Congress faces existential threat as party struggles to hold on to Karnataka, present united front in poll-bound Maharashtra

Among the many political lessons that the implosion of the Congress offers, two are worth noting. The grand old party's travails in Karnataka, where it is struggling to hold on to the coalition government with ally JD(S), indicate that opportunistic alliances that have no positive agenda, common platform, shared perspective or vision except a cynical motivation to keep a third party (which happens to be the single-largest) from power will eventually collapse under the weight of its contradictions.

The second lesson that emerges is that political parties in India need either an ideological or dynastic mooring. The Congress is devoid of the former, and the scion of the Gandhi dynasty has just tendered his resignation. The erstwhile national party seems to have totally lost its will and stomach to fight and its very existence looks doubtful.

The wins in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh now appear to be events of the past decade. Assembly elections in Maharashtra, its traditional stronghold, are coming up in three months, but the Congress is coming apart at the seams and may fail to put up even a semblance of a fight against the ruling BJP.

We are witness to an epochal moment when the power equation between parties in India will have to be redrawn with BJP replacing Congress as the new epicentre of Indian politics. The ideological shift is already evident with some senior Congress leaders taking political positions that are increasingly to the right of centre.

 Congress faces existential threat as party struggles to hold on to Karnataka, present united front in poll-bound Maharashtra

File image of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. Reuters

To come back to the first point, the Karnataka experiment is damning for the Congress. It shows that though its relevance in national politics has diminished, its arrogance has not. The crisis isn’t new, and it was woven into the design of the coalition when two erstwhile rivals came together to deny the BJP a shot at power. Since then, chief minister HD Kumaraswamy has been busier in saving his government than in governing the state.

The latest implosion — which is also the biggest and could end up toppling what appears to be a minority government right now — has been triggered by the dismal performance of the coalition in the recently-held Lok Sabha elections. The BJP’s win in 25 out of 28 Lok Sabha seats was the proverbial last nail in the coffin for a 13-month government that failed to negotiate inner contradictions of an alliance formed on the basis of a negative agenda. Former Karnataka chief minister and Congress’ regional strongman Siddaramaiah could never come to terms with the loss of his power and kowtowing before a chief minister who represents the junior alliance partner. But he was not the only disgruntled leader.

On several occasions, Kumaraswamy threatened to quit, complaining against interference from Congress MLAs. His father, JD(S) patriarch HD Deve Gowda, recently predicted mid-term elections while commenting on the uncertainty of the coalition experiment.

The recent crisis turns the Congress-JD(S) regime into a minority government with 13 coalition MLAs (three from JD(S) and 10 from Congress) putting in their papers. Further, two independent MLAs — H Nagesh and R Shankar — have resigned and extended support to the BJP, even though both were given ministerial berths in the Kumaraswamy government less than a month ago.

Also in the mix is Roshan Baig, the dissident Congress MLA who was suspended by the party over his criticisms of state leaders for the poor result in the Lok Sabha polls. The Shivajinagar MLA told ANI that he was “hurt” by the way his party had treated him. “No action was taken against those who worked against the party in the recent election. I was suspended just because I spoke the bitter truth that the state leadership failed in managing the entire election campaign.”

While the dissident MLAs are on the road from Mumbai to Goa, according to latest reports, the entire Kumaraswamy cabinet has resigned to make space for the rebel MLAs so that they can be inducted into the cabinet in a reshuffle. This is the proverbial last throw of the dice from the coalition, but things could change dramatically if the Speaker accepts the resignations of the 15 (13+2) MLAs. A decision is expected today.

If the resignations are accepted by Speaker Ramesh Kumar, the coalition’s strength will reduce to 103. The BJP has 105 MLAs, plus support from two independents who have crossed over. In this case, the BJP will have the majority since the halfway mark in the House is set at 106 as the quorum is reduced to 211. The Speaker also has a vote. Kumaraswamy’s government will become a minority on the floor of the House and the advantage will lie with the BJP which has already asked for the chief minister’s resignation.

The political maneuvering in Karnataka is just one side of the story. The malaise for the Congress goes deeper. The Congress central leadership, while cobbling up an alliance with the JD(S) was aware of the instability woven within, but the need to keep the BJP out of power was greater. Such an approach can neither hold, nor deliver. Had the Congress possessed a strong central leadership, the crisis could still have been mitigated.

