The Congress, the oldest political formation in India, has changed its spots. This may not be an ideological transformation. What has changed is the organizational character of the party. And this is the work of the current president, Ms Sonia Gandhi. The Congress began, in the late 19th century, as an association of Western oriental gentlemen who served, in the words of one historian, as Her Majesty’s loyal opposition. It became a political party and a movement under the leadership of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi who gave to the party an organizational structure that linked locality, province and nation. Such a structure — and despite Gandhi’s dominating presence — did not provide unity to the Congress. The Congress remained a movement to which many were called, from the socialist to the feudal lord and the capitalist. The Congress spoke in many voices and thrived on factionalism. The party retained this character under Jawaharlal Nehru. Indira Gandhi forged a unity using her iron fist but under her son, the Congress reverted to its multivocal character. This is what Ms Gandhi has changed and this is the significance of the conclave held at Mount Abu.
The Mount Abu meeting was held immediately after the Congress victory in Jammu and Kashmir. This electoral triumph means that the Congress now rules over 15 of the 26 states. This situation makes the Congress a major contender for power in the next general elections. With the popularity of the Bharatiya Janata Party on the decline, the Congress is the obvious single largest player. The source of this momentum, which is taking the party from strength to strength, is the organizational streamlining implemented by Ms Gandhi. The Congress, for the first time in its history, has become a centralized party. Ms Gandhi has curtailed the influence of regional satraps. She has silenced the smart alecs who revelled in snide comments. The party now speaks in one voice and recognizes only one power centre. This may have made the Congress more personality-oriented but it has also made the party more effective and credible. There is no longer any ambiguity about the Congress, within and without the party. The impact of this should not be underestimated.
Ms Gandhi is in the process of making the Congress a modern political entity. The emphasis, in the Congress-run states, is on governance rather than on the nurturing of traditional vote banks. Ms Gandhi is looking at the long-term transformation of the Congress and not at flash-in-the-pan electoral triumphs. There is, however, a fly in the ointment. The Hindi heartland, which often determines India’s political future, remains untouched by modern political consciousness. Those areas are still influenced by markers like caste and religion. A modern Congress may still flounder on the rocks of tradition.