The magic wand theory for the revival of the Congress is over: Jairam Ramesh7 min read . Updated: 22 Dec 2019, 10:31 PM IST
We are facing a crisis, the likes of which we have never faced in 135 years, says Jairam Ramesh
NEW DELHI : Former union minister and senior Rajya Sabha member from Congress, Jairam Ramesh, has been vocal about the 'existential' challenge which the party faces with the electoral rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In an interview with Mint, Ramesh, who recently authored a new book titled "A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives of V.K. Krishna Menon", spoke in depth about the need for the party to take a collective effort for its revival, party's looming leadership crisis, the state of the economy and the ongoing protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAA) and National Registry of Citizens (NRC) in the country.Edited excerpts:
Saturday will be the 135th Foundation Day of Congress. Do you think it is a moment of introspection or celebration?
It is a very serious moment, certainly not a moment of celebration. We are facing a crisis, the likes of which we have never faced in 135 years. We have had splits in 1907, in 20s, we had split exactly 50 years ago in 1969, in 1978. We have faced electoral crisis in the past but we have rebounded. But five years ago, we faced an existential crisis and we continue to face it. It is a very serious crisis that we are facing. We had two very bad defeats in 2014 and 2019, the scale of which we did not expect.
For the first time, we are confronted with a man who follows no rules, no standards, no conventions, no traditions. We face a one man show, two man army and both do not believe in these things. Modi and (home minister Amit) Shah present the Congress with a challenge, the likes of which Congress has never faced before. It is a moment of very serious reflection of how we deal with this existential crisis.
You were first among the opposition that India has changed and Modi-Shah have recognized that...
Undoubtedly, India has changed generationally, as a result of economic reforms that were unleashed. Congress party has not reacted to those changes with the type of alacrity with which with Modi and Shah has responded.
Why is that?
It has been a failure of communication on our part. We have not been pro-active in our communication. We have been very slow to embrace social media, we have finally arrived now. We have lost the art of public protest and the fire in the belly. Ultimately you can do all your strategizing but you have to have fire in your belly that is where we are at a disadvantage. We are faced with two people who seem to have killer instincts, they are hyper aggressive and I think they are dangerous to India in the long run...but to confront them, you have to understand them, we cannot fall back to old slogans and methodology.
There is growing disenchantment against Modi but how do we convert that into enchantment for Congress - that is the big challenge?
Do you think the reform in Congress will come top down or from bottom up?
No one individual has the magic wand anymore. The magic wand theory of Congress revival is over. I think the revival will come with greater and greater decentralization, when we allow state level leadership maximum flexibility, local leaders at various levels to assert themselves. I don't think it will be top down, it is also not individual centric, it has to be a collective effort. We have to break the stranglehold of few people that control the entry into Congress party and we have lost a lot of good people.
There is already a chatter again in the party about Rahul Gandhi's return to the top post. Do you think such cyclical changes, if implemented, hurt the party?
I am not privy to these decisions but if you ask me that Congress party requires a 24 by 7 leadership at all levels, the answer is yes. If you ask me whether the Congress needs laser like focus from its leadership from all levels, the answer is yes. The crisis that we are facing - we have two individuals who live, breathe, eat, speak and do politics. You cannot be dealing with this challenge episodically. And this is at all levels. I want to underscore that the individual centric approach to Congress revival has to replaced by recognition that we have to change way of functioning. We need to find the modern idiom and most importantly, we have to show humility, we cannot show a sense of entitlement in today's India.
What would you prescribe for the situation like five things you would target to give an alternate challenge to BJP?
One is communicating far more, two is communicating more consistently, three is communication should be around the recognition that we have made mistakes in the past and we have learnt from it. It is not just what you say that is important, it is how you say and on both counts Congress has to make a major transformation to take on this challenge which is unique.
Is communication the reason why you are not able to exploit the economic trough that is there?
The economic crisis is serious. It is not just the declining six consecutive quarters of GDP growth. There is investment sluggishness that is apparent and for the first time we are seeing inflation rearing its head again. Unlike the inflation of UPA years which was oil price driven inflation, this is a food price driven inflation. I don't think the government is serious in acknowledging that there is a problem.
Whether the Congress has been able to cash in, sometimes it is better for a political party to allow sentiment to build up on its own. For example even on citizenship and NRC, I am of the view that these are spontaneous expression of anger and frustration on part of the public. But, the moment political parties try to orchestrate or take charge of it, it loses its spontaneity. Let people's protest be people's protest.
Do you feel you may have left it too late given that the BJP is setting all the key national narrative?
See, the CAA-NRC is clearly a narrative to divert attention from the economic issues. We are not even able to talk about onion prices, in the last ten days the economic debate is completely obliterated and it is only about CAA-NRC. The fact is growing talk over this issue serves the BJP agenda beautifully. Their agenda is talk more of CAA-NRC and make all of this a Hindu-Muslim issue and so economy gets a back seat. We should not fall into this trap and make CAA-NRC the sole defining issue. These are important issues that go to the nature of Indian society but we have said what we had to in Parliament, I have gone to Supreme Court.
There are serious tradeoffs in the country right now which cannot be resolved through a binary framework, it has to be bipartisan framework...
Bipartisan framework is broken down. (Former PM) Atal Bihari Vajpayee practised the politics of bipartisanship, even for all his rhetoric even (former deputy PM) Lal Krishna Advani practised it. After 2014, bipartisanship comes through investigative agencies and they are the tools of enforcement. Regional parties find it more convenient to support the central government and then they try to wiggle out.
Just look at the number of all party meetings which are being called by prime minister in the last five years - the answer will be zero. Not those called by Speaker or by union ministers. The only time PM reached out to Congress at least was on GST when he called for a meeting with (former prime minister) Manmohan Singh and (Congress president)Sonia Gandhi.
There have been several issues in the last five years that have got strong public criticism like demonetisation. In that context, how do you see the protests that are happening over citizenship debate right now?
I think social media has played a very important role in galvanising and creating networks of people who are together in this protest. It is spontaneous. I think PM Modi is over exaggerating the influence and capability of political parties to orchestrate such protests. They are expression of anger and disenchantment with what is happening.
The government has no vested interest in clarifying it because their interest is served by these protests, by a further polarisation along religious lines. Hence, parties like Congress have to be very careful in walking a fine dividing line.