The Indian National Congress faces the sixteenth general elections to be held in April-May 2014 with the worst ever crisis of credibility since independence. Media hints that it appears to have conceded defeat even before the poll. Its campaign appears lackluster, lacking programmatic coherence and the desired organisational solidarity; the leadership quotient appears thin and its collective will to take on a buoyant Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party and an experimental Aam Aadmi Party, not to speak of various regional or state parties that matter at least in 200 constituencies across the country, looks weak. The prospect of falling to the worst ever electoral performance in its history to a double digit strength, or just past 100, in the Lok Sabha, is being whispered within the party by a demoralised leadership.
Not surprisingly, the allies are deserting United Progressive Alliance and flocking National Democratic Alliance—reverse osmosis in action. The Congress experimented with ‘dual’ leadership when Sonia Gandhi, who united the party from the depths of disharmony and disintegration, was politically restrained from prime ministership due to her foreign origin. She led the party and the alliance and Dr. Manmohan Singh, the first Rajya Sabha member to serve two full terms as the prime minister without even once winning a Lok Sabha seat, led the government. However, the successful finance minister of 1991-96 critical economic crisis, led an out-of-wits UPA II government with governance (policies, price rise, inflation) and the party appeared insensitive to the rising cases of scams. Banking heavily on rights based legislations to woo the poor and the marginalised, it did not pay sufficient attention to implementation details; the programmes were caught in the bureaucratic quagmire. The party leadership had no clue to deal with it; the prime minister appeared a silent witness to scams tumbling out of governmental closets; the party did not know who should stand up to it, Sonia Gandhi or heir apparent Rahul Gandhi. The allies figured in the allegations of corruption, felt alienated at the way the Congress ‘treated’ them.
The Congress has lost an apparently successful plot given by its 2004-09 UPA’s record with 200-plus Lok Sabha seats in 2009, for the first time since 1996. Whether or not analysts are prepared to bet on who would form the government, the Congress and the UPA, it appears clear, would sit in the opposition. How would the Congress shape while sitting in the opposition with leadership transition given that Sonia Gandhi meticulously prepared the ground for Rahul Gandhi’s succession to the party and in power? Whether the party gets a double figure presence in the Lok Sabha, or scrapes past 100, Congress’s future would be critical to the party system in India. Would it be able to maintain its position as one of the two poles of the party system in the era of coalition and be able to recover the lost ground? Indeed, the situation would be more challenging in case the BJP succeeds in its mission 272-plus.
The Indian National Congress is what Maurice Duverger in his celebrated book Political Parties described as an ‘epochal’ party—a party that is part of the Indian epoch of independence. Till now no study of the party system is complete without a reference to the Congress, though between 28 December 1885, when 72 all-India delegates gathered in Bombay for the first session, and 2014, when it contests national elections with tail between legs, the party is recognisably different.
The Congress became synonymous with party system in the country as contrarian views and movements arose within leading to new parties. The famous 1906-1916 moderate-extremist face-off transformed its political stance from mendicancy to mobilisation and agitation. The formation of the Muslim League in 1906 too was a reaction to the politics of the Congress. Gandhian politics not only changed its ideological moorings and political strategies, several contrarian views resulted in reaction. Swaraj Party was formed in 1923 opposing Gandhi’s withdrawal of movement following the Chauri Chaura violence and against his views of not contesting the Central Legislative Assembly elections in 1923, though the Swarajists later came back to the main party fold. The formation of All India Forward Bloc by Subhash Chandra Bose in 1939 after quitting Congress Presidency and the party on being outmanoeuvered by Gandhi was an instance of contradistinctions within the behemoth. Similarly, the formation of a caucus within the party as Congress Socialist Party in 1934 and their being compelled to leave the party in 1945 on pressure from the Patel group mirrored that as a platform for pro-independence ideas, the Congress provided a fertile ground for germination of innumerable ideas, but as an emerging political party, clash of ideas and ideologies within it sought certain homogenisation; the process that gave the post-independence Indian politics a rainbow of parties and a robust party system. Most post-independence political parties and leaders, barring the Left, which too had used its camouflage to escape the British wrath during the second World War, had been associated with the Congress.
The party changed drastically as stalwarts such as Sardar Patel and Maulana Azad passed away by 1955; and the rest had left the party in dissent. Nehru took the reins of the party too in 1951 for the next three years. Nehru’s dominance declined only after the debacle in the China war in 1962. The party, however, dominated the Indian political scene in a fashion where both ‘opposition’ and ‘alternation’ was within, the situation that Rajni Kothari famously theorized as the ‘Congress System’ and W. H. Morris-Jones characterised as one-party dominant system. In transition after his death in 1964, when the party satraps took control, a ‘new’ Congress emerged in 1969 after the vertical split; for the first time since 1951 the party’s election symbol changed from a pair of oxen with a yoke to cow and calf, with the two factions suffixed with their party president’s initial.
