For all the trumpeting accompanying the formal anointing of Rahul Gandhi as the new, young leader of the Congress, the challenge the party encounters is rather old in its provenance, dating back more than two decades, the time his father was alive. At the nub of the challenge is the question: can Rahul’s Congress retrieve the party’s social base which a range of outfits have cannibalised in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar?
The decline of the Congress, as is well-known, was sparked off because it failed to evolve an unequivocal response to the Mandal and Mandir politics. It did not stridently support reservations for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), fearing it would alienate the upper castes/middle class. Nor did it demonstrate an appreciable resolve to counter the rampaging Hindutva forces that concertedly challenged the principle of secularism.
Consequently, the social alliance of upper castes, Muslims and Dalits, that the Congress had assiduously forged over the decades splintered overnight. Broadly, the upper castes embraced the BJP, the Muslims opted for the different variants of the Janata Dal, and the Dalits found in the BSP an instrument for unprecedented political assertion.
Against such large-scale desertion from its fold, the Congress did not take countervailing measures, believing the salience accorded to the politics of identity would diminish over time and ultimately lead to its resurrection. Yet, the waning of the politics of identity and the rhetorical shift to development haven’t triggered a Congress revival in the Hindi heartland. It is seemingly a riddle to many why the Congress in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar has failed to reap electoral dividends from its social welfare measures, such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), over which it has spent crores.
This failure arises from the inability of the Congress to identify and court a dominant caste, numerically significant and economically powerful, which could become the nucleus of its new social alliance. Such a dominant caste could work the plethora of welfare measures to knit together a network of social groups deriving benefits from government schemes and harness them to the party apparatus. The absence of such a mechanism is the reason it has failed to translate its goodwill, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, into votes.
Predominantly upper caste in its leadership structure, the propensity of the Congress is not to think of any other social groups as a possible nucleus for its social alliance. Unfortunately for it, the upper castes in Bihar have coalesced around the BJP and, in combination with Nitish Kumar’s OBC base, are quite content to have a share in governance. In Uttar Pradesh, the upper castes shifted appreciably from the BJP as its Hindutva slogan began to show diminishing returns in consolidating Hindus across the caste-class divides. They have lately tended to swing between the BSP and the SP, changing their preferences depending on who promises to protect their interests before every election.
In the 2009 general elections, though, a section of upper castes and a section of Muslims did combine to give the Congress over 20 seats. But this glimmer of hope faded away in the assembly election of last year. In the perception of upper castes, the Congress just hadn’t cobbled a broad social alliance to win a majority on its own. And Muslims, as has been proven repeatedly, prefer to vote along with one of the dominant castes in a state.
The challenge before Rahul’s Congress, therefore, is which of the dominant social groups it should make a nucleus of its new social alliance. It is a complex task in a society that has been increasingly radicalised: to make upper castes the nucleus, as had been the case before Mandal and Mandir stumped the Congress, is to alienate a mass of people who are opposed to the perpetuation of the status quo. Nor can the Congress, unlike the BJP, explicitly invoke religion to consolidate the Hindus.
The other option before the Congress is to adopt one of the numerically significant OBC or Dalit castes as the pivot of its grassroots alliance. But then it doesn’t have a leader who has an appeal among these social groups across the Hindi heartland. Theoretically, the Congress can overcome this lacuna through two possible methods. One, it can bring in OBC and Dalit leaders through the merger of their outfits with the Congress. For instance, Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan can bring with them the social groups they represent into the Congress. Such a possibility is remote because a merger with the Congress will curb their independence, undercut their ambitions, and make them subservient to the Gandhi family and their advisers.
Two, Rahul’s Congress can consciously opt for a model in which the Congress accepts the pre-eminence of its allies in the state in return for ruling at the Centre. Such a formal arrangement, too, has its pitfalls. For one, the possibility of rebuilding the party at the state-level will shrink. It will also make the party susceptible to the demands of its allies. But contradictory pulls and pressures are built into any coalition; in fact, it can be argued, that its debilitating impact can be limited through a formal, enduring arrangement between the Congress and its allies. Symbiotic relationships, after all, tend to check brinkmanship.
Ultimately, therefore, Rahul as the new, young leader has to create a new social base for the party’s leadership structure. Its upper caste/upper class simply won’t do in the Hindi heartland.
Ajaz Ashraf is a Delhi-based journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal