Days after the Congress suffered another electoral setback in Bihar, voices of discontent within the party resurfaced with a section of leaders calling for action and introspection.
Calls for reform and accountability for the Bihar polls debacle, however, invited quick rebuttals from the party which fielded veteran leader Ashok Gehlot to say that the Congress has always sprung back from crisis.
Gehlot’s assertions followed former minister Kapil Sibal’s public criticism of the Congress leadership and his remarks that the time of introspection was over and people no longer saw the party as an effective alternative. Sibal’s open call for reform in the Congress comes close on the heels of 23 party leaders writing to party president Sonia Gandhi for leadership change and organisational overhaul. Sibal himself was part of the group of 23 leaders.
The Indian National Congress: the traditional party of the national bourgeoisie with roots going back to the anti-colonial struggles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For decades after formal independence in 1947, Congress completely dominated the Indian political stage at the national and state levels. Until it was ousted in 1996, the party had held office continuously at the national level with the exception of two three-year terms. Today, the party is shadow of its former self. Its claims to stand for the interests of the masses are in tatters and its bases of support are rapidly dwindling.
One sign of Congress’s decline is that the party has been compelled to turn to a series of electoral alliances with regionally-based parties. The rise of these parties in the 1990s, which whip up local prejudices on the basis of language, ethnicity and caste, was another reflection of the widespread alienation from the major parties. In previous elections, Congress eschewed electoral pacts, believing such arrangements were not necessary and undermined its national image.
Nothing underscores the party’s bankruptcy more than its dependence on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. The party’s tenuous links to the leaders of the anti-colonial movement—Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru—are all that remain of its claims to represent the interests of the working masses of India. Congress was always a party of the Indian bourgeoisie, which ensured that the vast movement against British rule never threatened private property and became the means for securing its own privileged position. At the same time, through its leadership of the anti-colonial opposition, Congress established deep political roots and a reputation as a party of progressive change that enabled it to dominate the political stage after the end of British rule.
Congress’s ability to maintain its increasingly tarnished image was a product of the peculiar global economic and political conditions that followed World War II. Successive Indian governments were able to maintain a highly regulated national economy, based on import substitution, and make limited concessions to workers and the oppressed masses. In the context of the Cold War, Congress leaders were able to balance between Washington and Moscow, and, with the assistance of the Stalinist bureaucrats, posture as “anti-imperialists”. India was one of the leaders of the so-called non-aligned movement.
However, in the 1980s and 1990s, the processes of globalisation undermined all forms of national economic regulation—the sharpest expression being the collapse of the Soviet Union. The impact was no less profound in India where, in the early 1990s, the Congress government of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao initiated the first stage of market reforms and opened up the country’s huge reserves of cheap labour to foreign investors. While a layer of business and the middle class benefitted, the economic restructuring resulted in savage attacks on the living standards of the working class and oppressed masses.
Congress couldn’t uphold these ideals of working on the ground for as long as the people of India hoped it would. Much of Congress’ dominance at the center as well as the state level was due to the fact that people voted in the name of Congress, which had won freedom for the country. People felt almost indebted to the party and continued to bring them back to power in the hope that Swarajya (self-rule) would actually be realised on the ground and the days of Ram Rajya (the idyllic rule of Rama), which Gandhi used to mention in his speeches and writings, would come.
People waited for years, but neither Swarajya nor Ram Rajya came about. Instead, the people realised, nepotism and corruption were increasing day by day in the political system. It was not Ram Rajya, but the Raaj of one family — the Gandhi family. The family alone accounts for three prime ministers, who ruled the country for around 37 years, while another 10 years of governance in the 21st century was also largely led by the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty.
The Lok Sabha election in 2004 was a battle between the NDA led by its popular Prime minster Vajpayi and the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) stitched together under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi. The NDA government had performed reasonably well, but the riots in Gujarat and its “India Shining” campaign did not go down well with voters and it lost the elections to its main adversary. Manmohan Singh became the prime minister of the UPA government. The leadership was diluted from a single person to Manmohan-Sonia-Rahul troika which worked well for five years (2004-09) and in the 2009 national elections was able to retain power winning over 200 seats on its own. The impressive performance of the congress was due to the combined leadership of Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), farm loan waiver scheme, pro poor policies of the UPA government, confidence of stability and victory of secular forces.
The gains made in 2009 by the Congress were lost midway as the UPA II government was besieged by numerous scams, high inflation and unemployment rates, price rise and the policy paralysis that hit the country in the last two years of its regime. The general election in 2014 marked the real decline of the Congress as it witnessed a “wave” election with a new dimension as there were two currents running simultaneously in the country. The first current was a strong anti incumbency wave against the Congress which pushed it tally of seats to 44 which is the lowest and its vote share fell below 20 per cent . The second wave was in favour of the BJP PM designate Narendra Modi which propelled the saffron party back to power in Delhi with a comfortable majority for the saffron party signalling the beginning of the BJP dominance in national spectrum of power politics.
The seeds of the deterioration of the Congress party which were sown during the period of Nehru germinated and grew during the Indira regime before becoming a full blown tree in the Sonia-Rahul era which is most likely to fall due to its overbearing weight. The reasons for the decline of the Congress party which surfaced during the Indira period were not addressed by the current leadership and kept in limbo. The working of the Congress government and party gave birth to new problems which hastened its downslide further. The dual control of the Manmohan Singh government and the Congress party by the Gandhi family worked was calibrated properly and worked well initially but it ran into rough weather in the second term.
The remote control of the government and managing the alliance partners created frictions which snowballed into a serious of political crisis and electoral backlash in 2014 general elections. The high command syndrome which decided party matters earlier at national and state matters was extended at local levels with no connect with party functionaries at ground zero. The absence of a strong leader within the Congress is another significant factor.
The Congress under Nehru was an omnibus party which co-opted the ideological shades of the right-centre-left and built a consensus to rule India giving no leeway to political parties of left and right orientation to spread their political and electoral wings. The leadership and party organisation were in equilibrium and equally strong with no major opposition to challenge its supremacy. The ascendancy of Indira after a tough fight with right leadership in the Congress and subsequent expulsion paved the way for centre to left policies making her one of the most popular leader of her time. The charismatic leadership of Indira weakened the party rank and file and she banked on centralised and authoritative decisions to rule the country and maintain the single party dominance of the Congress.
The party at present does not have a strong leader and workable structure and its ideological agenda of leftist-welfareist policies for the poor has been hijacked by the BJP which is using it cleverly to position itself as the single dominant party in Indian politics. The Congress needs to rewrite its ideological agenda and open the entry gates of the party for people with rightist views within its broad spectrum of secular politics to counter the BJP surge in the country. The party can revive itself by rebuilding the party organisation by repopulating its cadres with foot soldiers and flag bearers at the grassroots level and set up realistic goals to do a political rebound in the distant future.
By Nilabh Krishna