The SP-Congress alliance in Uttar Pradesh has suddenly made things look up for India’s grand old party. Everyone knows that UP is a high-stake election for Narendra Modi. Now, suddenly, it has also become a high-stake election for the Congress, which was, till the other day, seen as a non-player in the country’s largest state, known for setting the political tempo nationally.
It is not as if the party is about to regain its lost glory. But if it can win Punjab, become part of a post-poll Akhilesh Yadav led government in UP, and retain Uttarakhand, and all are within the realm of possibility, it will be in business again, and perhaps begin to see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. For nothing succeeds like success in charging the flagging batteries of a party.
The 132 year old party is being criticised for clutching onto the coat-tails of regional outfits. It was the junior partner in Bihar in 2015 as also in UP 2017.
In the last 25 years, particularly since 1989, the Indian National Congress has been on the decline, barring two bursts of victory in 2004 and 2009 which led to 10 years of uninterrupted power at the Centre. After 2014, when it was reduced to a measly 44 seats in the Lok Sabha, many an obituary began to be penned about it. The BJP brass has vowed to create a “Congress mukt Bharat”, and will do their utmost to bring this about (even though a strong Congress is in the interest of India, as is a strong BJP).
Alliances have been the conventional route taken by weak parties to gain strength, and the BJP deployed this strategy again and again throughout its political journey. When the BJP got two seats in the 1984 elections, many were prepared to write off the party. But within five years, it had become a player, having aligned with the Janata Dal to create a national alternative against the Congress—rather like the Congress is piggybacking on regional parties today.
Undoubtedly, the BJP had the backing of the RSS cadre and clear leadership at its helm at critical moments, whether it was LK Advani during the rath yatra or Atal Behari Vajpayee or Narendra Modi subsequently.
It is not as if there is no political space available for the Congress today. The BJP, after all, garnered only 31% of the popular vote when Modi swept to power with a clear majority. Modi is still popular, and he is trying to carve out new constituencies amongst the poor. But there is also mounting dissatisfaction, movements are erupting, a manifestation of the growing agrarian, socio-political crises, reflected for instance in the Patidar agitation in Gujarat, the Maratha upsurge in Maharashtra or the Jat violence in Haryana. In any case, the regional parties were formed at the expense of the Congress, and the reverse movement is always possible.
The core crisis in the Congress today is one of leadership, and it is here that the Congress will have to take a hard look — and hard decisions. There is a virtual vacuum at the top. Sonia Gandhi has taken a back seat, Rahul Gandhi is unable to connect at the popular level, Congressmen and women have tended not to accept each other in the leadership role, and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has not stepped into the breach as yet. The UP polls are critical for the Congress, also for this reason. If Priyanka plays a “larger” role in the campaign, as is being projected, how will she click with the people?
It is really not about “dynasty” (abhorrent though the idea is in a democracy), for scions of political families have found acceptance elsewhere (Akhilesh Yadav, MK Stalin). The Congress party turned to the Nehru-Gandhi family because of their ability to get them votes, and to keep the party united. It is this which has come into question of late.
And yet, at the end of the day, such is the unpredictability of Indian politics that you cannot write off anyone, or any group, so easily. More so the Indian National Congress, despite its state of disrepair, because it still has a pan-Indian character, and in its best form it represented India’s inclusive tradition, which still has a large following in the country.
Who would have thought that PV Narasimha Rao, having packed his bags to go home in 1991, would be installed as the Prime Minister of India a few weeks later? Or that VP Singh would go on to replace Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister, whittling down his 415-member majority, creating a national alternative to the Congress in 1989, all within two-and-a-half years?
Who would have thought that Narendra Modi would one day take the country by storm? Did anyone believe in 2009 that the BJP would hit the majority mark on its own and more than double its Lok Sabha tally, five years down the line?
It all depends on the mistakes the incumbent government makes and the citizens’ response to it.
Yes, the Indian National Congress is down, but it would be a mistake to conclude that it is out.
Neerja Chowdhury is a senior journalist and political commentator
The views expressed are personal