claim the demo­cratic, na­tion­al­ist space to which it holds his­tor­i­cal and log­i­cal claims.

An emo­tional con­nect with the past and con­cern for the fu­ture play a cru­cial role in all so­ci­eties. This pa­tri­otic sen­ti­ment can be ar­tic­u­lated in a re­gres­sive, big­oted, hy­per­na­tion­al­is­tic way or in a demo­cratic, in­clu­sive and for­ward­think­ing na­tion­al­ism. Aca­demic de­bates on the var­i­ous as­pects of na­tion­al­ism may go on, but in ev­ery­day pol­i­tics, the power of na­tional sen­ti­ment can­not be de­nied. The far­sighted lead­ers of the In­dian free­dom move­ment, like Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Maulana Azad, knew this.

It was the Congress that first wove spon­ta­neous pa­tri­otic feel­ing and an­ti­colo­nial sen­ti­ment into an in­clu­sive na­tion­al­ism. The frame­work of na­tion­al­ism ar­tic­u­lated in free­dom fighter and so­cial re­former Dada Dhar­mad­hikari’s for­mu­la­tion of ‘Manavnisht­ha Bhar­tiy­ata’ (hu­mane In­dian na­tion­al­ism) as­pired to rep­re­sent all seg­ments of In­dian so­ci­ety, al­beit with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess. In fact, af­ter Gandhi’s ar­rival on the scene, the Congress be­came like the wedding pro­ces­sion of Lord Shiva, car­ry­ing to­gether very di­verse, some­times con­tra­dic­tory, char­ac­ters. The


bride­groom—the Lord Shiva of this pro­ces­sion—was an in­clu­sive idea of In­dia. The very same in­clu­sive na­tion­al­ism was hand­spun into the Con­sti­tu­tion of free In­dia. The emer­gence and ar­tic­u­la­tion of the na­tion’s dis­con­tents, the con­flict­ing in­ter­ests of var­i­ous groups, was his­tor­i­cally in­evitable; the ques­tion was, and still is: how to ad­dress these con­tes­ta­tions and demo­cratic as­pi­ra­tions? How to ex­pand the hori­zons of In­dian na­tion­al­ism? How to ac­com­mo­date the new and as­sertive en­trants in Shivji ki baraat?

Over the past decade, the Congress has tried to ad­dress this ques­tion, but in a counter-pro­duc­tive way. It has al­lowed its plat­form to be used by civil so­ci­ety ac­tivists push­ing var­i­ous sin­gleis­sue agen­das with­out weav­ing them into a co­her­ent idea of In­dian na­tion­al­ism. In its ea­ger­ness to ac­com­mo­date var­i­ous cul­tural iden­tity dis­courses, the Congress has ended up tak­ing for granted its le­git­i­mate claim to a pro­gres­sive In­dian na­tion­al­ism, thus leav­ing an open­ing for the RSS and BJP to in­fect the idea with their brand of right-wing ma­jori­tar­i­an­ism.

In his res­ig­na­tion let­ter, Rahul Gandhi ex­presses a sort of de­tached dis­ap­point­ment with his col­leagues, re­mind­ing them that in the bat­tle against the RSS, “at times, I stood com­pletely alone”. Now com­pare this statement with Modi’s grate­ful ac­knowl­edge­ment at the be­gin­ning of his first term, when he cred­ited the first-ever full-ma­jor­ity BJP gov­ern­ment at the Cen­tre to the “tapasya (penance) of five gen­er­a­tions” of RSS cadres. At the baud­dhik, the RSS worker is in­doc­tri­nated with a sense of pur­pose, which, even though mis­placed and morally am­biva­lent, is larger than his self.

Un­like the RSS and its po­lit­i­cal off­shoot the BJP, the Congress has never been a cadre-based party. It chose to func­tion more as a move­ment than a party dur­ing the anti-colo­nial strug­gle. Even af­ter In­de­pen­dence, Nehru pointed out, in an in­ter­view with R.K. Karan­jia (the then edi­tor of the mag­a­zine Blitz) the “dan­gers” of turn­ing a move­ment like the Congress into a cadre-based sys­tem; he spoke of “con­flicts, coun­ter­con­flicts and dis­si­pa­tion of the na­tion’s vi­tal­ity” (The Mind of Mr Nehru, Lon­don, 1960, p.58).

How­ever, Nehru’s Congress never lost sight of its ide­o­log­i­cal moor­ings in an in­clu­sive, demo­cratic, for­ward­look­ing In­dian na­tion­al­ism. It con­tin­ued to train its work­ers and ed­u­cate the pub­lic at large about its idea of In­dia, even with­out a for­mal sys­tem of cadre train­ing rem­i­nis­cent of the Com­mu­nist par­ties. Nehru, with deep wis­dom and far-sighted per­spec­tive, earned through the ex­pe­ri­ence of work­ing with Gandhi and other stal­warts of the free­dom move­ment, ef­fec­tively played the role of the ‘na­tion’s guru’, in the me­morable words of the French thinker An­dre Mal­raux. Notably, he con­trasted both Hindu and Mus­lim com­mu­nal­ism not with sec­u­lar­ism but na­tion­al­ism. Sec­u­lar­ism was built into Nehru’s idea of In­dian na­tion­al­ism, and cer­tainly did not im­ply be­ing ig­no­rant of, or in­dif­fer­ent to, var­i­ous strains of In­dian cul­ture. Equally im­por­tantly, de­spite not be­ing a cadre-based party, the ground-level po­lit­i­cal worker never felt ig­nored in the Congress un­til re­cent times.

This les­son from his­tory un­der­lines the dos and don’ts for the Congress to­day. It is, no doubt, im­por­tant to avail of the ser­vices of pro­fes­sion­als and tech­nocrats, but it is in­fin­itely more im­por­tant to put all such ser­vices un­der the rubric of a po­lit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion. In other words, it is ex­tremely im­por­tant to give due weigh­tage to the in­sights and per­spec­tives of the reg­u­lar po­lit­i­cal worker. Sim­i­larly, it is good to be sen­si­tive to the as­pi­ra­tions of var­i­ous so­cial groups and iden­ti­ties, but it is bet­ter to take up the cre­ative chal­lenge of weav­ing these into the tapestry of a na­tional vi­sion and na­tional in­ter­est. It can be done only if the ide­o­log­i­cal train­ing of the worker and the po­lit­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion of the pub­lic at large is taken se­ri­ously and pur­sued, come vic­tory or de­feat.

Let there be no con­fu­sion about the fact that we are in the midst of a cul­ture war be­tween sharply con­test­ing ideas of In­dia’s past, present and fu­ture. The Congress can take up this ex­is­ten­tial chal­lenge only if it is pre­pared to em­brace, re­fine and ag­gres­sively com­mu­ni­cate an in­clu­sive and pro­gres­sive na­tional vi­sion.

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