Congress is Dead; Long Live Congress

The Indian National Congress won't be going anywhere — but it’s never been a force for social change.

Congress does not exist. It is finished.” “Congress will be decimated.” So say the political opponents of the Indian National Congress party. While hardly unbiased, they’re expressing a sentiment common in India today. Newspaper headlines tell the same story: “A Fast Fading Party”; “Tryst with Decline.”

But it’s too soon to write the obituary of the party that once dominated Indian politics. After all, Congress has been written off before, only to somehow resurrect itself.

In India’s national elections ten years ago, the polls and the media predicted a resounding defeat for the party, which had already been out of office for eight years. The once-mighty Congress was thought to be a spent force. But the party received a plurality of votes and was able to cobble together a coalition government. Five years later, in the next national election, Congress surprised many observers by winning even more handily.

Now, with the national election of 2014 in full swing (it takes place in nine phases in April and May), some within Congress are predicting another victory.

There are a few reasons, though, to think that lightning will not strike thrice for Congress. The last five years of Congress rule, under the banner of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), have been marred by scandals, economic woes, and governmental dysfunction. It is of little import that the other major national party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), supports the same flawed economic policies and has shown itself to be quite adept at corruption itself. The UPA has been heading the national government for the past decade, and any blame for the missteps of the previous ten years are laid squarely at its feet.

The most recent set of state elections in India, though not a perfect predictor of the national political mood, suggest the diminished state of Congress. The elections involved five states, and the results, announced in December 2013, bode ill for Congress. The party lost control of two states in dramatic fashion (Delhi and Rajasthan) and made no headway in BJP-controlled states (Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh). The only state in which they won was Mizoram, where the BJP was not contesting.

How did Congress, the party that spearheaded the Indian independence movement and monopolized decades of post-colonial politics, fall so low? The party’s website still sports a quote from Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, saying that Congress is “not some select band of people, but an organized strength of the masses. It is not something apart from the people.” If this claim was questionable in Nehru’s time, it has become laughable today.

Congress was founded in 1885, when the British Empire was still at the height of its power. In the beginning, the main aim of the party was to increase the role of the Indian elite in the governance of British India. The early members, both British and Indian, were largely professionals with liberal views; many were also part of the Theosophical Society, a group that combined an emphasis on universal brotherhood with a New Age mishmash of occult beliefs (Qabalah, Gnosticism, neo-Platonism and a healthy dose of “Eastern” traditions). The British Raj tolerated its presence because its convener was a retired Scottish civil servant and because elite dissent and anti-colonial anger were seen as relatively non-threatening, as opposed to the peasant uprisings that were roiling the countryside.

Thus, at its inception, the party served a function that was to re-emerge many times in its long history: to provide a voice for the elite, which often, intentionally or not, drowned out that of the masses. This is perhaps an over-generalization, but it is a useful one; it resonates just as much with the present-day Congress as with the pre-independence one. Initially, it was the British elite who used Congress as a shield against popular agitation; later, the party would go on to protect the interests of the Indian elite. While the party has occasionally moved towards the left, and has, at times, built a sizable mass base, it has never really confronted the powers-that-be.

In its early years, the Congress was largely devoted to the concerns of its well-educated, English-speaking members. This began to change with the strident nationalism of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who led a radical faction within Congress and sowed the seeds for a more mass-based independence movement. However, he also injected that movement with a deeply conservative, Hindu character. Perhaps his most lasting contribution was turning largely private Hindu rituals into public celebrations that were explicitly meant to draw Hindus away from Muslim festivals that had once been celebrated fervently by both communities.

Even under Tilak’s influence, Congress remained a relatively small organization, whose demands were continually ignored by the British government. It only acquired a true mass base with the arrival of Mohandas Gandhi, who quickly became known as the Mahatma, or “Great Soul.” Gandhi was more sympathetic to Muslims than Tilak, and he made concerted efforts to include Muslim communities in the independence struggle. Yet, his campaigns were suffused with Hindu symbolism and imagery, and he was able to build such a huge mass following in part because of his reliance on religious sentiment. As the independence movement gained strength, the membership of Congress became increasingly Hindu. While the movement had a mass following, at its core was a coalition of the rural elite, urban professionals, industrialists and traders.

With independence came the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. While India claimed to be a secular state, in opposition to Pakistan&rquo;s avowed confessionalism, partition only solidified the dominance of Hindus in the Congress party. Since then, Congress has resided over an uneasy secularism, which nominally celebrates the existence of non-Hindu religions but does little to address the dominance of the Hindu majority, and the marginalization of religious minorities, especially Muslims (as amply documented in the government-issued Sachar Committee Report). This flawed secularism is certainly preferably to the violent Hindu fundamentalism of the BJP, Congress’ main present-day opponent, but it hardly matches Congress’ self-image as the secular, inclusive party that “has spoken for every section of Indian society.”

