Law Minister Salman Khurshid has insisted that his statements to The Indian Express on the “rudderless” nature of the Congress party have been “misinterpreted”. On the contrary, it appears that they were more than clear enough, and that they accurately reflect the views of a large and growing section of those within the ruling party. Mr Khurshid, speaking of the Congress, said that “we need a new ideology to be given by our next-generation leader Rahul Gandhi to move forward”, and that, so far, the Congress had seen only “cameos of his thought and ideas”. He is quite right that Mr Gandhi, a general secretary of the party and widely viewed as its next leader, has been too reticent about his opinions and suggestions on specific policy proposals. However, the larger drift of his argument appears to be both mistaken and misdirected, not “misinterpreted”.
First, Mr Khurshid is mistaken: it is far from clear that the Congress is in fact in need of a new ideology. The Congress’ historical ideology continues, apparently, to be on offer: left-of-centre compromise. The “reformists”, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, push for growth that swells incomes and the exchequer; the “entitlers”, led by Congress President Sonia Gandhi, push for the spread of rights and welfarist entitlements to India’s poor. Since 2004, it is clear that the policy programme the Congress offers is a compromise between these two viewpoints — or what it chooses to call “inclusive growth”. That UPA-II has largely failed to deliver either inclusion or growth is a reflection of administrative and political failures, not of direction. It is inconceivable that Mr Gandhi will alter the “inclusive growth” approach — so what ideological intervention is expected of him? Which should take the debate to the second point: how Mr Khurshid’s suggestions are misdirected. Mr Gandhi continues to show no inclination whatsoever to take up a post in government or to usurp his mother’s role as leader of the party. Given that the failures of UPA-II have been failures of politics and administration – an inability to push reform, restore growth and tackle corruption, the collapse of the Congress in Andhra Pradesh thanks to mismanagement of the Telangana issue, and an overall mishandling of its allies – Mr Khurshid’s complaints would have been better directed at the Congress party’s current leader, Sonia Gandhi. Or, indeed, at all his fellow Congressmen, with Mr Gandhi just one among their number. Nothing stops the Congress from conducting a lively internal debate on policy issues that can inform its future direction.
While the Congress’ confusions play out in public, however, it is notable that India’s other national formations may be even more ideologically adrift. The BJP, a party of nominal economic reformers, blocks essential reforms, like the goods and services tax, that it earlier supported. It is unclear whether it wants to be a party of hardline, authoritarian Hindutva – Narendra Modi’s party – or of softer, inclusive nationalism — Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s party. Meanwhile, the ideological divisions in India’s Communists are no longer concealed by their oaths of silence; student wings are rebelling against the “compromises” made by their parliamentarians, for example. India’s politics is not short of ideological conflict; it is just rarely seen clearly as such.