The fifth general elections called mid-term in 1971 established Indira Gandhi-led Congress, but organisationally and in functioning it had changed. Always powerful, the ‘High Command’ became overbearing, relative autonomy of the state units ceased and state chief ministers, who played a key role in determining prime ministerial stakes in 1964, 1966 and 1967 were reduced to being the appointees from Delhi. Another split in 1978 gave the party a new symbol, ‘hand’; again those who compelled the split to isolate Indira were marginalised. The culture of a controlled state politics was reinforced during the 1980-89 rule of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi and became a norm since 1998, when Sonia Gandhi took over as the party president. Viewed with suspicion as a challenge, autonomy of the state leadership was stifled and decimated.
More significantly, from representing a broad social coalition, the party focused on a winning coalition of upper castes, Muslims and dalits; each began to drift away to emerging alternatives since the mid-1980s, when BJP’s Hindutva, Mandalisation and the rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party presented alternatives to the upper castes, backward castes and dalits. The professed secular credentials of the party too were compromised as it played soft Hindutva to checkmate the BJP.
The continued contemporary significance of the Indian National Congress, tremendous changes in the party in 67 years since independence notwithstanding, could be seen and understood in three respects—first, the idea of India it ideologically inheres; second, despite the thinning physical presence, its all-India acceptance as a party that can accommodate all shades of opinions and all sections of the society; and finally, its political significance as the key political node of the country that occupies the main centrist space and can bring together like-minded parties.
The power pursuit of the Congress since the mid-1960s took it away from its institutional moorings that made it the vanguard of the national movement. Indeed, the transformation from a movement to a political party changed its complexion, the fear that made Gandhi ask for disbanding it, but it took a while before the values began to dissolve. Yet, the rhetoric of the centrist space kept the party an all-India platform, which it still is, it needs to rediscover the lost space imaginatively.
Mahatma Gandhi’s efforts since 1920s to make the Congress socially inclusive is what sustained it. The electoral politics created constraints, but not since the 1970s that the party really used a restricted arithmetic, successful topically, but it weakened the party in the long run. The desire of familial succession and tolerating only those who acquiesced to it shrunk intellectual, physical and social base of the party, making it as emaciated as it is today. It still contains the space should it decides to rediscover itself and accommodate diverse opinions.
All these years the party has continued to be the pivot of the party system in India even when it was out of power in 1975-77, 1989-91, 1996-2004. In a quandary since 1991 after losing its winning social coalition, also having lost some key states to either state parties or the emerging rival the BJP, the party had difficulty in grasping the emerging significance of state politics and state-based parties that became key players in a number of states. Taking the cue from the BJP that resorted to political coalition in 1998 due to its ideological isolation and limitations of a nationwide reach, the Congress reached out to smaller parties in 2004 and won two consecutive general elections. It would have to rediscover itself to position itself as the leader of one of the two nodes of the party system, whether or not it eventually attains its own place as the key centrist party in the country.
The Congress secured more than a quarter of the votes polled in the past six general elections, whatever the number of seats it got in the Lok Sabha. Its lowest tally so far was 114 in 1999, even then it had secured 28.3 per cent votes. In 1998, it got 25.82 per cent votes, the lowest so far and 141 seats, its tally was larger than the BJP’s highest so far, 25.59 per cent votes polled. Equally significant is the increase in vote and seat share of the regional parties to one-third between 1999 and 2009, though they plateaued at that level (See Table 1). Clearly, with over a quarter vote share and the capacity to win at least as many seats in the Lok Sabha the Congress continues to occupy a significant space in the Indian political life and electoral democracy. While the party used its dominant space in politics till 1989 to dictate the terms of discourse in government in politics, it also used coalition politics to emerge as one of the two key poles of the bipolar politics.
Obviously, should it lose that space, a serious political disequilibrium would be in the offing. For, whatever gains the buoyant Modi-led BJP may gain in the sixteenth general elections with significant coalitions across the country that would benefit the regional parties too, but it is still not clear if they would cross one-third space gained so far; in any case it is still not projected to achieve the status of the Congress of the yore, even if it succeeds in its mission 272-plus. The Aam Aadmi Party is still an untested phenomenon that would affect results of all the parties across the board perhaps without winning many seats. Hence, win or lose, the Congress would continue as a significant political phenomenon, but it must reconfigure itself.
Table 2 significantly shows how the Congress and the BJP have occupied the political space across the country in the past four general elections. Neither of the two has an all-India presence. The Congress, which has been losing popular votes since 1989, held on to over a quarter votes till 2009. The BJP, which first emerged as the challenger in 1989, has not secured more than the Congress, though taking advantage of alliances and first-past-the-post system it vanquished the Congress twice.
A careful look at Table 2 indicates thinning influence of the Congress across the country and a concentrated presence of the BJP. Indeed it is difficult to make predictions and projections, but if one goes by the table, the Congress has greater promise of regaining all-India position than the BJP. Will it reimagine itself as the Indian National Congress once more?