Is it time to write the obituary of the country’s oldest political party? Many believe it is time to move on, as the Congress has long outlived its historic role. In five years, it will pass a milestone it rather would not: being out of office for 10 years in a row for the first time since independence.
At the moment, the Congress has no large region or area to call its own, but the bigger worry is the lack of coherence and direction. Unlike most nations that gained freedom from the colonial rule, India held free-and-fair elections after Independence, with the Congress winning them all until 1977. It might not have remained unbeaten but, until a few years ago, it was still the party to beat. The Congress has long enjoyed people’s confidence that often translated into poll success.
But, the defeat in 2014 and its rerun in the just-concluded Lok Sabha election have shown that the Congress is out of touch with its voters. There will be many analyses of the 2019 poll outcome but one feature stands out.
The Congress’ presence is nominal in the Gangetic basin, the demographic centre of gravity of India—Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Bihar. It is equally weak in the industrial and commercial powerhouses of Maharashtra and Gujarat.
A broader view will help us understand Congress’ fate better. The party is not the only old guard to be knocked off its pedestal. The last few years have seen the Tories in the United Kingdom and the Social Democrats in Germany face voters’ heat. Perhaps most telling is the blow to the Labour in Israel. The party of David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir that laid the foundation of the State of Israel has been reduced to a fringe player.
So, what went wrong for the Congress? To get an answer, we will have to revisit the past. Until the 1980s, the Congress had more votes than all other major opponents put together. In 1971 when her re-christened formation, the Congress (Requisitionists), as it was known then, won against a unified grand alliance, Indira Gandhi secured 352 seats and a vote share of 43%. Together with allies, the seats added up to 411, and votes 51%.
But by the late 1980s, the social alliances that the Congress had led fell part in north India and it never regained power in Patna or Lucknow. It lost out to regional sub-nationalism even earlier in Tamil Nadu, once a stronghold. The last time it was in power on its own in the southern state was in 1967.
The 1980s say underclass groups—cultivators, self-employed and wage labourers—in north India came into their own, largely opting for the Mandal or the Dalit parties.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, still a small player in the wide anti-Congress coalition, emerged stronger through alliances. A series of decisions by Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress enabled the BJP under LK Advani to seize the moment. From 1990 on, the BJP sought to redefine Indian pluralism. Despite losing the 2004 and 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP was increasingly setting the grammar and idiom of Indian politics. The party’s expansion under Narendra Modi is remarkable but it has been built on the firm foundation laid by his predecessors.
With two successive Lok Sabha wins, the BJP has emerged as the dominant party in India. There were some quibbles about the claim pointing to the party’s vote share of 31% in 2014. But this time, in addition to its own accretion of six percentage points, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) commands 45% of the popular vote. In 16 states and union territories, the BJP’s vote share alone is about 50% or more.
These numbers then raise the question: is there a viable opposition? It is not just about numbers, though there is no escaping them.
The fact is the Congress in the last five years has not mounted any major public campaign on issues such as a low returns on farm produce, labour rights, better education and skills training for youth, or for water, health and women’s rights.
The show of strength in past polls drew on a rich vein of ideas thrown up in the freedom struggle and after. It was at the time of provincial polls in 1937 that the Congress emerged as a major pole of electoral politics. In 1951-52, when independent India held its first general election, that the Congress sealed a place in history with a landslide majority. When the Congress faced its first Lok Sabha defeat in 1977, senior party leader Yashwantrao Chavan was the first person to be the leader of the opposition in the House. In all those years, no opposition party had managed to get 10% of the seats in the House needed to be the leader of the opposition.
The last Congress leader to hold the position was Sonia Gandhi, from 1998-2004. To her credit, Sonia steered a new course, entering into power-sharing arrangements with smaller parties. The regional Mandal and Dalit parties were part of this rainbow alliance, which would eventually shape into the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that would rule from 2004-14.
But even when it was in office, the Congress failed to rebuild its social base. Most crucially, not only in the states but even at the apex, power was concentrated in a few hands, very few in fact.
As the Congress battles a crisis at the top, its past could offer some insights. Indira Gandhi had to fight first the Syndicate, then a unified Opposition and spring back after a bruising defeat in 1977 to lead the party to victory after three years.
