( Legendary BBC journalist Sir Mark Tully begins his occassional column for Easternlink, arguing it is not a good idea to claim victory against C-virus)
The fight to prevent the spread of the virus COVID-19 has been likened to a war. During times of war people tend to rally round their leaders. The support for Churchill in World War 2 is an obvious xample. Another example is the backing Americans gave to George W Bush after 9/11 which was seen as a declaration of war on America. The same phenomenon seems to be occurring in India’s war against COVIND-19. According to the IANS C-Voter Covind 19 Tracker on April 22nd trust in Modi’s handling of the crisis stood at an astounding 93.5%. Maybe it was because he was so sure of his support that he didn’t announce the second extension of the lock down himself but left it to the Press Information Board to do that.
But it is still remarkable that there was no broadcast to the nation this time seeing that boosting the Modi cult has been a striking feature of his handling of th COVIND crisis. There have been the earlier broadcasts with Modi speaking as the father of the nation calling on his people to obey his instructions. He and he alone speaks to the people. His ministers have no public role. Modi effectively monopolises relief donations and the kudos gained from them with his new Prime Minister Cares Fund. The fund is allowed to receive Companies Corporate Social Responsibility funds whereas State Level relief funds can not. This is just one element in Modi’s tactic of keeping the State Chief Minister’s in their place.
But wars can go wrong and certainly it is still clear that neither Modi, nor most other world leaders, can confidently say the way to victory is clear. Even if the war is won that does not necessarily mean the leader who commanded such support in war time will retain that support in peace. Again Churchill is the obvious example. Nearer to home Indira Gandhi is another example with her slide downhill from the post Bangladesh War euphoria to the Railway Strike, the JP Movement, and the declaration of The Emergency – a manifestation of her fear that she no longer commanded the support of her people.
One reason for Modi’s support is the lack of a plausible alternative leader. But it is not healthy for a democracy to have no alternative, nor is it healthy for a Prime Minister to be unopposed. The obvious place to look for an alternative should be The Congress Party. But nothing Rahul Gandhi has done since the General Election debacle has suggested that he can improve on his previous lacklustre performance. Yet his resignation is looking more and more like a charade.
After the General Election it was widely assumed that Congress was no longer sellable to voters. The better than expected performances of the party in consequent State Elections hasn’t meant that Congress is back on its feet, but the results did revive the realisation that killing off a historic party whose name is known throughout the country, isn’t quite as easy as Amit Shah thinks.
So what should Congress do to capitalise on this and get back in business? The most drastic proposal I have heard of is Sagarika Ghose’s suggestion that a new party should be formed called the Swatantra Congress party “free from ideologocal baggage, and free from dynasty, free from the Gandhis.” But in previous Congress splits it’s always been the Gandhi family that has eventually come out on top.
Many in the Congress yearn for Priyanka to come to their rescue, but she has shown no sign of being willing to oblige. The interventions she has made have not demonstrated the same talent as she demonstrated campaigning for her brother when he was first fighting to be elected from Amethi. Sonia Gandhi has said she is forming a new think tank to bring some clarity to Congress policies. But think tanks are frequently an excuse for inaction rather than a prelude to action and so far this one is no exception. There is talk that the old advisers Sonia trusted are to step aside and allow younger adviser’s Rahul believes in to take over. But all that is likely to mean is unelectable old timers make way for youngsters who are equally unelectable.
I believe the Congress needs to bid farewell to the Gandhis and reconstitute itself as a federal party. That would be a party which allowed for the emergence of strong, self-reliant leaders, rooted in their states. They would need to have a firm mandate to run the party in the state without interference from “the high command.”
The general election and the state assembly elections have shown the ability of strong leaders to withstand the Modi/Shah onslaught. In the general election Amarinder Singh was the only Congress Chief Minister of a major state to withstand the BJP. In the Harayana Assembly election it was Bhupinder Singh Hooda who pulled the Congress fat out of the fire , saving the party from a widely forecast humiliating defeat . In Maharashtra it was Sharad Pawar who prevented the BJP from achieving its target of an absolute majority. Significantly these three leaders have defied the Gandhis. Both Hooda and Amarinder Singh threatened to form their own parties if they were not given the leadership of Congress Sharad Pawar has retained the Congress name but been on his own now for twenty years.
In the General Election the BJP did make inroads in the East but in all the states from Bengal down to Tamilnadu strong independent regional party leaders still won the largest number of seats. If they were to be guaranteed autonomy in a federal party some of those leaders might be willing to join a federal Congress Party. Afte all Mamta was a Congress woman and Y.S.Jaganmohan Reddy’s father was a highly successful Congress Chief Minister. Joining a federal Congress would give regional leaders the advantage of the Congress brand which, as we have seen, does still have value throughout India, without losing their regional identity. They would be part of a plausible national party and would not waste resources and votes fighting the Congress.
In my scheme of things the State leaders would have an important voice at the national level of the party which would need to be institutionalised . There might even be the emergence of another syndicate like the syndicate of leaders from a variety of states who chose Indira Gandhi to lead the party.
There would be many difficulties in converting Congress into a federation. Who for instance would tell the Gandhis their time is up? How would the party be held together when they departed? Who would be the strong leaders in states like UP and Bihar where the party barely exists?. What would prevent the state leaders being riven by rivalry for the top job?
But whatever be the difficulties of federalising Congress there is no doubt it needs strong state leaders enjoying freedom to run their own shows. Modi’s autocratic implementation of the RSS agenda since he returned to power last year demonstrates India’ s need for a strong opposition and an ideology to challenge Hindutva. As I have suggested only the Congress can supply those..
(Sir Mark Tully made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1985 and was awarded the Padma Shree in 1992. He was knighted in 2002, receiving a KBE. In 2005 he received the Padma Bhushan. Rarely has a journalist received the highest national honours in both the country of origin and the one of chosen to live in. A legendary BBC journalist, Tully has authored 9 books . Few foreign journalist / academic have the understanding and feel for India that this 85-year old Englishman does)