Immediately after the assembly elections, the renewed stir in the form of meetings and discussions occurring in the Congress party and its dissident group has caught all attention towards itself. The total annihilation in these polls has again led to questions being hurled at the party and its leadership, and justifyingly so, both from within and outside the congress.
From Manish Tewari to Sunil Jakhar and Kapil Sibal to Shashi Tharoor, the shrillness and echo of the ‘rebellious’ voices have shot up. And in no less explicit terms, the likes of Tharoor and Sibal have expressed concern over missing accountability and called for a revamp in the top decision-making authority since the change is ‘inevitable’.
Indeed, the leadership has been avoiding accountability over consistent poll drubbings. Apart from the two consecutive general elections, out of 49 assembly elections held since 2014, the party has lost a staggering 39 of them. Despite these, the leadership of the party has been resting among Gandhis, at times swinging back and forth from mother Sonia to son Rahul.
Let us try to make sense of some urgent steps that need a relook in the grand old party, starting with the leadership.
With or without Gandhis?
The Gandhi family has been at the helm of the party for generations now. And, they do have achievements to show. However, the newest generation, as well as a faded Sonia Gandhi, doesn’t inspire much confidence either in the party or in the electorate.
Mother Sonia, who was forced to come forward and lead the party again after son Rahul Gandhi resigned as the president of the party post-2019 loss, is 75 now and isn’t physically too active, neither as the president nor as a politician, owing to chronic health issues.
This sustained absenteeism has alienated several party leaders, who just can’t fathom who exactly is calling the shots in the party. No prizes for guessing Rahul Gandhi. He has been the de facto leader even after giving up on the job years back. His ‘power without responsibility’ approach can be pinned as one of the primary reasons for the party’s downfall.
The Gandhi scion seems to be in disbelief that people dismayed by the current regime will eventually come back to the Congress. This sense of entitlement has defined his engagement in the day to day politics, which, to say the least, has been insufficient. An erratic communicator lacking political astuteness is precisely the image he carries among the general public.
Therefore, the party must hunt for a leader beyond Gandhis now without being laid down by the fear of the organisation getting disintegrated.
Though the fact of the matter is it is anyway happening. Young leaders seeing no future in the party have been jumping the ship for some time now. They can’t be held back for long if the party keeps losing poll after poll.
In fact, contrary to the fear and belief, leaders leaving the party under Gandhi ( read Sonia) is not new. Biggies like Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee and Jagan Reddy left the Congress and established their own parties, this when Sonia Gandhi was the president. As it happens today, all of them are in power in their states. Clearly, the family has not always managed to keep its flock together and, thus, does not carry any distinct virtuous excellence.
Bereft of idea
A political party needs to follow and convey its ideology in no uncertain terms to mobilise like-minded people. Today’s Congress, in an increasingly majoritarian political atmosphere, is lost on ideology. Forced to take a stand on contentious issues, the party mostly looks to avoid them, fearing ‘falling in the trap’.
The lack of a clear and upright position taken by the party has often resulted in different leaders putting forth different opinions, and at times resulting in public squabbling. No, please avoid giving it any euphemism of diversity. It is nothing but a screaming sign of a house in complete chaos and disorder where nobody knows what’s happening.
Further, the grand old party when challenged with communalism has often looked to shed its secular credentials. Lack of clarity and conviction is in display when the party is seen flirting with ‘soft-Hindutva’.
What it is failing to understand is that cloning BJP cannot be the pathway to its resurgence. Until it stops trying to be a counterfeit to its rival, a revival is a distant dream. This will forever keep them dabbling in BJP’s forte and reduce them to playing catch up on the narrative front.
Playing catch up on the narrative
Attempts to create doubts over the PM’s incorruptible image in the run-up to the last general elections over the controversial Rafale fighter jet deal, and the BJP and the government being forced to run a campaign to counter the charges, was the only major moment in the last few years where the Congress party was seen to be setting the agenda of the discussion, albeit unsuccessfully.
Sidestepping this exception, on numerous other occasions, Congress has appeared struggling to even give a befitting reply to the rivals, let alone setting the agenda. From 370 to Ram Mandir and triple-talaq to everyday communalism, Indian National Congress has been mostly on the back foot trying to catch up.
