The Congress party seems to be gasping for breath with a party president who has resigned, and squabbling leaders in the states, even where it is in power. Bereft of introspection and hence a strategy, India’s oldest party has sunk into a level of disrepair that it does not have the leadership to emerge from.
Morning newspapers last week suggested that the Congress and the Left, when approached by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for support in her increasingly lonely fight with the Bharatiya Janata Party in the state, responded with words to the effect that she should first admit that she created the grounds for the rise of the BJP. If true, then the response itself encapsulates the state of the Congress (and of course the Left) today.
The BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has moulded its rise, one, on measures that the Congress-led UPA government brought in and, two, on the demise of the Congress. It built governance on Congress-initiated measures that include surveillance, control of the media, gradual isolation of minorities, neo-economic policies reflected in the withdrawal of the state from the public space, harsh laws, with even the updation process of the now very controversial National Citizens Register starting under the Manmohan Singh government in 2013. This is to name just a few.
And two — in a direct corollary the BJP evolved — a direct confrontation with the Congress for political space. This came from a clearly thought-out strategy that the advance of the BJP is linked to the retreat of the Congress in the national arena. And it made dramatic progress on this front through a multi-pronged attack on the history of the Congress (that it has been unable to defend), on the first family of the Nehru-Gandhis, and a systemic targeting of the party in key states, particularly those where it is in direct confrontation with the BJP.
The Congress has been unable to withstand the onslaught, as it has never really been able to come to grips with the new reality. The absence of thought within the party made it believe intrinsically in its own invincibility. The fact that it relied on the there-is-no-other-alternative factor and the charisma of the First Family was very visible not just in 2014 but again in 2019. Unlike the BJP that began preparing for the Lok Sabha 2019 polls from the day after it assumed power five years ago, the Congress leadership was unable to comprehend the challenge, and the impact the present defeat would have on not just the party but on the nation itself. Hence, elections remained business as usual for the Congress, with no effort to build an organisation, delegate responsibility, build cadres and revive mass organisations.
Instead, Rahul Gandhi was sucked into the trap of a presidential style of politics, and became the face of the Congress campaign with other leaders disappearing from view. And as is apparent from the results, from the field as well, the internal differences within were visible in the states that the Congress had won in the last Assembly elections with Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh at loggerheads and Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot and state party chief Sachin Pilot falling further apart on the candidates and the campaign. This was the story throughout, with the party non-existent in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Bihar, to name just a few states.
Rahul Gandhi was thus pitted against Narendra Modi and obviously given feedback that the strategy was working in his favour. No one wanted to acknowledge the fact that Modi came with a charisma that had penetrated the countryside; that the BJP was led by a party president who worked hours in the field, plotting and planning; that the BJP was backed by the RSS and affiliates that had grown exponentially in the past five years and that the propaganda machinery of television channels, print media, social media with a mix of fake news, loud discussions and loyal anchors had a penetrative reach.
No one wanted to tell Rahul Gandhi that there was actually no comparison, just an illusion. And although he was doing well in his own sphere, it fell far short of the political heights the BJP and PM Modi had scaled. And that the only way out for the Congress, with its shortfalls, was parliamentary democracy, a federal structure, with thought-out and close alliances with the regional parties. Instead after Karnataka, where he had shown some signs of this understanding, he moved away rapidly to first bust a move to form a coalition before the elections, and then from even state coalitions altogether. Delhi, UP and West Bengal have demonstrated the folly of this approach.
If possible, it has become even worse now for the party. The Congress is headless. It has brought in an MP from West Bengal as the Leader of the Lok Sabha, which has created unnecessary friction with the Trinamool Congress at a time when the Opposition needs to unite. And the end result is silence. Silence on the 150-plus deaths of children in Muzaffarpur in Bihar with token tweets barely passing for action. Silence on the latest lynching in Jharkhand in Parliament, until after the issue made the international headlines. Rahul Gandhi then tweeted some concern, but so did PM Modi. No political outreach by the Congress in either case has led even the die-hard Congress supporters to question their “alma mater”.
Revival lies in a leadership that breaks all boundaries to build a counter-narrative based on ideas, ideology and democracy. That forges new relationships, that cements old ones, that build cadres and mass organisations, and that is seen in the field with the people of India in their day-to-day lives and struggles. But given the state of the Congress, the basic exercise of politics in itself seems a tall — and perhaps impossible — order.
The writer is founder-editor of The Citizen