181212 rahul amulya
In contemporary Indian politics, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi offers a challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi Image Credit: ©Gulf News

There was a time when it was said that every village in India had at least one family who represented the Indian National Congress sentiment. Now as the BJP pushes Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s portrait in every village and when Man ki Baat has one of the largest rural audiences in the history of All India Radio, the Congress seems to have forgotten what that ‘Congress sentiment’ at the grass roots was all about.

In 2018, the Modi government gave the Padma Shri to Gandhian Naga leader Lentina Ao Thakkar. Her husband Natwar Thakkar, locally famous as Gandhi of Nagaland had received the Padma Shri in 1999 during the Vajpayee government. He founded the Nagaland Gandhi Ashram at Chuchuyimlang village in the Mokokchung district of Nagaland in 1955, inspired by the Gandhian Kakasaheb Kalelkar. He was a Gujarati, born in Dahanu in Maharashtra.

The legendary couple represented “the Congress sentiment”. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had personally helped Thakkar’s ashram by allotting special funds but later as the Congress leadership ignored and forgot their own loyal people, the Ashram faced pressure from insurgents and struggled for funds. The couple’s life has been a great symbol of Mahatma Gandhi’s last wish where he said “one lifetime worker for one village”. Like the Thakkars, there were countless “Congress families” who kept the Congress sentiment alive in interior India long after the freedom struggle.

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In 2018, just before his death Natwar bhai, the real Congressman who resisted violence in severely violence-struck Nagaland for more than half a century was felicitated by Amit Shah, the then BJP president in New Delhi. He handed him the ‘Karmyogi Award” and saw to it that Lentina was awarded the Padma Shri. Not one Congressman felt a chill run down their spine seeing a photo of Shah honouring a pure Congress breed Thakkar. When BJP built an everlasting statue of Sardar Patel who was a giant Congress leader, his party didn’t do any serious churning.

Recently, there was internal rebellion by 23 Congress leaders. The party managers may have been successful in dividing the rebels and save the Gandhi family from any permanent hurt but the importance of the letter remains. The Congress, which hasn’t won a majority for long, doesn’t have much time left for 2024 general election if it wants to set the target at 272 seats in the Lok Sabha; which was the idea behind writing the letter.

Setting the national agenda

The formidable factor in the fight of the Congress is that Indian politics has turned 360 degrees and it is now the BJP versus all. Congress has to make room within the anti-BJP space. There is an Indian proverb that an elephant is worth a lakh when alive, if dead its worth much more. The BJP has grown in such manner that in power or without power it is going to play role in setting the national agenda.

In view of this fact, post Bihar elections, the next 24 months are going to be the most crucial for Congress’s future. Rahul Gandhi’s actions and inactions will make or break Congress. A lot has been said about the party’s need to clarify its stand on Hindutva and nationalism, acknowledge the liabilities of dynasty politics, and project a strong leader but above all there is an urgent need for Congress to revive, reset and ignite the Congress sentiment that the Congress families proudly flaunted.

If one observes the politics of Modi and Shah from 2002 onwards, it is all through symbolism and laying of nuanced and calibrated approach. Rahul Gandhi’s direct attack on Modi and speaking the truth on Twitter is all fine but of limited impact, because “bharosa” (trust) doesn’t come from telling people that Modi mismanaged the COVID situation or did not take China aggressively enough. It comes from his own body language, subtle play of the politics of memory and symbolism and the selection of words and their delivery. Only that would carry correct emotions to the ballots.

The clock is ticking for the Congress. But, it will have a better pitch to bat on because in most states that are going to polls, BJP has a weak or a weakening presence except in Uttar Pradesh (February or March’22), Assam (May’21) and West Bengal (April-May’21). The coming election season won’t be too harsh except in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, where Congress is too weak presently, to be taken seriously.

Rahul's last chance?

Rahul has probably a last chance to rescue his party and the family in next 24 months in the elections in Tamil Nadu (May’21), Kerala (May’21), Pondicherry (May’21), Assam (May’21), Punjab (February ’22), Goa (March’22), Uttarakhand (Feb’22) and Manipur (March’22). The Congress will pay heavily if after 2030 the voters get ready to welcome even the party on the right to where Modi stands today.

In the midst of voices against the Modi era, the Congress should concede that BJP has hardly made any political mistakes so far in their endeavour to nourish the saffron sentiment. The BJP-RSS have the clarity that voters in the voting booth have an emotional state of mind. In a fraction of a minute, just before pressing the button, their heart works more than their brain. Even the vote on caste lines is all about emotion, it never depends on an intelligence quotient.

The Sangh pariwar’s politics is about consolidating the Saffron sentiment in their supporters. The Congress should stop their lazy analysis, saying that it is a one-agenda-project of creating the anti-Muslim block. It is more kaleidoscopic because in the elections for State assemblies, the Saffron sentiment on its own, never works. It needs strong tampering of provincialism. As Modi is obsessed with the history of India, the Congress Working Committee, the Gandhis and the G-23 group who wrote the letter to Sonia Gandhi need to revisit their own history, explore that sentiment which worked well till 1974.

Nationalism for nation building

Just a decade back, the most difficult sentiment for the RSS and BJP was to face that memory of Indira Gandhi where she stood up for the territorial integrity of the nation. Nationalism for nation building was the domain of the Congress that Modi now makes a claim for. Indira Gandhi strongly identified with the combative action against the Khalistan movement or the Kashmir issue and she died for the territorial integrity of India.

Right now, the party’s institutional memory has become so weak that it has forgotten that Indira’s combination of nationalism with socialism was sturdy and a time-tested political plank. In spite of a great fall in 1977 due to the Emergency, people of India elected her in 1980. Congress has the opportunity to exploit another weakness of the BJP in many States. The Modi era hasn’t been able to give exemplary state leaders with a record of effective good governance.

It is true that Modi enjoys the TINA (there is no alternative) factor but it is a fact that in the Opposition space, by default, Congress enjoys the TINA factor — of being the lone mainstream party in the anti-BJP war. It took almost a hundred years for the RSS (born in 1925) to build the Saffron sentiment that could offer a strong edifice for Modi to rule.

Sheela Bhatt is a senior Indian journalist. She is based in New Delhi.