A car called Congress
The Only Way Forward For Congress Is To Create Something New. Not In The Image Of The Glorious Past Like The Ambassador, But A Brand New Product Looking At The Future
Sonia Gandhi opened her Congress’s long-delayed “Chintan Shivir”, or introspection huddle in Udaipur, with a call to reinvent the party. This leads us to four questions.
- Can the Congress, in its deepest trough for eight years now, ever be reinvented?
- If so, what will it take to bring about that transformation?
- How important is it to have a pan-national opposition party when many regional forces are rising to play the same role?
- Even so, must that pan-national party be only the Congress?Can it be a new alternative?
There is another way to restate these questions, particularly if you remember what used to be the once ubiquitous Ambassador car. It was as domineering a force in the limited Indian car bazar and symbolised state power as much as the Congress party did for decades.
By the late 1980s, as Maruti-Suzuki grew and other charming models invaded the Indian market following the 1991 reforms, the owners and management of Hindustan Motors could similarly have asked:
First, can we reinvent the Ambassador? Second, if so, what will bring about that transformation? Third, is it even necessary for India’s car market to have a nationally popular brand? And fourth, even if India needs this, must it be only the Ambassador?
Remember also the many things Hindustan Motors did to reinvent that car. They changed the exteriors, produced more air-conditioned models, a Japanese engine was inserted. Nothing could save the Ambassador.
Put the Congress party to the Ambassador test, and you have the answer for the first two questions. It isn’t possible to reinvent a brand so out of date. All you’ve done already has failed.
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Most of the new things the Congress has tried have already faded away. The latest evidence is the absence in Udaipur of Gujarati leader Hardik Patel, who Congress had inducted as a young party chief in what was seen as a radical shift in a conservative party. New alliances have failed, whether with Mamata Banerjee, the Left, the JD (S) (in Karnataka), the RJD, the TDP (in Telangana) and, most significantly with the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh.
The failure of the alliances has been so devastating that the likely partners now see an alliance with the Congress as the kiss of death. Rahul Gandhi let us know only recently how his party reached out to Mayawati in the lead-up to the Uttar Pradesh elections, but didn’t get a response. With almost all other parties in India, with the increasingly fidgety exception of Sharad Pawar’s NCP and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, the Congress isn’t seen as alliance worthy.
The Congress has tried much else to reinvent itself and failed —a hard turn Left (Ambani-Adani Sarkar), jump to an anti-corruption platform (chowkidar chor hai), visits to temples, talk of being led by a janeu-wearing Brahmin, of the hallowed Dattatreya gotra, no less. Priyanka Gandhi has been thrown in the campaign. New leaders have been tried in key states, Navjot Sidhu in Punjab notably. It’s all failed.
The short answer to the first two questions, therefore, is that just like the Ambassador car of the early 1990s, the Congress, the brand and the product, cannot be reinvented. Is it then even needed? Should it just fade away in history — as it’s been doing lately — and vacate the anti-BJP space for worthier successors?
These are rude arguments when the best minds in the party are brainstorming in Udaipur. But then, how do you even begin a serious introspection without first accepting the enormity of the challenge? You can’t keep on declaring victory, invincibility, and indispensability on Twitter.
Which brings us to questions three and four. Now surely, whether one is needed or not, there will always be one dominant pan-national brand of cars. It is just that it can be Maruti now, Hyundai tomorrow, Toyota the day after, Mahindra, Tata, and so on. In each category of cars, there will be a dominant model but that space will be contested hotly. Only those who constantly change and reinvent will survive. But, one that is so dated even its name reeks of obsolescence, like the Ambassador, has no chance of reinvention.
The way ahead for the Congress, therefore, is the same as might have been the case for the makers of the Ambassador. Surprise the market with a brand new product. Not a “new, improved, reinvented” one. You can’t reinvent a brand that is so broken.
You ought to invent a new one. Because if you won’t do that the fourth question in our list would haunt you. Indian democracy needs a strong pan-national force to challenge the BJP — to keep some balance in our politics if not to replace it in the immediate future. But, like the Ambassador in the 1990s, it no longer has to be the Congress.
The process has been on for three decades now. Beginning with the caste-based parties taking away the “secular” and underclass vote away in the heartland, in state after state the party has lost its vote share to determined upstarts, many of these its own rebels. Think Mamata, Jagan, and Himanta. And now there is the rapidly creeping acquisition of its remaining vote banks by AAP as well.
The party can’t change its brand name, just as it can’t change its top leadership. Tinkering, modifications, repositioning, alliances, return to ideological roots on social or economic issues have been tried, have failed, and will continue to fail.
What’s the future then? Why should the party waste time brainstorming in Udaipur then? Should India’s oldest party then dissolve itself? Obviously that isn’t anybody’s advice or wish. Most certainly not mine. An opposition-mukt Bharat will be a calamity. A Congress-mukt Bharat will take us three-fourths of the way there.
That’s why even Seshadri Chari, former editor of Organiser and a prominent mind from the saffron corner of the political akhara, wishes the Congress survives and grows. His prescription is, the party should split. The Congress is not new to splits, especially since the mid-1960s. At various points of time so many factions have broken away, Congress-O, J, S, R, NCP, Congress for Democracy and we would have thought they will run out of the English alphabet for suffixes. The question is, if it splits now, who takes what away and leaves what behind?
Over the past decade the Gandhi family has lost a large number of established leaders already. It’s been a split in slow motion. They are beyond survival, reinvention, or resurrection. The only way forward is to create something new. Not in the image of the glorious past, but a brand new product looking at the future. Go easy on Nehru, Indira, and Rajiv, nobody beyond the 20 per cent or so who still back you will vote for your past.
You cannot bring the Ambassador car, however souped-up, back. Only building a completely new something might still give you a chance. But fast. The island you’ve been sitting on is fast eroding in a raging flood.