Despite being in opposition for over 8 years now, gauge the irony here, the Congress party is perennially padded up to defend itself from the attacks of the BJP, and not the other way round. The party of freedom fighters and great nation-builders hasn’t been able to defend them from the BJP-RSS onslaught. The latter, which doesn’t have many revered icons of its own, has been on a relentless drive to steal such personalities from the INC. And the initial successes of the saffron ecosystem is an indicator of INC’s limited control over building public perception.
Let alone the departed souls, the party and its communication strategy have bitten dust against the mighty BJP IT cell. Once said to be the future of the party, Rahul Gandhi- owes his image crisis largely to the sustained negative propaganda by the BJP, which was/is challenged ineffectively by the party machinery.
This brings us to the fourth obstacle in the revival of the Congress.
Organisation in doldrums
A month ago when the PM mocked the Congress in the lower house, he rightly mentioned a fact about the party being unable to script a turnaround after being pushed into political exile in several crucial states decades back. UP in 1989, Bihar in 1990, Gujarat in 1995 and Odisha in 1995- the last years of Congress in power in these big states.
The party organisation in such electorally significant states are in tatters. Party offices shut down, office bearers migrating towards greener pastures and orphaned karyakartas losing every vestige of hope, the party in several states is on the brink of being either marginalised or getting extinct.
It is nobody’s claim that Congress had a really strong organisation in its heydays. Rather it has never been a cadre-based party. But today when the ruling BJP has one of the greatest organisational roots in world politics, it cannot be business as usual for such a challenger.
This is also imperative considering the fact that today, unlike decades ago, the charisma and euphoria surrounding its party leaders have largely dissipated and the Gandhi surname is no more enough to get big crowds in rallies or garner votes.
As BJP’s political stocks rose over the years, the party has been amassing huge resources. In recent years, the ruling BJP has grabbed the lion's share in political funding received by parties. According to independent think tank working towards electoral reforms, Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), by the end of the financial year (FY) 2020, BJP’s resources were valued at a whopping Rs 4,847 crores.
On the other hand, Congress’ fortune has been declining with every passing year. Compared to the BJP, the party only had resources worth Rs 588 crores and stood a distant third among the national parties.
Rahul Gandhi’s leftward economic tilt and his unchecked rants against top businessmen of the country carries the threat of further straining the party coffers by antagonising potential fund givers. For instance, consider this part of a recent column by retired businessperson Jaithirth Rao- “Rahul could and should have chosen to imitate the business-friendly and modernising positions of his father Rajiv, rather than the statist ideology of his great-grandfather and the anti-rich rhetoric of his grandmother. If there is no change in the leadership and the public posturing of the Congress, there is a risk of the party becoming a sibling of the CPM ”- where he has stated what businessmen-bashing can end up like.
Notably, the effects of depleting resources have begun to adversely impact the party’s actions and poll strategy. If ‘lack of hunger’ is what one sees when the leadership and the party is missing in action, the other and lesser-acknowledged truth remains the fact that any mobilisation and protest needs massive resources. Therefore, the lack of sustained campaigns by Congress can also have a fund crunch as, though secondary, but, a plausible reason. The party can no more afford to advance its election campaigns, unlike the BJP. Such is the scarcity that the party often prioritises candidates carrying financial weight who can themselves fund their campaign, with little or no support from the party.
This situation calls for immediate course correction. Be it Rahul Gandhi or whosoever other is the new president, anti-rich rhetoric must be toned down and be left for the communists.
Easy prey even for smaller parties
All the above-listed factors have paralysed the party to such an extent that not only BJP but aspirational regional parties too are twisting arms. It is well-known that BJP has an incredible strike rate against the Congress (over 90% in LS seats). And even in assembly elections, it has proven itself in pulling down its alliance partners ( for example, SP in UP 2017 & RJD in Bihar 2020).
So, after becoming a liability for the alliance partners, the left presence of the Congress is being exploited by the regional parties to consolidate their own support base. And this not only in their home states but others too where Congress’ base are being eyed as launchpads for the new entrants. Mamata’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) has looked to expand its footprints in the northeast and other smaller states like Goa by poaching INC’s regional stalwarts and legislators. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has not only been attempting as such but as the Punjab results showcase, has successfully dethroned the party from a state.
If not arrested, soon the party, as in most assembly elections, even at the national level might start appearing as a mere ‘distraction’, since nothing concrete would be achieved by voting a party that is no challenge to the existing regime.
Therefore, with or without Gandhis, the Congress party- which is essential to the survivability of pluralism and democratic spirits of the nation- must address these issues at the earliest to avoid extinction. For India, the idea of Congress is too big to fail.