We want a Congress Mukt Bharat,” thundered Narendra Modi in the 2014 general election campaign, a slogan echoed repeatedly BJP president, Amit Shah. The declared goal was not just to win an election, but to “eliminate” the Congress from the country’s national political map. Two years later, the Modi-Shah duo’s ambition is on track. If at the start of 2016, the Congress was ruling in nine states, it is now in charge in just seven states after its governments were dismissed in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. By May, it could lose two more — Assam and Kerala — where it is facing a tough battle to retain power. Just five states —Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka (four of them with less than 10 MPs between them) — may then remain within the Congress umbrella. Is India slowly becoming ‘Congress Mukt’ then?
Undoubtedly, the BJP has replaced the Congress as the principal pole of Indian politics. It has also embraced the Congress “culture”: the party with a difference is now a regime which wields absolute power with ruthless efficiency at the Centre. Both in Arunachal, and more especially in Uttarakhand, the BJP has shown that is ready to use the politics of “saam, daam dand, bhed” to topple elected governments. Could the central government, for example, have not waited for a floor test in Dehradun before “flooring” the Harish Rawat government? To suggest that a sting operation or the act of a speaker in disqualifying defecting MLAs are reason enough to claim a “constitutional breakdown” smacks of a partisan interpretation of the law: the Bommai judgement has given primacy to a floor test. In a sense, the BJP has become “Congressified” since it is the Grand Old party which had originally misused Article 356 to reshape Centre-state equations.
But even if the Modi government can be accused of an arrogant abuse of power, the real crisis lies within the Congress, not outside. Firstly, the fall of the two Congress governments is a reflection of the growing restiveness within a section of Congress MLAs. The humiliating defeat in the 2014 general elections has created a crisis of confidence: many MLAs obviously believe that staying with the Congress could be subject to diminishing returns. Why else would the MLAs switch sides in Uttarakhand less than a year before the state goes to the polls?
Secondly, there is a credibility crisis afflicting the state leaderships of the Congress. In Uttarakhand, a Vijay Bahuguna was originally made chief minister only because of his alleged proximity to the party high command and not because he enjoyed majority support in the state legislature. When corruption and ineptitude allegations in the aftermath of the Uttarakhand floods forced him out, he was replaced by Rawat, who now faces similar charges of practising rent-seeking politics. In Himachal, an octogenarian Virbhadra Singh is facing serious charges of forging documents to avoid income tax penalties. In Kerala, Oommen Chandy has been stained by a solar scam; in Karnataka, Siddaramaiah’s `70 lakh watch “gift” flies in the face of his claim to be the “leader of the poor” while in Assam, a visibly tiring Tarun Gogoi is tarred by 15 years of rising anti-incumbency.
Thirdly, the Congress still hasn’t cleared the ideological confusion over how it intends to face up to the BJP’s determined challenge. In Maharashtra, Congress MLAs are at the forefront of demanding the suspension of an Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) MLA for refusing to say “Bharat Mata ki Jai”; the next day, its party spokesperson in Delhi says that chanting the slogan is a matter of personal choice and not a test of “nationalism”. Its senior leader Ghulam Nabi Azad bizarrely likens the RSS to Islamic State even as in Gujarat, former RSS man Shankarsinh Vaghela remains a key party figure. In Bengal, the party has entered into an electoral “understanding” with the Left while in Kerala it is engaged in a no holds barred fight with the CPI (M).
Fourthly, the party organisation hasn’t had a facelift for almost 20 years now: organisational elections have been repeatedly deferred under pressure from vested interests. The result is a “closed shop” of well-entrenched lobbies and a culture of “nominated” leaders who owe their clout to networking skills in the power corridors of Lutyensland, and not to vote gathering ability on the ground. The Congress working committee is a graphic example of the party’s predicament: it is dominated by ageing, exhausted leaders, all of whom have been nominated by the party president.
Finally, there is now a question mark over the future of the First Family, the glue that still holds the Congress together. Sonia Gandhi has increasingly looked like a leader in semi-retirement, keen for her son to take over. Rahul Gandhi in the year since he went off on a mysterious leave of absence has been far more visible but still hasn’t made the transition from activist to 24x7 leader. Taking up a range of issues from JNU to net neutrality, agrarian distress to Dalit rights has energised his public profile but still doesn’t offer a road map for rehabilitating a comatose party apparatus.
Indeed, the Uttarakhand MLAs while quitting the Congress claimed that they had attempted to meet Mr Gandhi for a month without success. “He can meet Kanhaiya Kumar, but not us,” one of the MLAs claimed. That soundbite may be designed to curry favour with their new bosses, but it does mirror the whispers within the Congress: does Rahul Gandhi have what it takes to battle a muscular BJP leadership that has a pathological hatred for the Nehru-Gandhi family and appears unrelenting in their desire for a “Congress Mukt Bharat” even if at the cost of constitutional niceties?
Post-script: It has often been said that the Modi Prime Ministership resembles the Indira Gandhi style of authoritarian leadership. In her tenure as Prime Minister, Mrs Gandhi’s government imposed president’s rule as many as 50 times. Modi, who claims to believe in “co-operative federalism” has used it twice so far: he still has a long way to go!
(Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal.)