The Congress, which proposed the alliance with JD(S), could have and should have allowed its junior partner some breathing space. But its MLAs, led by the former chief minister, found the reversal of fortunes unacceptable. Rahul Gandhi should have cracked the whip to instill some discipline in the Karnataka unit, but he never had the charisma, talent or ability to tackle such a problem. Now that he has quit his post as the president without a plan of succession in place, the crisis has become greater. No one in the Congress knows how to solve it. The party has been reduced to a team of firefighters trying to douse one fire after another in different parts of the country.

Milind Deora

Milind Deora, who resigned as Mumbai Congress presiden recently. AFP

If we shift focus to Maharashtra, the situation for the Congress is even graver. The NCP, led by Sharad Pawar, is willing to strike a seat-sharing arrangement, but the Congress in the state (as also in the Centre) is headless, leaderless, directionless and rudderless. Its state leaders are busy fighting among themselves instead of firming up a plan to challenge the Devendra Fadnavis government which is on track to renew its alliance with the Shiv Sena. They look the favorites by default.

Mumbai Congress president Milind Deora put in his papers on Sunday, the latest to quit in a series of resignations that has rocked the party in the state. Deora followed Ashok Chavan, who had just a few days ago resigned from his post as the state unit chief citing support for Rahul, who resigned officially from his position after a month of internal power-wrangling.

Amid the pantomime of resignations, the Congress is in the ICU. While Deora has resigned in support of Rahul, senior Congress leader and his rival in the state Sanjay Nirupam (who was deposed by Deora as the Mumbai unit chief) has trained his guns on his colleague. In a series of tweets, Nirupam accused Deora of angling for a national post (perhaps hinting at his ambition to become the party president) instead of rebuilding the state unit. “Is this a resignation, or a ladder to climb up?,” questioned Nirupam.

In the recently-concluded Lok Sabha polls, Congress lost all but one of the 26 seats in a straight fight with the BJP. Since then, Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, one of the most powerful Congress leaders in the state, and his son Sujay have joined the BJP. Patil was even made a minister in Fadnavis' cabinet. Patil’s resignation from the posts of Congress Legislative Party chief and leader of Opposition in the state Assembly has led to open infighting for the two posts.

In a bid to placate both, Balasaheb Thorat was chosen as the CLP leader and Vijay Wadettiwar the leader of the Opposition. Both have since been squabbling and accusing each other of stepping on to each other's toes. Instead of sending central observers to chalk up a strategy and devise ways to put the ruling government under pressure — staple for any political party ahead of elections — the Congress is suffering from a sort of fatalism that indicate how deep the morass is.

“There is almost a paralysis of some kind. Ideally, we should have begun sending central observers to the state, appointing observers in the district, identifying issues that resonate among the people, started working on the manifesto committee so that we can give the people a manifesto… However, things currently are in such a state in our party that it is taken that we are going to lose,” a state Congress leader was quoted as saying in an Economic Times report.

On the other hand, as a Zee News article points out, the BJP seems battle ready. “Fadnavis has already asked party members not to remain complacent following a stunning performance in the Lok Sabha election. He will soon take out a month-long vikas yatra in the state while ministers have been asked to increase their tours in districts assigned to them.”

NCP chief Sharad Pawar has reportedly asked Congress’ general secretary in charge of Maharashtra Mallikarjun Kharge to start talks for a seat-sharing pact, but the Congress is apparently unable to decide who will lead such talks. Another party functionary was quoted in Hindustan Times as saying, “The Assembly elections are expected to be held in October and we have no one to decide the party’s strategy for the polls. No one is authorized to talk to allies such as NCP and others.”

The two pictures drive some home truths about the Congress. Rahul Gandhi might be the most incompetent Congress president in its history but still, his presence as a member of the First Family at the helm is crucial for the grand old party to survive. The party lacks an ideological anchor to pull through times of uncertainty. Right now, it is splintered between the old guard and the new, and in a state of deep disrepair in several states. As an article in The Indian Express points out, “given the state of the Congress, the basic exercise of politics in itself seems a tall — and perhaps impossible — order.”

Follow live updates on the Karnataka political crisis here

Updated Date: Jul 09, 2019 20:54:38 IST