If Congress’ record on religious issues is mixed, at best, its relationship with popular forces is equally fraught. Though Gandhi had a wide following that cut across the lines of class, caste and region, his attitude towards peasants, workers and the so-called “untouchable” castes was one of sunny paternalism. He was fearful of labor unrest and had close ties to many industrialists. (One of his supporters apocryphally said, “It takes a lot of money to keep Gandhi in poverty.”) Nehru, who was to become Prime Minister, was initially more sympathetic to the demands of the masses; he was one of the key players in the party’s drive to build links with peasant and worker organizations. But this drive was stalled by Congress’ right wing, and Nehru himself became increasingly conservative. He would later have a central role in suppressing communist parties and demobilizing labor movements.

This image of Nehru does not fit well with the present-day stereotypes about the supposed “Nehruvian socialism” that reigned until neoliberal reforms swept away the inefficiency and slow growth of that benighted era. But despite Nehru’s early infatuation with the Bolshevik Revolution, he was firmly in the capitalist camp by the time he took office. What he wanted – and what economic experts from the Ford Foundation helped him craft — were plans that called for a degree of state control within a capitalist economy. No radical land reforms or income redistribution measures were ever seriously considered by the Congress leadership.

Even Nehru’s vision of limited state control foundered because of widespread opposition from big business. Despite tentative endorsements of state planning, industrialists wanted state subsidies, not state discipline. Due to a concerted lobby by the capitalist class, both the legislative and bureaucratic means of economic control were sabotaged. At the time, the industrialists were not strong enough to kill state planning outright, but they were able to fatally weaken it.

Despite rather serious setbacks to its economic policies, Congress’ political dominance was unchallenged for the first several decades of independence. This was largely because of the first-past-the-post voting system inherited from the British, which insured that pluralities for Congress became ironclad monopolies. This monopolization of politics began to change in the 1970s and 1980s, however, as the economy bounced from crisis to crisis, and Congress struggled to keep together its coalition of big rural landholders, industrialists and professionals.

One important factor in the changing political scene was the emergence of powerful new social groups, especially intermediate-caste farming communities who started to challenge the rural elite. By this time, Nehru had passed away, and his decidedly more autocratic daughter, Indira Gandhi, had become Prime Minister. Gandhi’s main method of dealing with these new groups was to buy them off with subsidies and other financial gifts, further weakening the state’s financial health, and leading to policy paralysis as the number of conflicting groups grew.

During this period, the party lost any kind of guiding ideology (witness, for instance, Gandhi’s convenient shifts on economic matters, from right to left and back to the right, as the circumstances dictated), and became the network of patronage that it is today. As noted in a recent article by Sanjay Kumar, the modern-day Congress is “a ‘pure’ political party with no other purpose than access to state power.”

Gandhi’s authoritarian tendencies reached a climax with the notorious imposition of the Emergency, which allowed Gandhi to rule by decree. The worst excesses of the Emergency included mass arrests of Congress opponents, torture of political prisoners, widespread slum demolitions, and a forced sterilization campaign headed up by her son, Sanjay. But in the face of widespread opposition, Gandhi ended the Emergency and called for fresh elections, which resulted in the first non-Congress government in the history of independent India.

But Congress, with Gandhi still at the head, won the following national elections in 1980, as the anti-Emergency ruling coalition disintegrated. The party’s stranglehold on national politics, however, had been loosened; it lost in 1989, regained power in 1991, but only with the support of a coalition of other parties, lost in 1996, and was out of power until 2004, when the UPA regime began. The emergence of strong regional parties, often based on caste or linguistic identity, has meant that neither of the two major national parties — Congress or BJP — can rule without the support of a motley coalition.

As Congress’ political hold weakened, the economy moved even further along the path of liberalization. The years after Independence had seen a dysfunctional combination of impotent state planning and monopoly-dominated big business; this economic set-up, misleadingly referred to as “socialism,” came under increasing criticism. Following global trends, neoliberal doctrines found acceptance among elites, starting with policy changes in the 1980s and reaching a watershed with the wide-ranging reforms of 1991.

The BJP, in power from 1996 to 2004, continued the neoliberal policies that Congress had introduced in 1991. Thirteen years of free-market orthodoxy led to some superficial success stories (such as the much-touted IT boom, which in reality employs only two percent of the labor force), but it did little to address the fundamental imbalances of the Indian economy, and it greatly exacerbated inequality in a country that was already viciously unequal. In 2004, the BJP ran an exquisitely tone-deaf campaign centered on the slogan “India Shining,” touting the achievements of the new economy while paying little attention to the actual state of ordinary people.

