It would be a colossal understatement to say that the Congress party is facing its worst ever crisis. Having been in the wilderness first in 1977 and again in 1989 and 1996-2004, the party is not unaccustomed to being in Opposition. But what happened during 2013-14 is much more serious than being merely a function of routine democratic alternation. The outcome of the 2014 election only dramatically presented what already had happened to the party — a deep-rooted malady of non-performance and purposelessness.
Since 1996, its vote share in national election has hovered in the range of 26 to 29 per cent. The lowest was 25.8 in 1998. This time, it fell to under 20 per cent. The party was losing elections to many State Assemblies and the proportion of these defeats indicated the downward slide of the party. This was captured also by the polls done by Lokniti since June 2013. By then, the Congress had shed about one per cent of its votes compared to 2009. By the time parliamentary elections began, the party was down by four percentage points to 25 per cent (see graph).
Between July 2013 and January 2014, the net dissatisfaction with UPA government (dissatisfied minus satisfied) increased from two to 14. But almost half-way through the second term of the UPA, things had already started slipping out of the hands.
If the defeat of the Congress was thus almost certain, what makes this outcome dramatic? Partly the answer lies in the scale of the defeat. It reached its lowest ever vote share — barely one in every five voters voted for the Congress. More than that, the inability of the Congress to win seats explains the nature of the larger organisational and social malaise that the party faces. Since its decline began in 1989, the Congress’s multiplier (ratio of proportion of seats won to proportion of votes polled) has been often under one. But this time, it has gone down to under 0.5.
The defeat indicates that the party will have to begin from the scratch. It is not very often that in their lives parties face the task of literally defining themselves and their politics. As India’s polity gets used to the absence of Congress and the Congress braces for life without power practically anywhere in the country, the fundamental challenge before it will be of reinventing itself.
(Suhas Palshikar is the Co-Director of Lokniti and teaches political science at the University of Pune.)