The grand old party of India i.e. The Indian National Congress seems to be in trouble. After two years of its humiliating defeat in general elections, when it slumped to its worst performance ever – winning just 44 of the 543 seats in the lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha – the Congress seems to be in disarray and appears nonchalant about the issue and does not seem to have any idea about the revival of its fate.
As one can easily observe, the last two years have been a washout for the Congress party. Its performance in every state assembly elections since the 2014 general election has been a poor show. For example, one can cite the party’s fate in the Delhi state elections where the party didn’t got a single seat and lost its government in both Kerala and Assam. In Delhi, party was in the government for the last 15 years before the greenhorn AAP trumped it in 2015. It shows how the fortunes of the grand old party dwindled.
The party’s pan-India appeal is going downhill rapidly. Of India’s 29 states, just six are Congress-ruled today. It has zero presence in major states like Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, and Tamil Nadu. In the Bihar state assembly, it has some clout with 27 seats but for a party that has ruled the country for the major part since Independence, this result could be totally humiliating. It is without a strong base anywhere in the country.
Not only has the Congress lost its central role in Indian politics to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance, it appears to have lost on the youth dividend of this country which it seems to have deserted the dynasty.
Speaking of the history of the party, it was founded in 1885, the Congress led the country to freedom from British colonial rule. It has dominated India’s post-independence politics, ruling the country for 54 of the past 68 years, either on its own or as the leader of coalition governments. It was only in 1977 that the Congress was defeated for the first time ever in national elections, when voters punished the party for “excesses” committed during Emergency rule (1975-77). So angry were voters with the party and its leaders that a political comeback seemed impossible.
Yet the Congress bounced back to power in 1980, won a landslide mandate in 1984 and until the early 1990s formed governments without the support of other parties. Between 2004 and 2014, a Congress-led coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) ruled for two five-year terms. The second of these terms was marked by poor governance and unprecedented levels of corruption. While a Congress defeat in the May 2014 election was widely predicted, even its worst critics did not expect it to be mauled as severely as it was.
Surgery required not Chintan Shivirs
According to political analysts, even after two years of its rout in the general election of 2014 and recent assembly elections, the Congress does not seem to be taking the issue head-on. One cannot see any visible signs of its prospects having improved, as the party, it seems, is in no mood to make a dispassionate analysis of the factors responsible for its defeat.
In the wake of the Congress’ defeat in the general election, an in-house probe was instituted into the reasons for the party’s dismal performance. Rather than pointing the finger at the party leadership, it laid the blame for the electoral drubbing at the door of the Congress-led government. Mention of Rahul Gandhi’s lacklustre leadership while leading the election campaign was conspicuously missing from the probe. In the process the party has failed to reform its organisation or tackle issues related to its functioning and leadership that may have contributed to its decline and fall.
Heavily centralised in its decision making, particularly since the 1970s, the Congress has a top-down style and is heavily dependent on the Nehru-Gandhi family to provide it with leadership, hold the party together, and win it votes. Especially in the wake of the Congress’ annihilation in the general election, calls for reform of the party’s organisational structure and functioning have grown, but in the last two years the party has seen little progress in this direction. Even veteran senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh said that the party needed “major surgery” following repeated setbacks in state elections since the 2014 Lok Sabha drubbing. Questions have been raised, too, over the leadership skills of 45-year-old Rahul Gandhi. Amid questions over Rahul Gandhi’s leadership after poll debacle in the recently held assembly elections, Congress signalled that the national leadership is not washing off its hands even as it insisted that the party Vice President took no decision on his own and that he would be “more active” in the future. However, efforts to shield Rahul Gandhi continued, with party spokesman P C Chacko saying he had not taken a single decision on his own and that it was the state units where poll strategy was decided as per the local conditions.
The big boat is going down
There appears to be no end to the internal churning in the Congress. Although party insiders have been maintaining that Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi will be elevated as party chief at a proposed All India Congress Committee session in soon, doubts have now arisen about this. There are reports that Rahul Gandhi’s coronation may be delayed till the year-end in view of the divisions in the Congress. With Hemant Vishwa Sharma, charting course of victory for BJP in Assam after leaving the Congress, veteran leader Ajit Jogi too has left the boat now. In a candid interview with scroll.in, Jogi admitted to the possibility that several known state leaders could even leave the Congress if Rahul Gandhi takes over as party president because they harbour doubts about his capabilities to lead and revive the party. At the same time, Jogi maintained that the Congress has no option but to accept Rahul Gandhi as its future leader since the party does not have any pan-Indian leader. While agreeing that the Congress has virtually disappeared from several states, Jogi has suggested that it should join hands with parties like Trinamool Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party and the YSR Congress just as the constituents of the erstwhile Janata Dal have come together to take on the BJP. In what appears to be a veiled insinuation towards the working style of the Congress party, Capt. Amrinder Singh, face of Punjab Congress unit, suggested that the Congress high command should delegate more powers to state functionaries, especially to fight “regional leaders” in their respective states. “If you have to deal with regional leadership, you must give some powers to the state leaders of the Congress”, he said, obviously hinting at the recent debacle in Assam and other state assembly elections.
Gandhi family loyalists are firm in their belief that Rahul has what it takes to lead the party out of the political wilderness. His growing visibility, increasing interventions in Parliament, and new-found aggression in taking on the Modi government, have given wings to the party workers to some extent but rebuilding the Congress and saving it from political irrelevance needs much more than Rahul’s occasional heroics.
Rahul’s antiques may have given hope to his supporters but the Congress has failed to attempt public mobilisation on any of the thorny issues in the last two years. It could use such mass mobilisation against the government to forge unity within the party and to rally other opposition parties behind it. This could provide the basis for its own political and organisational revival.
But before setting out to do that, the Congress needs to set its house in order. An important first step in that direction would require it to set in motion a genuine process of democratisation of the party, its structure and functioning. This will require elections for all posts, including those of party president, members of the Congress Working Committee, its apex decision making body, and state presidents.
If the Congress party is keen to make youth return to its fold again, it needs to radically reform itself, failing which, it will only sink further into political oblivion.
By Nilabh Krishna