It is clear that the BJP and Allies will form the next government. At the time of writing, results are not yet out and we have exit polls forecasting anything from 260 to 330 for the NDA. The polls are not going to be so off-base that the NDA would end up with something like 220 or so. So lets spend a few minutes on what the only other National Party should do in these circumstances, to ensure that they win the next elections.
- Remove the Gandhi Family from all posts: The presence of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi as leaders of the Congress campaign was a huge mistake. It allowed Modi to relentlessly target them as examples of entitled, out-of-touch, dynastic rule. Which is true, by the way. Key opponents of the BJP like Nitish Kumar, Mamta Banerji, Amarinder Singh, Arvind Kejriwal – to take a few names – have administrative experience and grassroots political appeal. Rahul and Priyanka have only their names. New India does not care very much about the leaders from 70 years ago. Even the venerable Gandhiji is not safe. As an electoral card to play, these two were the worst. But it goes beyond that. The Congress must sever all links and connections with the Gandhis. It must dismiss their faithful family courtiers and end their (apparent) financial dependence on the Gandhis. I pass no judgement on the kind of people Rahul and Priyanka are. They must return to their private lives. In exchange I would hope Amit Shah and Narendra Modi leave them alone. The Indian State can be vicious and venal when it wants to be.
- Immediately elect a young leader :The Congress has a name and an appeal to Indians who care more for their livelihoods and yet want to see fairness in society. There has to be a few young leaders familiar with the organisation who need to take the reins. I can think of Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia only because they are relatively young, are supposed to be intelligent, and have appeal to the Hindi heartland while being cosmopolitan enough to appeal to non-Hindi India. There may be others. This person, elected immediately, must get rid of the Gandhis. Once done, go back to becoming a genuine cadre-based party drawing competent leaders from the ground up. This requires serious work but it needs to be done to counter the BJP.
- Become a party of economic competence: The Congress manifesto for the recent elections shows that it is prepared to think seriously about the economy. Had the elections been about economic management, they would have won. But that was not the case. See Point 1. This is a key strength that needs to built on. GST, Aadhaar and the initial moves towards cleaning up bank books and holding promoters to account were all Congress initiatives. Credit to the BJP that they followed through on them when in power. It is sad that both parties resorted to populism but the Indian voter is more perceptive than that. The country faces long term economic issues. While the government grapples with the short term the Congress has develop its nous on the long term challenges. Let me outline a few.
- India’s agricultural economy needs a serious overhaul. Land holdings are small, there is over-employment to the extent of 250 million (while it can employ just 50m), productivity is low, water usage is inefficient – I can go on. Throwing money is not the solution. There needs to be a localised, sector by sector plan to sort this out over the next ten years. The farmer used to be a traditional Congress strength. The party can go down to the grassroots to work with NGOs, scientists, agronomists to solve some of these problems and find market solutions for them.
- Industrial employment needs to grow. There is no place to absorb these 250m workers. The expected fiscal stimulus from the government will help in the short run but long term planning is essential to build and sustain domestic industrial capacity. Focus on creating industrial capacity will bring into line thoughts on industrial inputs like coal, steel, material, transport. Instead of treating them as sectors the congress must focus on growing industrial employment.
- Creating a smaller state. The touchpoints of the state in the daily lives of citizens and employers is still too many. In the last five years, this has improved tremendously but still needs to improve further. This should be a key Congress focus.
- Local Self Government. How much more Gandhian can this get? To reduce the feeling that the State is an impersonal, oppressive, distant entity, it is important to get local citizens direct access to their local government. They should elect them, the local government must be answerable to them, and citizens must expect daily, incremental improvements such as cleaner pavements, cleaner roads, etc.
- Police Reform. The Indian police system is inherited from colonial rule. From a law and order organisation it has to become more of a community enabler. This could be one of the Congress areas of focus.
- Environment. The Congress must champion the cause of removing single-use plastics from our daily lives. This has to be a local campaign at ground level. Right now laws are made but totally ignored – or followed only when the police show up. The Congress can become effective community organisers in this area.
- Energy and Climate Change. India’s energy needs in the next ten years must come out of alternate sources like atomic energy, tidal, hydro, solar and others. Congress must think about all these and present credible solutions to the public.
- Connect with the local public through grassroots organisations: Go back to the community organiser ethos of the Congress in British days, with credible ideas and proposals for the areas outlined above. Be known as a competent party that has policies to put into effect immediately.
- Keep Religion out of politics: The Congress brought a bad name to secularism, which is still the best way to govern India. Promote fairness amongst all. Publicly disavow all previous cases where the Congress pandered to minority or majoritarian interest. If you defenestrate the Gandhis, that gives you an immediate clean slate on this. Work with Muslim groups to become more Indic without abandoning their faith. Publicly admit that there is an agenda to change population demographics in Bengal and Assam through legitimisation of illegal immigration. This will win them a lot of friends and they can do this without becoming a “soft Hindutva” party – a strategy that failed in the 2019 elections
These are some thoughts on what the Congress can do. Losing an election is not a bad thing, it tells you a lot about what the people actually want. Indian democracy and our institutions are very strong. The Congress can become the agent of change for India. We have been around for 5,000 years. There is time ahead. Grasp the mantle!