Congress Redux?

On 7 September last year, the senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi launched Bharat Jodo Yatra, a protest march to ‘unite India’ against the ‘divisive politics’ of the BJP-led government. Stretching from Kanyakumari, on the southern tip of India, to Jammu and Kashmir in the north, the yatra covered some 3,500 kilometers and twelve states. A number of celebrities made headlines by joining this five-month journey. As did Gandhi’s outfit (a single polo T-shirt throughout the winter), his scraggly beard and his fitness regime (‘fourteen pushups in ten seconds’). The right-wing backlash was predictable: some mocked Gandhi’s Burberry wardrobe, others likened his facial hair to Saddam Hussein’s. Yet, in every state he crossed, the 52-year-old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty saw his approval ratings increase – most of all in Delhi, where they jumped from 32% to 55%. Riding a wave of mass popularity for the first time in his career, Gandhi provided this memorable summation: ‘In the bazaar of hate, I am opening shops of love’. And then, within a few weeks, his star plummeted. On 23 March, a lower Indian court convicted him of making defamatory comments about the surname of the Prime Minister. A day later, he was summarily ejected from parliament.  

While Gandhi’s political future is in jeopardy, his nemesis still appears to be untouchable, despite the volatility of his period in office. Over nine years, Narendra Modi has unleashed a devastating series of ‘shock and awe’ operations which have consistently failed to dent his popularity. In November 2016, he withdrew 86% of the circulating currency overnight, costing 10-12 million workers their jobs. In July 2017, he implemented a centralized Goods and Services Tax that further restricted the power of regional states. In August 2019, he abrogated the constitutional autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, allowing the influx of non-Kashmiris and private mining companies alike. Later that year he introduced the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act, sparking large protests that were eventually crushed by a right-wing pogrom against Muslims in New Delhi. From March 2020 onwards he catastrophically mismanaged the Covid-19 pandemic, which claimed an estimated 4.7 million lives and saw the unemployment rate rise to 20.9%. Simultaneously, he passed three new laws to facilitate the corporate takeover of Indian agriculture, prompting a year-long struggle by the farmers’ unions that eventually forced their repeal. Now, Modi’s close relationship with the billionaire Gautam Adani – Asia’s second richest man – is in the global spotlight, after the tycoon was exposed for stock manipulation and accounting fraud.

But despite widespread accusations of cronyism, Modi’s reputation is intact. His approval ratings are consistently north of 75%: the highest of any serving prime minister. As the veteran Indian journalist M.K. Venu writes, he is a ‘Teflon leader’ to whom nothing seems to stick. Yet, despite this immovable hegemony, Indian politics is far from static. By pushing the Congress to the brink of electoral irrelevance, the BJP has, ironically, begun to elicit comparisons with the authoritarian reign of Congress in the early 1970s. Many commentators have noted the similarities: like Indira Gandhi, Modi is a charismatic figurehead who fronts what is essentially a single-party state; he uses government agencies to target opposition leaders at national and regional levels (the dismissal of Rahul Gandhi is only one of many instances); he has suppressed the principles of cooperative federalism, centralized all regional powers, fostered a new group of crony capitalists, and so on. Now, as the BJP begins to resemble the Congress of old, the Congress has been attempting to rebrand itself – taking tentative steps away from the elites and toward the popular classes.    

The Bharat Jodo Yatra was a prelude to this. In October 2022, the Congress held a rare presidential election: only the third event of its kind since Indira Gandhi called an internal ballot in 1972. For most of its history, heredity has taken precedence over democracy, to the benefit of the party’s right wing. Modi has often satirized the Congress fiefdom and portrayed Gandhi as a shehzada (or prince), while playing up his own plebian origins. Yet the newly elected Congress president is the 80-year-old Mallikarjun Kharge, a onetime union leader and minister in Manmohan Singh’s cabinet, who is the second ever Dalit to hold this position. Under his leadership, the Congress’s electoral strategy has shifted. Ahead of the general election scheduled for 2024, and the nine state assembly elections later this year, its traditional preoccupations with ‘pluralism’ and ‘love’ are slowly giving way to a more concrete slate of welfare policies.

In the early months of 2023, the BJP further tightened its grip on the northeast. In February, it became a junior partner in coalitions with local parties in the Christian-majority states of Meghalaya and Nagaland. And in March, it came to power in the Hindu-majority state of Tripura, wiping out the Communists who had ruled almost uninterruptedly for four decades. In May, however, the Congress achieved a rare victory in Karnataka, long seen by the incumbent BJP as a strategic gateway for its ‘saffron revolution’ in southern India. The Congress won 135 of the 212 assembly seats, with nearly 43% of the total vote share. No party since 1989 had attained this kind of majority. Yet the most remarkable thing was its programme. As well as promising to ban Bajrang Dal, an extremist Hindutva organization, the Congress manifesto featured five significant welfare reforms: 200 units of free electricity to all households; 2,000 Rupees monthly assistance to every female family head and 3,000 for unemployed recent graduates; 10kg of free rice to every member of families living below the poverty line; and free travel for women on public buses. The local Congress leadership pitched these proposals explicitly to the Alpasankhyataru (minorities), the Hindulidavaru (backward classes) and the Dalitaru (Dalits), while reiterating their demand for a national caste census, so that historically disadvantaged groups would be better represented in public institutions. The BJP, meanwhile, deployed its usual tactics of religious polarization. Having recently banned hijabs in public schools, it ran a series of incendiary campaigns against azaans, halal meat shops and reservation quotas for Muslims. When the elections results were announced, Rahul Gandhi tweeted his verdict: ‘The strength of the poor has beaten BJP’s capitalism’.

