In a recent essay in the Economic and Political Weekly, the political scientist Suhas Palshikar identifies three distinct phases in the career of the Congress party since Independence. The first phase, which ran from 1947 to 1967, saw the party as ‘hegemonic’. In this 20-year period, the Congress was continuously in power at the Centre and in virtually all states of the Union. It still carried the glow of the freedom movement, such that voters all over India and across all social classes saw it as the most trustworthy and effective party.
The second phase began with the general elections of 1967. The party managed to hold on to power at the Centre, but lost power in many states, so that one could now travel by train from Delhi to Howrah and never be in a Congress-ruled state.
Palshikar describes the period between 1967 and 1989 as a time of ‘confrontation’ for the Congress. It lost power at the Centre between 1977 and 1980, and for more extended periods in the states. It has had to share much of the political space it had once exclusively colonised with other political parties.
After 1989 the Congress has lost further ground. It has never since won a majority in the Lok Sabha, where, from 1989 to 1991, and again from 1996 to 2004 — and now since last year — it has functioned as the Opposition. And it has further ceded ground in assembly elections.
The last phase, from 1989 until the present day, has been for the Congress a phase of ‘survival’. One figure says it all. In the general elections of 1989, despite losing power, the party garnered a vote share of 39.5%. In 2014, it was less than half that, at 19.3%.
Palshikar traces the decline of the Congress to the decimation of the party structure by Indira Gandhi in 1969-70. Now, the existing organisational linkages between the prime minister and the voters were rendered lifeless. Once vigorously functioning district committees were made inactive; once powerful Pradesh Congress presidents or chief ministers became acolytes of the Supreme Leader.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, the Congress steadily lost the support of social groups that were once its loyal voters. First, the middle and rich peasantry abandoned the party. Then the upper castes too left. From the 1990s, Adivasis and Dalits, long considered solid Congress vote banks, also began searching for other parties that might represent their interests more effectively. The last to flee were the religious minorities, who had stood by the party of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru all through; now, even they felt slighted or betrayed.
The loss of core constituencies was accompanied by the loss of states where the Congress was once dominant. Since 1967 it has been a cipher in Kamaraj’s Tamil Nadu. Since 1977 it has been a marginal player in BC Roy’s West Bengal. From the 1990s, and the simultaneous occurrence of the Mandal and Mandir agitations, it has been reduced to insignificance in Lal Bahadur Shastri’s UP and Rajendra Prasad’s Bihar. Now much the same seems to be happening in Vallabhbhai Patel’s Gujarat, and, if the last national and state polls are any indication, in YB Chavan’s Maharashtra and perhaps Bansi Lal’s Haryana too. And the Congress is decidedly on the retreat in Nandini Satpathy’s Orissa and Arjun Singh’s Madhya Pradesh as well.
Palshikar tellingly comments that ‘when it [the Congress] loses a state, it rarely recovers space there’. This has been most emphatically true in four large states so far: Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, UP and Bihar.
The Congress today has no organisational depth; nor a political programme that can reach out to and bring back groups that have left it. Interestingly, apart from a glancing reference to Indira Gandhi, Palshikar leaves out the party’s leadership altogether. Neither Sonia Gandhi nor Rahul Gandhi is mentioned by name.
This may be because, as a political scientist, Palshikar prefers to highlight institutions rather than individuals, changing social processes rather than the triumphs or errors of particular leaders.
In my view, for a party’s success or failure the nature of leadership is a key explanatory variable. It can be as important as organisational robustness or ideological coherence. And in the case of the Congress, it is quite clear that the quality of its top leadership has noticeably declined over the years.
Rajiv Gandhi did not have his mother’s deep knowledge of this country and its social diversity. On the other hand, he was young, personable, and had a modern technological vision. Unlike her husband, Sonia Gandhi did not have any compelling new ideas. On the other hand, she had a great capacity for hard and dogged work.
Rahul Gandhi had been more than a decade in politics, long enough for us to judge what — if any — his leadership abilities are. Viewed comparatively (and objectively) he does not have Indira’s social understanding, Rajiv’s belief in the transformative powers of technology, or Sonia’s physical stamina. Meanwhile, the charisma attached to the family’s name has been declining with every succeeding generation.
Among the Congress president’s inner circle are some highly educated politicians. Several among them surely read the Economic and Political Weekly. Some have even written for the journal. Will any of them have the wisdom (or courage) to bring Professor Palshikar’s article to her attention? If they do, will she be willing and able to digest its lessons and act upon them? I suspect the chances of the former occurring are even less than the latter.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India. You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha. The views expressed are personal.