Party or nation: Congress faces an election dilemma

A month before the Lok Sabha election, the Congress confronts a major question: should it focus on party-building or nation-building? This question assumes importance because the Congress will evidently not join the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) alliance in Uttar Pradesh. In Delhi, too, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Congress have failed to agree on seat-sharing.

Party or nation: Congress faces an election dilemma

A file photo of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. PTI

The BJP is riding a wave of confidence following events in Pulwama and Balakot, as anger against Pakistan turns inwards. Opinion on whether this will impact electoral choices is divided but some media reports suggest it has given the BJP an edge just when its prospects didn’t look good. It is looking to polarise voters on national security by portraying the Opposition as anti-national. Against this backdrop, the Congress will field candidates in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, complicating the poll arithmetic by weaning away Dalit, backward and Muslim votes from the SP-BSP alliance and AAP.

In states such as Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Bihar, the Congress has a sizable base. Elsewhere, it has ceded ground to regional players — the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, BSP in Uttar Pradesh, AAP in Delhi, the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and so on. The Congress is under pressure to form pre-poll alliances or field common candidates, so that the anti-BJP vote is not divided.

Since its dramatic growth in 2014, the BJP has mobilised religion in the service of political power. Its politics of polarisation, division and hatred has brought India to a tipping point. A united Opposition can be a bulwark against normalising politics of hatred and prevent the BJP from consolidating its hegemony, at the same time, a Congress lacking adequate seats will be ill-equipped to defend the idea of India. It needs to win 100 or 110 seats, a climb from 44 in 2014, without which it risks losing relevance. The Congress would also forfeit a significant role if a post-poll agreement at the Centre is discussed, should the BJP fail to win a majority on its own.

Over the last 10 years, the Congress has lost its grip over its history. Yet, partly because the Congress has been in power for very long, there is a sense of exhaustion with its politics, especially dynastic politics. The narrative of strong leadership has also appealed to people: the question “Modi versus who” is repeatedly asked particularly by the middle classes. This is the predicament at the heart of the Congress’ poll strategy.

Many are asking if the Congress has chosen the right moment to revive its base in Uttar Pradesh, instead of letting regional parties defeat the BJP. It has been out of power in Uttar Pradesh for 30 years. Barring 2009, when it won 22 seats, the Congress has failed to make a dent in the state’s identity-centric politics. Its eight per cent vote share has to double for it to win a significant number of seats. It has some support among Brahmins and Muslims but it is not enough. It still needs other social groups. And in the 2017 assembly election, it allied with SP but the tie-up didn’t help either of them.

Even regional parties are reluctant to share seats with the Congress. The BJP has already taken away some of their voters and the Congress, they fear, would further weaken them.
Of late, the Congress has been flirting with religious politics. Its ambivalent relationship with religion is reflected in its ambiguity towards secularism. The BJP talks about development but deploys the politics of religion, whereas the Congress tilts towards majoritarianism at times and on  other occasions, attempts to transcend this. It is trying to compete with the BJP on its turf, forgetting that if people have to vote for a Hindu party, they would prefer the one that explicitly practices that brand of politics. The Congress is sometimes intimidated by its rival and sometimes imitates them, but ends up compromising its secular, pluralist identity.

In going it alone in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, the Congress is assuming that Muslims will also vote for it. This is true in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, where there are no strong regional players but Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal or Delhi are different. The Congress wants Muslim support but doesn’t want to be seen to have it. This is reaffirmed by its strategy in ticket distribution. It has refrained from fielding a large number of Muslim candidates, especially in states where it is in a direct contest with the BJP. Party leaders admit it is in response to the BJP labelling the Congress a Muslim party. Symbolic gestures such as temple visits and promise of cow protection are aimed at living down that image.

The Congress has failed to defend its record of the past 70 years that would help it counter the BJP’s failures. There is much for it to defend from UPA’s first term. It has not highlighted its national-security strategy, and until this week, did not raise the Kandahar hijacking and release of Masood Azhar by a BJP government. The BJP’s talk of nationalism is ironic, given the absence of the Hindu right and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh from the freedom struggle. But, the Congress hasn’t cornered it on this. Today, the BJP is conflating nationalism and national security, Hinduism and Hindutva, state and government, while the Congress is not challenging such binaries. It is invariably unsettled or overwhelmed by BJP’s hyper-nationalism.

Growing economic inequality, combined with politics of hatred, has created a new political conjuncture. There is insecurity among vulnerable communities which needs to be taken head-on. The Congress was doing this until the Balakot air strikes. It needs to refocus on issues of livelihood, unemployment and agrarian distress. The Congress’ promise of minimum income guarantee is a significant assurance in this regard. Basically, it must speak up for equality for all.

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Updated Date: Mar 18, 2019 14:44:35 IST

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