Assembly Election Results 2017: Can Congress resurrect itself or is it on a path of irreversible decline?

The biggest takeaway from the election results of the five states is that Narendra Modi’s BJP continues to be on a roll (it is a hands-on victory for Modi rather than the BJP as much as the Bihar results in 2015 constituted a greater personal setback for the leader than the party) and Rahul Gandhi’s Congress is on the verge of decimation, having been decisively routed in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

The only consolation for Rahul is Punjab where the party has notched up a clear victory. In Goa and Manipur, it is a close race between the Congress and the BJP. Even for the sake of argument, if it is conceded that the Congress wins both these states, it will only give the party statistical satisfaction because these are micro-states and they do not alter the big picture for the final battle in 2019 (both Manipur and Goa send just two MPs each to the Lok Sabha whereas Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand send 80 and five seats respectively).

With the dismal Congress performance in the Assembly elections year after year, is the party facing a situation of irreversible decline? Is the Congress party in the 21st Century going to replicate the downhill journey of the Liberal Party of the United Kingdom in the 20th Century?

Priyanka, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. File photo. PTI

Priyanka, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. File photo. PTI

Both the Liberal Party in the UK and the Congress in India came into existence in the 19th Century, the Liberal Party in the early decades and the Congress in the closing decades of the century. However, there was one essential difference: Liberal Party – which came into existence after the amalgamation of the Whigs, Free Traders and Radicals – was one of the two major political parties vying for power in the UK (the other being the Conservative Party) whereas the Congress came into existence when the British were still ruling over India – it was a platform for articulating Indian interests and aspirations. The Congress party became the indisputable ruling party when India attained Independence in 1947.

By the time the Congress Party came to power in India, the Liberals had gone into the stage of irreversible decline. By the end of the 19th Century, the party had formed four governments in the United Kingdom. In the early 20th Century too, it was a potent political force and either ruled on its own or led the coalition government with the Conservative Party, during the First World War.

But in the 1922 election — the first after the First World War ended — the Conservatives came to power and Liberal Party was reduced to the third position with the newly formed Labour Party emerging as the official Opposition. Since then, the Liberal Party has remained in the margins of British politics, never a serious contender for power, despite several mergers\acquisitions (its new face, Liberal Democrats, shared power as a junior partner with the Conservatives in 2010, but in 2015, the Conservative Party comfortably won the elections on its own and the Liberals were handed down a humiliating defeat by the electorate). For almost a century now, the Liberals have not been in the driver’s seat in the British politics.

Is the Congress hurtling down a similar journey?

After the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the Congress managed to retain its position as the main Opposition party, though it could not be recognised as the official Opposition as it did not have the required number in the Lok Sabha (1\10th of the total members of the House). The series of state elections after the 2014 national election show that the Congress is losing ground rapidly and it is quite possible that its tally of Lok Sabha MPs would come down sharply in 2019 — even from its currently dismal number, just 44 in a House of 543.

It is increasingly becoming evident that the Congress may have to play the second fiddle to some of the regional parties at the national stage, as it has already done in several states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. After losing Uttarakhand, the Congress remains in power in three tiny northeastern states (Meghalaya, Mizoram and Manipur), Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka and the Union Territory of Puducherry. From the point of view of political clout, Karnataka is the only state of any consequence. All available indications tell us that the Congress is likely to lose the state to the resurgent BJP in the 2018 Assembly election.

Does that portend the terminal decline of a party which was once synonymous with the Indian democracy?

The enthusiasts for the Congress would argue that the Congress might be facing a temporary decline, but it would bounce back to power sooner than later. They would cite the example of the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom which was virtually eclipsed by the Liberals for four decades between 1845 and 1874 but it bounced back in 1885 to send the Liberals out of power for over two decades and finally push the Liberal Party into its sunset years a few years later.

Will the Congress emerge from its current decadence as a born-again Conservative Party or will it go the self-destruct Liberal Party way?

The Conservative Party, then largely representing the interest of the rich agriculturists, split in 1846 over the issue of protection of home-grown wheat; the party seemed to be lost for ever as it seemed to suffer a disconnect with the poor which became a majority in the British democracy with the increasing enfranchisement of the property-less citizens as the years rolled by. But Benjamin Disraeli succeeded in turning around the fortunes of the party by making the privileged speak for the rights of the underprivileged. The Conservatives swept back to power in 1885.

The Liberal Party had every advantage to succeed in a democracy – it had wealthy patrons, it had a glorious history of political success, it had a string of able leaders and, most important, it had a large body of devoted followers.

But, unfortunately, the party did not evolve with time. It could not keep pace with the rapidly changing economic and social trends. It had emerged on the political scene as the champion of the laissez-faire economy and had received unstinted support from the capitalist class. But the party was philosophically clueless when the industrialists veered away from the affirmation of free trade and demanded protection against goods of other European countries, especially Germany.

The increasing enfranchisement of the masses also created the additional pressure on the party to come up with a programme of state intervention for the relatively poor; that again undermined the laissez-faire philosophy which was the Liberal party’s guiding spirit.

Unfortunately for the party, at such a crucial juncture, there was no leader of stature and wisdom to steer the party through the economic and social convulsion. As a matter of fact, the party became a divided house, with discordant leaders squabbling among themselves. That was the time when the Labour party emerged with a social and economic doctrine that appealed to the aspiring masses, especially, the indigent workers. The Labour replacing the Liberals as the second pole of the two-party system had much to do with recognising the need of the hour.

Does the Congress understand the need of the hour? Modi appeals to the common people today because he gives the impression of being a relentless crusader against corruption whereas the Congress is held up in popular perception as the party that institutionalised corruption over the decades it was in power.

Can Rahul and his team come up with a concrete plan of action to convince the voters that a Congress government would take some tough policy measures to break the back of corruption — policies which even Modi is afraid to embrace?

Will the Congress, as a political party, take the lead in coming under the RTI Act, the very progressive legislation it enacted in 2005? Will it put pressure on the government to expedite the enactment of the undiluted Whistleblower Protection Act which was passed by Parliament under the Congress regime but was not enacted? Will the Congress go the whole distance to demand the expeditious enactment of the Timely Delivery of Goods and Services Bill, a Bill which was on the radar of the Congress government but which it dithered in taking to the logical conclusion and which even the BJP government is deliberately winking at?

Modi government has kept away from these substantive anti-corruption measures; it has largely relied on symbolism. If Rahul's Congress wants to resurrect itself, it has to wage a battle of substance, not mere posturing.

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Updated Date: Mar 14, 2017 15:32:32 IST

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