The current regime has converted the use of investigative and enforcement agencies into a political art. Hardly a day passes without some agency taking action against some Opposition leader. Such brazen use of official agencies throws up a dilemma for the Opposition: If it ignores such official enthusiasm in pursuing investigation, it can be read as mute submission, but on the other hand, protesting against it distracts the Opposition from its main tasks.
This dilemma has been witness in recent days by the Congress when the Enforcement Directorate summoned Rahul Gandhi and questioned him on consecutive days. The Congress chose to mobilise its senior leaders for protesting against the ED. The Delhi Police enforced prohibitory orders resulting in detention of party workers and even senior leaders. This could be possibly classified as the compulsions of the dominant party system we live in. The Opposition is pushed into the corner so much that it uses every executive action for protesting against the ruling party.
Most parties succumb to this trap and choose to get distracted. While betrayal against such investigations appeared to give them temporary visibility, they also the internal asymmetry because only when a top leader is targeted, followers are encouraged to get scandalised whereas when middle-rung leaders face investigations, they are left alone to languish in custody or face the music. Protests against investigating agencies seldom produce public sympathy because of the nature of the claims. In this way, the regime has ensured a shrinking of the political space, both because it pushes the targeted leaders out of action and because protests issues distance from that politics will be furtherd from critical policy and governance.
However, in the present case, the problem is broader than merely the tricks of the regime and the compulsions of the dominant party system. It pertains to the web of compulsions created by the Congress party itself. For eight years now, the Congress has been groping in the dark on issues to mobilise its cadres and more importantly, to mobilise the masses against the ruling party. And yet, the summons to Rahul Gandhi by the ED seems to have galvanised his top leadership into action. While it decries the ED inquiry as a political vendetta, its own actions appear too theatrical to be politically relevant. On the one hand, Congress protests appear as an attempt to upscale Rahul Gandhi’s image while on the other hand, the focus on action in Delhi means that even within the party there is no depth to the action. Therein lies the tragedy of the Congress. When it acts, it does not result in serious political action and it is often missing when action is expected from the Opposition.
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Even as the ED issued the summons and was investigating the National Herald case, in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP government was using bulldozers against protestors. One would have thought that this is a much more serious political challenge than the quizzing of Rahul Gandhi. The action in UP required more scandal and determination to fight because it shrank the idea of political protesters. It also shrank the rule of law by a short-circuiting judicial procedure. For the Opposition, this is a major menace because it puts into the danger zone ordinary party workers who participate in protests. But the Congress prioritised the ED summons to Rahul Gandhi.
In a sense, we have three different platforms of protest mobilisation. One is when a major leader of the party is allegedly harassed through investigative action. The other is when ordinary workers are put in jeopardy through executive autocracy. The third platform consists of more pervasive issues engulfing ordinary citizens. Price rise and similar adversities faced by the citizens constitute the third platform.
So, how does the Congress operate on these three platforms? While we are witnessing visible protests by senior leaders on the first issue, on the second we only have nominal verbal protestations. In the case of the most potent platform of citizen adversities, the party fails to mobilise both its cadres and the general public. This speaks of two things — about the party’s priorities and its capabilities.
Protecting a certain leader seems to be the main priority of the party. Therefore, it chooses to bring in its top guns to protest in Delhi and ensure that their loyalties are adequately displayed. These protests may also build up to the second ascension of Rahul Gandhi. In other words, everything is connected to intra-party dynamics. No direct connect with ordinary people is involved in this choice. It also fails to connect the action to the more general harassment of its own party workers by the regime. Had the Congress been serious about expanding the scope of the issue, it could have tried to garner support from other non-BJP because many of them face similar parties treatment from investigative agencies. Instead, the Congress turned this into a simple agenda of protecting Rahul Gandhi and ensuring an impressive show in his support.
This episode also speaks about the capabilities of the party. It is unable to mobilise the ordinary public. It knows that the questioning of Rahul Gandhi is not an emotive issue beyond the close circle of Rahul supporters. But more than that, even on larger issues of freedom to protest and the livelihood of citizens, the credibility of the party is quite limited. As an Opposition party, during the past eight years the Congress has done so little that today it is impossible for it to stir the imagination of the masses and enthuse them to come to the streets. This inability to generate trust and mobilise the masses is a sad achievement of the party.
Thus the Congress seems engulfed in multiple existential compulsions of its own. First, it fails to see what political action is most urgently needed in the present moment. Second, it believes that leadership of the party must remain with only a family-based set of saviors. Three, the party puts a premium on display of loyalty to the leading family. As a result, any threat — internal or from outside — to the leading family is seen as a major challenge. Fourth, and fresh from the chintan shivir, the party manifests a complete lack of awareness about political priorities in picking up issues. And finally, as a result of all this, the party cannot mobilise the ordinary masses on their own issues and sufferings stemming from mis-governance by the ruling party. The protests against ED only indicate that a reversal of these compulsions remains a far cry.
The writer, based in Pune, taught political science and is chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics.