Why the Congress needs the BJP
Despite a controversy regarding their validity, most opinion polls are indicating that the Congress may be heading for one of its worst electoral defeats in independent India. The poor performance of the Congress is often attributed to two sets of factors. The first points to the UPA’s poor performance in power, the high command culture that has not allowed the emergence of “home grown” talents at the state level, and elements of dynastic rule at multiple levels.
The second set attributes the Congress’s looming losses to the fraying of the ideological centre of Indian politics that was most closely associated with the Congress party.
While there is some truth to both these claims, in our view, the Congress faces a far deeper structural problem during the 2014 elections. Without a distinct political message, the Congress is indeed facing a clear challenge from a resurgent right-wing BJP and the weaker Left. The far bigger challenge for the Congress is, however, from regional parties like the Aam Aadmi Party that seek to occupy a place within the same centrist space as the Congress. The emergence of these centrist parties has hurt the Congress far more than either the BJP or the Left.
Why is the Congress being hurt more by the emergence of new political parties? The regional parties that have emerged in a majority of Indian states often have an ideological underpinning that is not at all different from the Congress’s. This raises two questions. First, why were these regional parties able to populate the same centrist spot as the Congress? Second, what are the consequences of the rise of these regional parties for the Congress?
Regional parties were able to populate the centrist space occupied by the Congress because the Congress party, even in the days before independence, was primarily a collection of regional elites. Its presence on the ground was much thinner in princely India compared to the areas that were under British control. After independence, Nehru followed a very similar model as Gandhi’s to nurse the Congress party organisation.
The party’s organisation was weak and Congress documents from that era point to the absence of district-level organisations in many parts of India. Party membership of the Congress in the 1950s and early 1960s fluctuated with election cycles. The number of party members (the membership fee was 25 paise then) was always higher in the years before the elections. This was because the multiple candidates seeking a Congress nomination populated the list of members with their respective supporters. Once the election was over, there was no need to retain members.
By the end of the 1950s, the left and the right elements had left the Congress. The decline of the Congress in the continued…