After the Congress party’s poor showing in the 2013 assembly elections in Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh, Mani Shankar Aiyar was the first Congressman to predict the party’s defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections (‘It’s good to lose’, IE, December 10, 2013). Though Aiyar may not have anticipated the scale of the Congress party’s defeat and the BJP’s victory, he passionately wrote, “As a Congressman, I greatly welcome Sunday’s electoral reverses.
I also look forward to our probably occupying the opposition benches after the mid-2014 Lok Sabha elections.”
The data presented in Figure 1 shows the scale of the defeat. In comparison to the 2009 elections, the Congress only marginally improved its vote share in Karnataka and Chhattisgarh. In all other states, the party saw a negative swing in vote share. In fact, in no state did the Congress win seats in double digits. The BJP, on the other hand, faced a negative swing along with its ally Akali Dal only in Punjab.
Can the Congress bounce back by sitting on the opposition benches as Aiyar had hoped? We are in no way writing an obituary for the Congress party, but the election returns suggest that the Congress will find it much harder to revive its fortunes this time round. The extent of decline in the Congress’s strength in the 16th Lok Sabha may seem an aberration, but the reasons for the party’s debacle in this election are deep and structural.
First, as Table 1 shows, even during the anti-Congress waves of 1977 and 1989, the party managed to cross the 150-seat mark and won more than one-third of the total votes polled. The number of seats where the party’s candidates lost their security deposit was negligible. Since 1989, the party’s vote share has always been below 30 per cent and declining mostly. The Congress was voted back to power in 2009 by winning 206 seats. Although this was its best performance since 1991, the Congress’s vote share increased by less than half a per cent of votes in comparison to 1999, when it had performed poorly. In 2014, not only are the party’s seat tally and vote share abysmally low, but also two in every five Congress candidates have lost their security deposit. This is unprecedented.
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Second, the party has become politically defunct in many parts of India. As Table 2 shows, for more than 25 years, the Congress has not been in power at the state level in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu (these four states account for 201 seats in Lok Sabha). Similarly, the Congress has not been in power in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha for more than 10 years. And there are other states, like Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, where the party will find it hard to come to power on its own in the near future.
Third, the Congress party faces an organisational challenge. It has a thick coterie of leaders around the Gandhi family who have their own vested interests in keeping the dynastic nature of party organisation alive. This coterie needs the dynasty because without the dynasty they would have no independent political base. In our view, more than the Gandhi family, it is this coterie that is the main challenge to the Congress’s organisational rejuvenation and electoral revival. Rahul Gandhi may keep experimenting with organisational elections and primaries, but nothing will happen unless he makes serious efforts to create space at the top for local regional leaders to climb up the party’s hierarchy. This is unlikely to happen in the near future. Rahul Gandhi’s team is mostly full of leaders who have barely spent time in understanding the murkiness of local and state-level Indian politics. More than 50 per cent of the Congress ministers in the outgoing UPA cabinet were never elected to state assemblies or had served in state cabinets (the data is available from the writers). In fact, more than two-thirds of these ministers enjoyed very limited mass support even in their home states.
Fourth, politics is an incentive-driven full-time occupation and it is for this reason that the Congress politicians with significant mass base move out of the party when they are denied their share of power and fame. Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Jaganmohan Reddy in Andhra, and Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra are just a few examples of state-level leaders whose ambitions were thwarted by palace politics.
Fifth, we concur with Aiyar that, “the Congress, as presently constituted, might have served the national and political purposes of the 20th century but is hopelessly out of sync with the 21st”. The reason for this are the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution that paved the way for building the panchayati raj institutions in India. Though Aiyar generously credits Rajiv Gandhi for this, he himself played a very important role in envisioning it. With one stroke, the Congress and Rajiv Gandhi transformed the language and scale of Indian democracy. India now has more than three million elected representatives in three tiers of the panchayati raj. The Congress party has, however, not fully come to terms with the fact that these local elections require a different organisational structure. Electoral politics in India have become more local, frequent, and routinised. There are many more political aspirants trying to make their way up the party hierarchy. The Congress, with its centralised high command culture, surrounded by a thick coterie, has failed to create space for these rising political elites.
This is essentially what the Modi moment in Indian politics represents — an earthy politician forcefully dislodging the Delhi durbar within the BJP and maybe the Congress. Listen to its trumpets and stop complaining. Something has profoundly changed about Indian politics with the 2014 verdict.
The writers are with Lokniti-CSDS, Delhi and the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, US