The BJP still holds power in fourteen other states, while the Congress rules in just six. The next three assembly elections will take place in the Hindi belt – the central states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, as well as the northwestern state of Rajasthan, where the incumbent Congress is busy fighting off an internal rebellion. Here, policy pledges alone will not suffice to puncture Hindutva hegemony. In Madhya Pradesh, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organization of the BJP, has grown so powerful that it now runs its shakhas inside government offices. The Congress has no comparable network of cadres. Nor does it help that its state leader, Kamal Nath, is a dubious multimillionaire implicated in a slew of corruption schemes. In preparation for the upcoming elections, he has established a ‘temple priest cell’, which recently hosted a ‘religious dialogue’ with Brahmin priests who are demanding increased government allowances and transfer of temple lands to their families. If in Karnataka the party rallied the underclasses, in Madhya Pradesh it is wooing the Brahmin priesthood.

It would be convenient to explain such contradictions by blaming local leaders. But Kamal Nath is hardly an exception in the Congress ranks. The Gandhis, too, are notorious for their electoral opportunism. During previous election campaigns, Rahul has displayed his Brahmanical janeu in Hindu temples, while his sister Priyanka has endorsed the construction of the Ram Mandir temple in Ayodhya, the nerve center of Hindutva politics (Kamal Nath even donated eleven silver bricks on behalf of his local party unit). Rahul has led a series of popular crusades against ‘BJP capitalism’, but he remains reluctant to discuss the sordid history of ‘Congress capitalism’: its turn to neoliberalism in 1991, to say nothing of its support for Adani in the decades prior. One must therefore ask whether the party’s self-reinvention is anything more than a cosmetic facelift. Is its movement toward the underclasses merely a cynical attempt to outflank the BJP?  

For some time now, the veteran journalist Harish Damodaran has been unravelling the historical knot between these two variants of Indian capitalism. In his analysis, the early years of Congress-led liberalization were marked by the twinned rise of regional entrepreneurs and regional parties. The former invested heavily in local political networks, which occupied key positions in coalition governments and leveraged their contacts in New Delhi to seize the newly liberalized sectors, including sugar, highways, press, liquor and real estate. The parties in turn used their funds to fortify their regional bases.

This dynamic changed dramatically when the BJP stormed to power in 2014 and inaugurated a new cycle of crony capitalism. Regional entrepreneurs have now been superseded by large conglomerates which are patronized directly by the central government. The BJP’s economic reforms, such as Special Economic Zone regulations and loan provisions, have enabled companies to monopolize entire sectors (Reliance controls petrochemicals and telecom; TATA controls steel and IT services; Adani controls ports and power). Inequality in India has followed suit, with the top 1% now owning more than 40% of India’s total wealth while the bottom 50% own just 3%. The BJP has benefitted from the enrichment of its corporate allies by opening new channels for cash to flow into its own coffers. In 2017, the party inaugurated an ‘electoral bond’ scheme that allows business groups to fund political parties anonymously. By 2022, the BJP had received 57% of all such donations (92 billion Rupees). The Congress received just 10%, while Trinamool Congress, now ruling in West Bengal, was the only regional party to receive significant funds (8%). The secret to the BJP’s centralization of political power lies in this centralization of political finance.

When the Hindutva brigade first came to prominence in the early 1990s, the critic Aijaz Ahmad spotted a rare chink in its armour. The BJP, he suggested, did not have a coherent economic programme to match the savagery of its paratroopers outside parliament. Because the Congress had already liberalized the Indian economy, the BJP could not make a ‘substantially more attractive’ offer to multinational corporations. Thirty years later, the situation has been reversed. The BJP has unleashed a second wave of liberalization, opening key public sectors – agriculture, healthcare, military and education – to unprecedented levels of private investment. Meanwhile, the Congress has tried to heighten its electoral appeal by making a ‘substantially more attractive’ offer to the Indian underclasses.

Congress’s welfarist turn, however, has little to no basis in mass politics. In several states – Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal – it has been demoted to the status of a small-time opposition party. As a result, cadre organizations are severely disjointed. Its senior leadership, still mired in dynastic intrigues, is cut off from the challenges of grassroots activism. As election fever grips the Hindi belt, this stratum is now handing out modest bundles of subsidies and stipends to the working poor. But it is unlikely that they will break the new alliance between political elites and big business by proposing more radical measures (wealth taxes, employment guarantees, minimum wages and so on). Their top-down push for piecemeal social reforms might win them some extra votes. But it cannot halt the march of Hindutva, much less resolve Congress’s own internal contradictions.  

When Rahul Gandhi was evicted from his official residence in April, Congress ran a social media campaign, #MeraGharAapkaGhar, which showed party members offering up their homes to him. Concurrently, the RSS and its affiliate organizations were coordinating synchronized attacks on Muslim neighbourhoods during the religious festival of Ram Navami. Across the Hindi belt, right-wing mobs burned down numerous Muslim homes, shops, libraries, graveyards and mosques. Such extrajudicial demolitions – which have become known as ‘bulldozer justice’ – are a new Hindutva ploy to collectively criminalize the minority population, who are often accused of instigating mob violence during Hindu religious processions. Through all this, the Congress has stood by, unwilling to stop the violence. While its leadership in New Delhi was occupied with the plight of Gandhi, its cadres in Madhya Pradesh were festooning the state headquarters with gleaming saffron flags, preparing for the arrival of sixteen hundred Brahmin priests.

Tariq Ali, ‘The Fall of Congress in India’, NLR I/103.