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The dominant image of the Congress’s ‘Black Friday’ anti-price rise protests was of black-clad Priyanka Gandhi Vadra sitting on the road, surrounded by a police posse. Before that, she was seen marching energetically, clambering over police barricades, being forcibly pushed back by women cops, and finally being dragged away into a waiting van. Rahul Gandhi was also seen raising slogans and being strong-armed into police custody.

These images are striking because the Gandhis are usually seen leading a sheltered existence, surrounded by special security, traveling in heavily-guarded limousines, or appearing in public ringed by the protective party faithful. Their preferred mode of agitation is usually a tweet or two or peaceful dialogue with academics based overseas. So when the Gandhis break from their VIP cocoon and step into street agitation or are seen bearing the brunt of police action, the images immediately make news.

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There’s great power in the right image. Long before Priyanka, there was Indira Gandhi who, back in October 1977, when she was arrested, transformed it into an excellent theatre. Before her arrest, she first ensured press photographers were present when the police arrived at her door. She then stalked out and insisted on being handcuffed, crying, “Lagao hathkadi, Mujhe hathkadi lagao” (put on the handcuffs). Earlier that year, she had journeyed through a major storm to the remote Belchi village in Bihar. Seated atop an elephant, she swayed and lurched across a swollen river in driving rain. Watching this feat of endurance by a 60-year-old Indira, even news-hardened photographers had shouted “Indira Gandhiji ki Jai.

Stretching back to the pre-Independence time, in 1927, Jawaharlal Nehru was ferociously beaten by a British mounted police officer, who charged his horse into a Lucknow procession that Nehru was leading. The Englishman landed several blows on Jawaharlal’s back and neck with a long baton, but Nehru remained standing. Mahatma Gandhi’s epic 1930 Dandi March came after sustained campaigns of Satyagraha and Non-Cooperation. The Dandi March was not a one-day event.

This is the key to the process that builds a leader and spurs public mobilization: sustained and constant street action that identifies with people and does not suddenly stop, constantly retreat, or keep disappearing from view. In 2020, Priyanka was detained at Hathras when she went to meet the family of the Hathras rape victim; then, in 2021, she was placed under house arrest in Sitapur when she was on her way to Lakhimpur Kheri, where farmers had been run over. Yet, in this year’s election, Congress could not make any mark whatsoever in Uttar Pradesh, performing so badly that it lost its deposit in over 90 percent of seats. Big bang protests, which are one-day events, don’t work. Engaging in a few hours of high-voltage action, followed by an equally sudden disappearance from the scene and months of absence, leaves zero impact on the public mind.

Protests can’t be one-day events or an exercise in one-day optics. Mamata Banerjee fought the Left for decades on the street. She never gave up. She faced lathis, cracked open skull, and appeared in public with her head bandaged, but she kept tilting at the mighty Left Front day after day. Thus, when the Singur and Nandigram protests began, she possessed the credibility to take the leading role, already identified as she with a protest against Left rule. Similarly, the trade union leader George Fernandes was associated with years of street campaigns and was a consistent symbol of mass protest, so when he was arrested in 1974 after the Rail Roko protest, the image of George in chains holding up his fists became an impactful rallying point for protestors.

Currently, the charge against Congress is that the party only acts for self-preservation to block the Enforcement Directorate investigations against the Gandhis. Most of Congress’s campaigns are taking place on Twitter. Twitter trends and hashtags provide the illusion of mass mobilization because it’s easy to get fooled about the public response to viral tweets and widely-shared videos. But in actuality, Twitter is an echo chamber and does not reach the masses or make any real impact. Congress seems to lack the appetite for street protests.

The party also lacks the organizational depth and breadth -as the Left had in the 70s – to keep agitating across the country for real issues. Home Minister Amit Shah’s statement that Congress’s Friday protests somehow reveal a disparagement of Modi’s Ram Mandir Shilanyas is absurd and ridiculous: the exact date of that mandir ritual is hardly branded enough in public memory to warrant a country-wide campaign.

Congress must convince the public whether it can connect with the many pockets of restiveness present across the country. Will Congress and Gandhis remain restricted to the small Lutyens zone in Delhi for their sporadic outbursts, or will they be able to reach out to groups across India? Beyond the price rise agitation, can Congress go to parts where there are grievances about jobs or access to basics or the grievances of students or jobless workers, and mobilize people and build up movements?

This requires sustained work on the ground. So far, the Gandhis or the Congress have not shown the necessary stamina. In 2011, Rahul Gandhi visited Bhatta Parsaul to join farmers protesting land acquisition. Still, the Gandhi scion rapidly vanished from view and has not made land agitations or Kisan Andolan his chosen mission.

Congress today faces near-extinction. The only way it can recover is on the street. Leaders are born once they have faced police lathis, prison terms, and the might of the establishment. State power can only be met by people’s power, not by slogans or tweets. Congress will have to become what it was 75 years ago, an effective weapon of resistance against the government machine.

This can’t happen with episodic, stop-start, shoot-and-scoot politics. It can only happen if Congress becomes a tireless watchdog on the street, day after day, year after year. Can Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi learn from Mamata Banerjee or the formidable Kisan Andolan of 2020-2021? The days of entitlement politics are well and truly over.

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