Extraordinary times demand extraordinary solutions is a popular catchphrase.
After the stunning May 23rd electoral triumph of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 17th general elections in India, the Congress party genuinely faces an arduous task of reinvigorating and resurrecting itself, amidst the expected brouhaha of its imminent extinction.
The maelstrom that has followed the Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s resignation is on expected track. ‘Existential crisis’, ‘inevitable disintegration’, ‘leadership vacuum’, ‘drifting aimlessly’, a ‘has-been political organization’ are all terms that have been liberally interspersed to describe the bruised and battered Grand Old Party (born in 1885).
The pessimistic assessments are understandable; in two back-to-back elections a party that once had 404 seats in the Lok Sabha (in the outlier elections of 1984, in the same year that the BJP had 2 seats) has not crossed 100 seats in aggregate (44 in 2014, 52 in 2019).
It is a spectacular fall from dizzying heights. Albeit I am an incorrigible optimist, it will be foolhardy to pretend that this is just an awful aberration that will automatically fade away with the passage of time. The Congress party needs to do many things to resuscitate itself; develop cadres, inculcate independent regional leadership, make robust internal processes, amend the organizational apparatus that has become like a lazy leviathan structure going nowhere, develop a communications strategy, etc.
But its principal obsession must be to capitalize on its massive talent-base, its human asset. It is time it is leveraged.
This article proposes the first step towards a radical transformation of the Congress party, once considered the natural party of governance, by continuing to demonstrate its core competence in policy-making and administrative management.
I strongly recommend that the Congress appoints its formidable talent in a shadow cabinet, inspired by the Westminster model in the United Kingdom. It is a salutary democratic practice that must be emulated.
Let me elaborate.
The shadow cabinet is essentially the Opposition party putting forth its leading lodestars to challenge government policy, political behaviour and operating performance in matters of legislation and execution of programmes, besides complex political issues that confront the nation on a regular basis.
Let me be candid: the BJP has a woebegone talent-deficit and it was evident during NDA 2, when BJP leader Arun Jaitley held the portfolios of Finance, Defense, Corporate Affairs and Information & Broadcasting concurrently in a country of 1.3 billion people with a sizeable GDP of over $2 trillion.
It was a gargantuan travesty of democratic governance. Several of its ministers have cut a sorry figure both inside and outside Parliament making absurd statements. The shadow cabinet effectively keeps the checks and balances on the ruling party and becomes an alternative government-in-waiting.
This will also asphyxiate BJP’s attempt to make India’s elections akin to the personality-driven, American-style presidential contest that has favoured Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flamboyant rhetoric and dog-whistle appeal to majoritarian nationalism impulses.
This binary of Modi versus Rahul Gandhi helped the former largely because of the sympathetic indulgence of dubious ‘independent’ policy wonks, massive propaganda blitzkrieg by electronic media, digital manipulation of a high magnitude and extravagant government expenditure on creating the Modi brand.
It clearly worked. A stagnant economy, severe job crisis, rural distress, institutional breakdowns and sectarian fissures would have normally uprooted any government. Instead, the BJP came back with a higher majority. Many are still nonplussed by what really happened.
The Congress got stymied in showing its collective capabilities, it’s unique advantage of an enormous talent-bank got completely negated. By forcing the government to answer issues not just in Parliament, but also in the public domain and the now hyper-kinetic social media, the Congress shadow cabinet can keep the political discourse on matters of citizen interest and distemper efforts at communal polarization and noxious rabble-rousing that caters to core constituencies.
It will also put the brakes on those prime time TV shows that have helped Modi become a personality cult.
Besides being a platform of a counterattack, a shadow cabinet can become a powerful space for setting the alternative narrative. And as we all know, the one who sets the agenda usually wins the elections.
The Congress party should have separate shadow ministers for key portfolios of Defence, Finance, Home, External Affairs, Information Technology, Information & Broadcasting, Law & Justice, Agriculture, Industry & Commerce, HRD, Rural Development and Environment, and Minority Affairs, among others.
This cannot be an in-house secret arrangement but publicly disclosed by the Congress party to the public and the media, similar to the breathless anticipation that precedes the announcement of a new Cabinet formation. The shadow ministers can create their own research teams, respond to prevalent issues through press conferences and social media (if they are members of the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha they can make their broadsides in the august house itself).
The newly formed All India Professionals Congress (AIPC) can become the key backbone in this endeavour, given the abundant expertise on hand. Thus, shadow ministers can maintain sustained public engagement on things that matter. It will compel even the vociferous cheerleaders of the Lord and Master in mainstream media who merrily succumb to abject subjugation to debate material matters.
In the age of Post-Truth and fake news, the shadow minister’s prompt interventions will put a lid on WhatsApp confetti and Twitter, Facebook contortions that otherwise can prove to be deleterious. The BJP has a political strategy that is willfully nonchalant to facts, and employs disingenuous distorted information to malign individuals and obfuscate reality.
Democracy itself confronts a fatal threat from the malignant metastasizing of the spurious news monster. A shadow cabinet is the perfect antidote.
The shadow minister can be changed periodically, like a regular Cabinet reshuffle. They need to earn their stripes and are as accountable as their official counterparts in government.
It must also be made explicitly clear that it does not guarantee the chosen person a natural Cabinet berth in the event that the Congress party wins in 2024, whether on its own or as a part of a coalition.
In difficult times, one needs to redraw strategy and discover one’s political nous. The Congress desperately needs a disruptive approach, shaking off it’s typically templated responses to crisis.
The time for incremental tinkering is long over and mere cosmetic changes will boomerang. The time for the shadow cabinet has arrived; it could be the game-changer.
The government of PM Modi must have a shadow, but it won’t be its own.