“LEADERSHIP IS THE OMNIPRESENT BUT INVISIBLE GORILLA IN THE ROOM”
Former Union Minister Manish Tewari was part of the ‘Group of 23’ who wrote to Sonia Gandhi in 2020, calling for an available, accountable leadership. In a conversation with Kaushik Deka, he outlines why Congress should rebuild its ideological and organisational framework. Excerpts
Q.Why has the Congress not tasted national or state electoral success in the past eight years? This is indeed why chintan and manthan are essential. The 10 years the UPA was in power between 2004 and 2014 consumed the collective energies of the leadership. The organisation did not get enough attention, especially from ministers in the UPA government. Much of the organisational atrophy witnessed from 1991 to 2004 could have been remedied had there been better cohesion between the Congress elements in the government and the party. Moreover, the generational change initiated in the highest echelons of leadership from 2011 onwards never fructified. A fair, transparent, and credible electoral process needs to play itself out. Those who can fight the BJP’s juggernaut 24X7 and have spent 30-40 years in the service of the organisation need to come forward. The import of people from other parties and their installation in leadership positions need to be proscribed.
Q. The Congress has failed to come up with a clear narrative. At times, it promises financial inclusion with Nyay; at other times, it peddles soft Hindutva. Every organisation requires five fundamentals that are moving parts but have to work in cohesion to ensure electoral and national relevance: ideology, narrative, organisation, access to resources and leadership. All five are a challenge in Congress’s case today.
Q. Even though the Congress is accused of siding with minorities— or Muslims—even Muslim votes have deserted the party. Why? That is the real tragedy of the past eight years. Everything unfortunately
has been reduced to a Hindu-Muslim binary. The ruling dispensation believes they will perpetuate themselves in power by othering the other continually and keep religious polarisation on a continuous burn. This myopic politics will tear this country asunder. It is a myth that the Congress sides with one community to the detriment of the other. However, we will delude ourselves if we deny that our opponents have succeeded in creating this perception. The Congress must remain true to its idea of India, namely that every Indian irrespective of faith, caste, region and any disability is an equal stakeholder in the Indian Republic.
Q. Why has the Congress failed to strengthen its grassroots organisational structure so that it can take its message to the ground? The Congress has office-bearers but that does not make the sum total of the essence of a political organisation. An organisation is something more than a couple of eminences at various levels, having an adjective attached to their noun.
Q. Do you think the Congress has failed to project a leader to counter the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi? Leadership for 2024 is a key question. It is the 600-pound omnipresent but invisible gorilla in the room. That is the biggest conundrum for the Opposition, severally and jointly. The presidential elections in July 2022 provide the Opposition with a platform to field a joint candidate who could probably then be the prime ministerial candidate in 2024. The pre-requisite is that the Opposition zero in on a senior political figure who is then acceptable to everyone. After all, Narendra Modi emerged as a prime minister challenger in May 2013 in Goa. If the Opposition fails to agree on a joint candidate in the presidential polls, it still has one year to get its act together.
Q. Is the Congress alienating regional parties because of the ambitions of their leaders or due to its own leadership’s arrogance? Opposition leaders must answer a fundamental question—what are they fighting for? To save the constitutional idea of India or the loaves and fishes of office? Once they find an answer to that, the rest should fall into place. Of course, the Congress must be prepared to demonstrate flexibility and magnanimity on the leadership issue.
Q. Several young Congress leaders have quit in the past two years.
It is a combination of two factors. The first is ideological dilution. Since the glue of a clear philosophical underpinning came unstuck over the years, the Congress became an instrument to put some people into public office. When younger elements, who had very tenuous or non-existent ideological commitment except to the idea of power, realised their ambitions could not be fulfilled in the short term, they hitched their horses to different wagons. The second is the collapse of hope. When hope is lost, desperation sets in and an ‘every person for himself’ syndrome takes root. That is what convulsed younger elements who left the Congress. They never had the stomach for the long haul. Would it be fair to make a value judgement on their choices?
I do not know, given how things have panned out. ■
“A fair, transparent, and credible electoral process needs to play itself out. Those who can fight the BJP juggernaut 24X7 need to come forward ”