In its 137 years of existence, the Congress has dominated Indian history, but never looked more sidelined than it does today. This is an ironic predicament for the party, which led the freedom movement, as India marks the 75th anniversary of Independence. The Congress has been an umbrella organisation in the truest sense – accommodating and giving space to those on the right and the left, the poor and the rich, the upper and lower castes, the mainstream and the neglected, all irrespective of their religion. For a country as diverse and demanding as India, reeling from the trauma of Partition, this was no mean feat, especially in the late 1940s and the 1950s.
Explained | The Congress party’s internal administration
A diminishing footprint
Till Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1999-2004) and Narendra Modi (2014-present) of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), no non-Congress Prime Minister had ever completed a full term in office. Today, if the drift continues, the prospect of the Congress having a Prime Minister of its own appears unlikely.
The party rules only the States of Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, is part of a coalition in Jharkhand, and has just lost the key State of Maharashtra after a rebel faction of its ally Shiv Sena formed the government along with the BJP.
In July 2019, the Congress lost its coalition government with the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka, and then a few months later in March 2020 its government in Madhya Pradesh fell. The party has lost much of its national footprint and remains a bystander in the politics of India’s most important State that decides who rules New Delhi — Uttar Pradesh.
The BJP has been ruthless in capturing State governments — even where the electorate had given the mandate to other parties — displaying a disdain for democratic practice that has come to be a defining feature of its politics. In all three States, Maharashtra, Karnataka and M.P., the BJP employed methods that were less than kosher, but this kind of politics is what has become the new normal in the country.
In the BJP, the Congress faces a party that works according to its own rules, has a formidable organisation, which is aided and boosted by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) network and remains committed to taking India down the majoritarian Hindu route.
Amid the agencies
The Congress party’s public face, Rahul Gandhi, has just been subjected to several rounds of interrogation by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in a case relating to the National Herald newspaper. The party president, Sonia Gandhi, too is likely to be questioned soon.
The ED, the Central Bureau of Investigation, and police forces in States where the BJP is in power have been used to harass political opponents to the extent that some political choices have been made under pressure or duress – the imminent threat of arrest compels many to fall in line.
Many questions have been raised about the leadership of Mr. Gandhi as the Congress lost the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 and 2019. A bunch of leaders, referred to as the G-23, had coalesced within the party, raising questions and demanding to know why elections were not being held for the job of party president.
Though some of the questions raised by the G-23 were clearly pertinent, many of the prime movers appeared to be more worried about where their next Rajya Sabha term was coming from, given the dwindling political fortunes of the Congress in State legislatures.
The fate of some of the G-23 leaders (and many others) points to the problems that the party faces. Used to enjoying power and privilege, many Congress leaders found loyalty to the Gandhi family a useful route to fulfilling personal ambitions. Now, with the family unable to deliver, these leaders are angry and frustrated. Many loyalists have switched sides to the BJP.
The Congress is a party with a diminished agenda and ideology. In its manifesto and campaign for the 2019 general election, the Congress floated the idea of a universal basic income but failed to take the idea to the people effectively. It has also been unable to match the BJP when it comes to the idea of projecting the image of a ‘strong' India pushing back against aggressive neighbours. This nationalist rhetoric, with the message that India is safe with the BJP and Mr. Modi, has clicked repeatedly with the voter. Also, with campaigns centring on personalities, this is successfully used by the BJP to contrast Mr. Modi with Mr. Gandhi.
Questions for the Congress
Can this vast chasm be bridged? Can the Congress bring a healing touch to address the ravages of a majoritarian politics that has brought much suffering and anxiety to the people? Can it, in combination with regional opposition parties, provide an alternative to the BJP in 2024?
These are questions the party needs to engage with substantially — in its own party fora and in the public domain.