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The Congress’ moment of truth

The Indian National Congress suffered a historic defeat in the 2014 parliamentary election. For more than three quarters of a century it occupied a dominant position in Indian politics. But this has changed significantly; the Congress managed to win just 44 of 543 Lok Sabha seats. It is now without a strong base anywhere, having been completely wiped out in Andhra Pradesh, weakened in Karnataka, defeated in Maharashtra, marginalised in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, and has drawn a near blank in most key States across the Hindi heartland. More electoral losses await the party in several States where Assembly elections are scheduled later in the year.

The decline and fall of the Congress is an arresting story written time and again; but this time the party is at the nadir of its influence in national politics. Its decimation everywhere in this election constitutes the most serious crisis in the party’s long history, worse even than the late 1970s after Indira Gandhi had suspended democracy. The big question is whether the party can recover, revive and reorganise its forces, ideas and energies.

Reorganisation

The Congress faces a structural dilemma on several fronts — organisational weakness, ideological stagnation and shrinking social support. At one time, it was a democratic party with a formidable organisation that ran an effective political machine, distributing patronage in exchange for electoral support. From the 1970s onwards, party organisation in most States degenerated severely. This was mainly because Indira Gandhi, who had very little use for the institutional structure or the framework of the party, made systematic efforts to change it into a centralised and family-centred political organisation. From then on no attention was given to the reorganisation and regeneration of the Congress. Between 2004 and 2014, the Congress not only won two national elections and ruled for two full terms but also won 21 Assembly elections. But there is no evidence whatsoever that the party was able to use its stint in power to energise the organisation. Instead, for the last 10 years, it has promoted rootless leaders and has not allowed strong regional leadership to grow and consolidate.

It is a well-known fact that the Congress is a much depleted grassroots organisation. Rahul Gandhi recognised the terrible condition of the organisation when he said in 2013: “I am not afraid to say that the Congress has become moribund. It has scarcely a single leader with a modern mind … Congress has never succeeded in evolving into a modern political party.” Even as Rahul Gandhi prioritised the party reorganisation, his efforts have produced no discernible enhancement in the organisational strength of the party. He has tried to introduce internal democracy in the party’s frontal organisations but the electoral returns from these efforts are not encouraging.

Space for leaders

The Congress is in terminal decline in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. In Punjab, it’s facing a serious threat from the Aam Aadmi Party. In Delhi, it has virtually disappeared. Organisational and structural factors are compounded by the leadership crisis. The party’s rank and file is not just looking for a major organisational overhaul and a big idea; it is actually looking for an inspiring leadership and direction that can restore the fortunes of the Congress. Rahul Gandhi was expected to assume a larger responsibility in the party’s affairs after the electoral debacle. But he continues to be reluctant to step on the gas, as is apparent from the Karnataka leader Mallikarjun Kharge’s appointment as the parliamentary party leader in the Lok Sabha. He should have taken the post since he was the party’s undeclared prime ministerial candidate in the election.

Be that as it may, the principal threat to the party comes from its inability to allow able and popular leaders to rise from within. No new leadership with a support base of its own has emerged. Strong, locally rooted, regional leaders could dramatically improve its State-level prospects, which in turn can spread to national politics. Over the past few decades, the overriding presence of the Nehru-Gandhi dynastic leadership has hindered fresh political talent from outside the trusted circle taking leadership positions thus immobilising the party’s organisational base. This has encouraged a debilitating trend of sycophancy and preference for loyalists, which cuts off the leadership from the grassroots, in the process making them inaccessible to both leaders and workers. Yet, the party’s confidence in the Gandhis remains unchanged. The failure of leadership in this election is patently obvious; nevertheless, their authority and supremacy have not been seriously challenged within the party.

A disconnect

Both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi offered to resign as the party’s president and vice-president respectively in the aftermath of the colossal defeat but the Congress Working Committee (CWC) members not only rejected their offer but even refused to discuss it. Since the defeat, there have been many criticisms of the family’s leadership, yet, by all accounts, Congressmen and Congresswomen have closed ranks behind them. Despite their numerous failings, and costly compromises in relation to allegations of corruption or communalism, the Nehru-Gandhis are still seen as natural leaders of the party when it comes to crafting its fortunes. Consequently, the majority of leaders and workers will not countenance the thought of the Gandhis stepping down as without them, they believe, confusion and disintegration would envelop the party.

With each successive spell out of power, the party’s ability to retain its supporters has dwindled. By the late 1980s, the famous Congress system had all but vanished. While it once embraced a broad spectrum of social groups across the country under its capacious umbrella, the attempt to recreate a social coalition through inclusive development has not produced a sustainable political base in the 10 years of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rule. It has lost its wide appeal across the country, as powerful caste and community groupings have voted for regional and smaller parties after more than a decade of uneven and unequal economic development. The problem with the Congress is that the rich and the poor, the upper castes and the lower castes, and the minorities, all are angry with it. There is a particular disconnect today between the new urban middle classes and the Congress’ emphasis on welfare that has failed to resonate with younger Indians. For the middle classes, increasingly preoccupied with economic advancement, its message was far too focussed on the championing of welfare programmes for the poor, and out of tune with their aspirations. Ironically, even as the party has lost ground with the middle classes, it has also lost the support of Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims to regional parties. Unless the party rebuilds its base among these groups and the urban poor, by agitating for their livelihood rights, it’s likely to go into steep, further decline — especially if it loses the coming Assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana, as seems likely.

Revival

The Congress’ revival hinges on its ability to address its crisis of credibility, encouraging State leaders, and functioning as a vigorous Opposition in Parliament, and outside too. Notwithstanding continuities between the two parties shaped by the embrace of a neo-liberal economic policy, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) view of the country is fundamentally at variance with the Congress one in myriad ways, particularly in terms of political and social policies. The threat to the Congress from Hindu nationalism was never greater than since the BJP came to power under Narendra Modi’s leadership and his sharp-edged political vision of an India defined and governed by the ethos and parameters of majoritarianism. Any attempt to reshape itself as pale saffron in a desperate bid to mimic the winner will only help to legitimise the dangerous right-wing political discourse, while failing to pick up some of the electoral dividends from this competitive wooing of the Hindu vote. Notably, doing so in the past had disastrously backfired resulting in further political marginalisation in north India, especially Uttar Pradesh. Much depends on just how long the Modi effect on the BJP’s fortunes will last. The perceived failures of his government, both in handling rising prices and the rising, communal polarisation in the country, provide an opening to the Congress-led Opposition to take on the BJP. It can use protests against the party in power to forge unity within the Congress and rally the Opposition behind it.

Judging by its past history, it would be hasty to write-off the Congress. Yet, it would be unwise to underestimate the seriousness of the political challenges that confront it at this point in the course of India’s democracy. In the long road ahead, the Congress will have to rebuild itself as a credible alternative to the BJP, repositioning it as a genuinely left-of-centre party. Its continued relevance in the vastly changed political dynamics is contingent on its reassertion of social democratic values of welfare and pluralism. As a final point, the real key to rejuvenation lies in the kind of platform that it adopts rather than in its leadership by a famous political family.

(Zoya Hasan is National Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research, and former professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University.)

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Printable version | Sep 25, 2020 2:31:39 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-congress-moment-of-truth/article6301572.ece

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