Two months after she lost from the family bastion of Rae Bareli in 1977, Indira Gandhi was in Bihar’s Belchhi in May where some Dalits were murdered by upper castes. She completed the final lap of her journey on the back of an elephant in pouring rain, like a leader and not someone who faced poll humiliation a few weeks earlier.
The Congress has sorely missed such leadership skills. Faced with a formidable prime minister, the first member of the Mandal classes to have led the BJP to a majority on its own, the Congress failed to put together and give a voice to the economic and social grievances, and there were plenty of them. Even seat-sharing was patchy and the UPA was a pale shadow of the formidable alliance that had defeated the NDA in 2004.
Easily, the biggest failure of the leadership has been in defending the Congress’ record on national security, an issue the BJP walked away with. The Congress had in 1969-71 seen the country through a turbulent time during which India and Pakistan went to war that ended with the liberation of Bangladesh. It faced down Khalistani separatism in Punjab that posed a serious threat to the country. And, it restored the democratic process in Punjab as well as Jammu and Kashmir.
Conversely, the party began well on safeguarding pluralism, coexistence and fraternity across faiths —with the sarva dharma sambhava as the guiding principle of secularism—but didn’t stay the course. Nehru took on the orthodoxy in getting the Hindu code passed by Parliament but his successors failed to rise above sectarian divisions.
Faced with memories of the anti-Sikh violence in 1984 in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the Congress leadership should have gone not a yard nor a mile but the whole journey to seek reconciliation. It is a must for the party of Mahatma Gandhi; failure to do so will cost it the hearts and the minds of many Indians.
Faced with charges of being an anti-Hindu party, the Congress, over the last few years, tried to play catch-up but ended up a poor second.
At present, the media and the country are preoccupied with who will lead the Congress. The party has had leaders who delivered change in the name of continuity. Nehru was Gandhi’s choice but he chose industrialism over village self-rule, a cause dear to Bapu. In his less than two years as prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri helped bury the defeatism that crept in after the 1962 war.
Indira projected raw power on the world stage and broke the stranglehold of regional chieftains. Both Rajiv, hesitantly, and PV Narasimha Rao, much more firmly, helped align India with the realities of a globalised world to move the Control Raj. Sonia’s role was to prepare the party for the coalition era and the history will judge the UPA’s decade in power more kindly than the voters.
The core question, however, remains. Indira groomed her younger son, Sanjay, as the Congress chief but after his untimely death, her older son, Rajiv, joined politics and went to be the party president and prime minister. But is this is the best way to run a party in the India of the 21st century? True, most of the regional parties in India are family or clan-based. Lineage and blood ties also play a powerful role in other Asian countries—Japan, the two Koreas, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Thailand, to name a few. There can be no bar on a member of a family heading a party, but should it be a matter of right? And if it is, does it not shut the door on talented women and men who rise through the ranks?
Equally so, the Congress needs to reinvent itself. Many of its leaders cut their political teeth during the JP movement of the 1970s or the Ram temple movement a few years later. In contrast, the BJP and its allies are a vibrant mix—socialist veterans, Dalit leaders and members of regional cultural assertion movements.
Contrary to the calls to wind up the party, this is a time for the Congress to introspect and participate in a wider debate to redefine the role of the Opposition in a new era of one-party dominance. It is imperative to ask not just who will be the leader, but also what needs to be done and how.
The easy way out would be to throw in the towel. But, it will remove any checks on the BJP and its ethos of cultural nationalism, as noted political scientist Suhas Palshikar has warned. While state-based parties have a vital role to play nationally, they are restricted by their base of operations. There is no other larger force in national politics than the Congress.
A roadmap can’t be based on the past alone. Democracy in a country as vast and complex as India is full of surprises. It is only by engaging with the present in new and creative ways that the Congress can give India what it needs: a serious, an engaged and committed Opposition. To achieve this, it may have to rethink its approach or get left behind. For India’s sake as much as its own, the Congress needs to reinvent itself and fast.
(Mahesh Rangarajan is professor of history and environmental studies at Ashoka University)
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