Congress politicians, desperate to get back into power, were forced to critique the effects of the very policies they had introduced, and they reluctantly embraced social welfare measures like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGA) in their election campaign. When they surprised everyone by gaining a plurality, they relied on the outside support of several Left parties when forming the government. Due to pressure from these parties and other civil society groups, the Congress was arm-twisted into introducing NGREGA and other popular measures such as the Right to Information Act, which gives citizens more access to government files and decisions, and the Forest Rights Act, which gives forest-dwelling communities more control over their land.

While the benefits of these measures should not be ignored, they need to be seen in the larger political context. In its election propaganda, Congress has embraced its new image as a “regime of rights.” However, within a deeply unjust capitalist system, where rampant inequalities are justified with reference to the inviolable right to private property, this celebration of universal rights rings a bit hollow — a critique that goes all the way back to Marx (“equal right is a right of inequality”).

Looking specifically at the “rights” celebrated by the UPA: there is a “right” to education, but public sector education has been increasing defunded, and the private sector has injected a heavy dose of fundamentalist Hindu doctrine into curricula. Meanwhile, in the countryside, the lack of true land reforms makes mass literacy unlikely. There is a “right” to information, but only from government bodies, not from the corporate sector, thus subtly reinforcing the neoliberal claim that the state is to blame for all present-day woes. (It’s hardly a surprise then, that the rabidly anti-worker management of Maruti Suzuki, India’s leading automobile company, would support Right to Information activism.)

There is a “right” to rural employment, but little effort made to rectify the agro-industrial policies that are forcing many to move from the countryside to the cities, and are driving so many farmers to commit suicide. As if to demonstrate the hollowness of the rights discourse in the neoliberal age, the Congress manifesto for the 2014 election adds a new plank to their platform: the Right to Entrepreneurship!

As Shankar Gopalakrishnan notes, Congress “has pursued a schizophrenic political program, whose contradictions have offered space for some small popular gains along with an avalanche of neoliberal policies.” Along with these modest gains, the public has been subjected to ever-larger scams. Prabhat Patnaik explains:

It is instructive that all the big-ticket cases of “corruption” that have recently been in focus in India . . . have involved the handing over of state property to private capitalists “for a song”; and those taking decisions about such handing over, have got kickbacks. “Corruption” thus is essentially a levy on the primitive accumulation of capital, and its recent spurt is because neo-liberal regimes witness rampant primitive accumulation of capital.

Congress’ image is battered because of these scams, especially because they come in economically uncertain times, as the runaway growth of the early years of liberalization has been replaced with more tentative expansion and widespread doubts about economic sustainability. In 2013, India suffered from a balance of payments crisis that was remarkably similar to the one it faced in 1991. The neoliberal reforms, ostensibly meant to address that earlier crisis, only accelerated a liberalization process that was already underway, and did little to address the overall imbalance between imports and exports. The Congress government “solved” the deficit problem in part by reducing government spending and introducing more public-private partnership, which, as one Ministry of Finance official admits, have failed miserably. The other part of the “solution” — increased foreign direct investment — has left India increasingly vulnerable to the whims of international markets, which is exactly what precipitated the economic troubles of 2013.

The Congress leadership knows that, in the public mind, the party is inextricably linked to the sinking economy and institutional corruption. So it is seeking to rebrand itself, but it is not making any fundamental changes to its policies or its patronage-based, nepotistic leadership style. Congress has projected Rahul Gandhi (Indira Gandhi’s grandson, Nehru’s great-grandson) as their candidate for Prime Minister. In what must be a cruel practical joke, Rahul Gandhi, beneficiary of generations of nepotism, has made it his stated goal to democratize Congress’ internal structure.

In preparation for the elections, Congress has revamped its website, which now bears a striking resemblance to Barack Obama’s; perhaps they seek to emulate his media mastery and electoral success. But their manifesto represents more of the same: increasingly deep neoliberal reforms with a patina of social welfare measures and a token allegiance to secularism. In lieu of actual policy adjustments, the party is exploiting people’s real fear of the BJP’s Hindu nationalism, presenting Congress as the only real alternative to incipient fascism. As the manifesto boldly claims: “Congress: the only choice.”

For much of India’s modern history, this was indeed the case. Now it is just wishful thinking. But still, Congress’ past casts a long shadow over the contemporary political scene in India. While its electoral prospects look bleak, it has exerted a decisive influence on the contours of the 2014 elections, in part by unwittingly engineering its own implosion. The party’s inability to respond to the needs of the vast majority of the population was a key factor in the proliferation of smaller parties in the 1970s and 1980s; and Congress’ neoliberal reforms laid the foundation for today’s corrosive political culture and economic uncertainty.

The Congress manifesto says that it has been the “principal instrument of social and economic change” in the country. Perhaps this is true, just not in the way the party wants.