Rahul Gandhi's expected elevation as the next Congress party president comes at a time in India’s development as a democracy when the ease with which a catchy phrase rolls off the tongue is sometimes considered more potent in an election than a transformational idea. In his case, his description of GST as ‘Gabbar Singh Tax’ has gained more mileage than all the punditry surrounding reasoned objections to demonetisation, GST and the way the economy is being run. How far this will help his party in the Gujarat polls will be known on December 18, but it is obvious that he has hit home.
To some extent, when he becomes Congress president, Rahul will be trying to justify the legitimacy of inheritance, associated not merely with the Nehru-Gandhi hold over the party, but also as the standard-bearer of a legacy that goes back to Mahatma Gandhi. That is an important legacy. The Congress party has always had pre-eminent people in leadership. Sometimes, as in the case of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, they were able to reach out to a large number of people. However, it was the Mahatma who was able to transform the Congress. He turned a party of eminent people, those belonging to the elite, into a mass organisation. It was the mass base that subsequently gave the fight for independence the strength of a mass movement.
Jawaharlal Nehru, a member of the elite, laid claim to this legacy of the party with great success when he became prime minister. There was no Nehru-Gandhi dynasty at the time and it was a Congress party with a genuine mass base that helped him gain ground as a leader and keep dissensions within under check. Over time, the mass base has been eroded, its advantages frittered away, and even being ten years in power with Sonia Gandhi as Congress president could not help the party regain the mass base on the ground. That explains the need for alliances in Gujarat with Alpesh Thakor, Jignesh Mevani and Hardik Patel, sending an olive branch to Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal and forming a mahagathbandhan, though know dead, with Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar.
It is important to note that such efforts are not about just finding a connect with various groups and building political muscle. They help a party reach deep into the geographical interiors. This is the process for building mass base in present-day India. Importantly, it goes beyond Nehruvian politics. Rahul is the one fashioning this. In Bihar it was he who had prevailed upon Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar to join hands. In Gujarat, he has got Thakor, Mevani and Patel -- each contending for a slice of the same pie and therefore antagonists – to stay on the same side. It is an outreach based on caste and class that has its roots in the Indian experience, rather than being founded on western and elitist ideas.
Caste, class and religion play a part in Indian politics. They give legitimacy. Nehru struggled with this. His secularism, based on western ideas, grappled with Hindu majoritarianism and the so-called “narrow-minded” Hindu view. It was something that he had to contend with in society as a whole and when facing the rightwing in the Congress. Rahul, by contrast, appears now to have accepted all this as reality even as the Sangh Parivar has successfully exploited Hindu majoritarianism. Rahul's recent temple visits are an acknowledgment of the power of Hindu majoritarianism and indicates he is looking beyond the stand-off between ‘secular’ and ‘pseudo-secular’ which is a roll-over from Nehru era politics. In a gist, Nehru's great grandson, like the BJP, has gone beyond the Nehruvian outlook. In another significant way too the Congress has moved on. The sanctity of the Nehruvian brand of socialism as the supreme idea was challenged and discarded in the post-liberalisation phase, with some of the most critical voices against the first prime minister's economic policies coming from within the Congress.
There are pitfalls in this because such an approach wrenches the party from its ideological mooring. The Nehruvian model prevailed not because his descendents in the family became prime minister, but also because the party supported it, and this party had a mass base. To cite the BJP's case, the idea of the BJP under Narendra Modi succeeded because of the continuous work of the mass organisations associated with the party. The change in the Congress outlook being witnessed now needs to be accompanied by a wider base for the party, built on its own and not through alliance partners. Within the party there is hope that the impending generational shift will provide the push to help in this growth.