The failure of the Congress to win a single seat in the Delhi assembly elections — after having been the ruling party for three consecutive terms till 2013 — is a new, historic low for the party. Preliminary reports indicate that it lost its Dalit, minority and poor vote banks. There was also a massive shift of the middle and upper classes to the AAP, which has swept the polls, decimating the BJP. The Delhi results, together with the dismal performance of the Congress in the 2014 general elections and the subsequent assembly polls, suggests that the party may be breaking down.
A major reason cited for the collapse of the Congress is the deterioration and decay of the party organisation. Rahul Gandhi’s efforts to revive the party from early 2000 onwards have not succeeded. The organisational elections did not infuse fresh blood into the party, efforts to include Dalit and backward caste leaders have not borne fruit and the high command culture, dynastic control, sycophancy as well as factionalism remain divisive features. However, equally important is the Congress’s failure to adapt to the new political milieu of multipartyism. The ruling party for many decades, it was only in the late 1990s that it realised the need to form coalitions/ alliances with regional parties at the Centre. The party’s ability to manage coalitions and relations with allies has remained poor, as witnessed during its two terms in power, especially between 2004-09. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA, on the other hand, was made up of over 13 parties and yet was able to run smoothly.
The structures of governance adopted by the Congress high command during UPA 1 and 2 also created dissensions in the party. The National Advisory Council affected the principle of cabinet responsibility. It brought NGOs whose views often differed from those of elected representatives, including ministers, into the policymaking process. Groups of ministers were expected to be platforms for inter-ministerial coordination. Some were even “empowered” by the cabinet to act on its behalf. But in practice, their members regularly consulted party colleagues and leaders. Consequently, their ability to resolve inter-ministerial disputes on SEZs, land acquisition and environmental issues, among other things, was limited.
Many policy issues remained in a perpetual state of limbo. Even commerce and finance ministers often differed on taxation issues. Such bottlenecks contributed to the policy paralysis that enveloped the Manmohan Singh government during its second term.
These aspects of governance were framed by the lack of strong leadership, which was required to hold the party organisation together as well as to provide direction to the “dual power structure” adopted by Sonia Gandhi in 2004. The system worked fairly well in UPA 1 but broke down during the second term because of the lack of coordination between the two sides and the attempts to control the prime minister. Dynastic rule by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi has not worked well. It has alienated senior leaders. Rahul Gandhi did not even take up a post of responsibility in the government and his party didn’t make good use of the younger generation of leaders emerging within the Congress by training them or giving them power and responsibility in the party organisation or the government. This caused unhappiness and worked against the Congress.
The Congress has been through phases of decline earlier, but it has managed to bounce back. This was true of the post-Emergency period and also the early 1990s, after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. The party was able to successfully steer the economy’s globalisation under Narasimha Rao, though his contribution was not acknowledged. By the late 1990s, the Congress was facing a severe crisis. Sonia Gandhi’s decision to take over the leadership in 1998 enthused members and cadres. But the decision came too late to impact the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, which resulted in the victory of the BJP-led NDA under Vajpayee. In 2004, the Congress did manage to form the UPA under Sonia Gandhi but, again, it could not consolidate its gains.
Today, the Congress is facing an existential crisis of serious proportions. Are we witnessing the disintegration of the Grand Old Party? India requires a secular, progressive, left-of-centre party in order to maintain a hard-won democratic fabric.
Can the AAP occupy the secular space vacated by the Congress? Clearly, serious introspection by the Congress leadership is required. It is hoped that the collapse of the party will lead to it rethinking its style of leadership and decision-making. Will the Gandhi family be open to a system of collective leadership, which would provide space to all types of leaders and viewpoints, in place of dynastic rule, thereby uniting and reinvigorating it? Also, is the rebuilding of the party, with greater involvement of younger members who have so far been in the shadow of the Gandhi family, possible? Clearly, if it is to survive, strong measures need to be taken for democratisation and the sharing of power within the party.
The writer is professor at the Centre for Political Studies and rector, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi