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  • An inside take on a road map for the Congress

    Posted On March 1, 2020

    By Karan Thapar

    At last I can see signs of life in the Congress Party! Having lain inert for months it’s starting to twitch. Unless I’m horribly mistaken, the dormant giant is stirring itself out of slumber. If it actually stretches, raises its head and attempts to stand up that can only be good news.


    Now, you can’t have failed to notice how a succession of Congressmen have started expressing concern about the state of the party and suggesting what needs to be done. Some have spoken before, like Shashi Tharoor and Abhishek Singhvi. Others have darkly hinted at why the party hasn’t appointed a successor to Rahul Gandhi. Sandeep Dikshit claims senior leaders are “scared” in case the job goes to a rival. They prefer the continuation of an interim arrangement than the preferment of a colleague. But none has been so clear and comprehensive as Manish Tewari. It’s worth paying attention to what he’s said.


    First, he disagrees with Shashi Tharoor and Sandeep Dikshit that Congress needs to immediately start a process to elect a new president. “There’s an overwhelming consensus in Congress that we need Sonia as president for the foreseeable future”, Tewari said in a recent interview he gave me for The Wire. Having steered Congress to two election victories she has the skills to tackle the present crisis. According to him the vast majority of Congress Lok Sabha MPs, General Secretaries and Working Committee members agree. He says this is also true of the Youth Congress and the National Students Union of India. The only people he can’t speak for are the party’s Rajya Sabha MPs.


    Second, Tewari says the really urgent task is to amend the Party’s philosophy so that it’s in sync with the needs of the country on critical issues. The ones he has identified are secularism, nationalism, entitlement and privilege as well as Congress’s economic thinking. He says the Party needs to convene a series of Pachmarhi-style conclaves for this purpose. The process could take a year or more. Sonia must continue till it’s successfully completed.


    Tewari believes there’s a need to go back to the original constitutional definition of secularism as “a strict separation between church and state”. Over the years it’s been re-interpreted as sarva dharma sambhav in the mistaken belief secularism is part of a thousand year old Indian tradition. He insists it’s not. He says it’s an import from the West, deliberately introduced into the constitution by Ambedkar and Nehru. The problem with sarva dharma sambhav is that it dilutes secularism and thus permits a slide towards the majoritarian positions of the right. Only the restoration of the original interpretation can stem this descent.


    On nationalism Tewari says the challenge is to define a concept which is different to the BJP’s Hindutva-based vision but also more appealing. He suggests this can be done by borrowing and building on Barack Obama’s concept which is defined by the phrase ‘Together we are one’.


    Tewari also believes there is “a general revolt in the country, especially in the youth, against entitlement.” Congress has to respond to this. He suggests it should start by distinguishing between entitlement and legacy. The Pilots, Scindias, Deoras and Chidambarams are products of legacy, not entitlement. Their parentage is not a problem. Congress must articulate this and convince the country.


    However, it’s on how Congress’s economic philosophy must change that Tewari is most forthright. The party ushered in economic liberalization in 1991 but continued with socialist rhetoric for the next three decades. Consequently, there’s a huge mismatch between the economic policies it’s implemented and the language it speaks. This must be bridged if Congress is to appeal to hundreds of millions of young Indians who are aspirational.


    I’m not sure how many Congressmen will endorse Tewari’s views although he makes a lot of sense. What’s more important is that his comments are an undeniable sign Congress is awakening and attempting to revive. I only hope this sleepy-head doesn’t doze-off again.

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