For the Congress, why status quo is untenable
Unless the party gets its leadership, messaging, organisation, and social base right, it stares at a third Lok Sabha defeat in 2024
The Congress is in crisis and this crisis has four distinct elements — of leadership, of effective messaging to take on the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of organisation, and of social coalition.
But to understand the scale of the crisis first, just examine what has happened in the electoral arena since 2019. The Congress, in the second consecutive Lok Sabha election, lost dismally, winning just 52 seats. The party managed to squeeze into government in Maharashtra and Jharkhand as part of a coalition. But it failed to win Haryana; it came a poor and distant third in Delhi, decisively losing its support base to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) yet again; it lost power in Madhya Pradesh and just about survived in Rajasthan; it dragged down the Mahagatbandhan in Bihar; it has fared dismally in Hyderabad’s local elections even as the BJP made impressive strides; it lost the local polls in Kerala to the Left Front; and its performance was below par for a ruling party in Rajasthan’s local polls.
In the polls scheduled for 2021, the Congress stares at the possibility of coming fourth in West Bengal; it is facing a tough challenge in Assam where the incumbent BJP, despite the concerns over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and a flawed National Register of Citizens (NRC), retains the edge; it has a chance at coming to power in Tamil Nadu, but only as a junior ally of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam; and its best prospects of returning to power in a state — Kerala — have dimmed if the local polls are any indication. Therefore, it is entirely possible that between April 2019 and December 2021, the Congress would have failed to win any state election on its own.
There are indications that the party leadership recognises that the status quo is untenable. Sonia Gandhi’s meeting with a group of senior leaders, including dissenters, on Saturday, indicates a greater willingness to listen to criticism. But cosmetic changes will no longer do. What is needed is a radical surgery that looks at each element of the crisis in the party.
The first is the question of leadership. Sonia Gandhi is president — but all Congress leaders know that real power is being exercised by Rahul Gandhi, who is, however, unwilling to take charge formally. There is a simple way out here. Either the Nehru-Gandhi family takes full control or it lets go and allows a genuinely competitive electoral process to throw up a new leader.
There are trade-offs with each scenario. If Rahul Gandhi does take over again, it will help bring back some clear authority in the party — but it is, based on two general elections, clear that he does not evoke the faith and trust of India’s electorate, especially when pitted against Narendra Modi in increasingly presidential-style elections. And so a return to his leadership may help the party organisation but may not help the party’s electoral prospects. If the family does step away, the question is who takes over, whether this new leader will be able to hold the organisation together, and whether the new leader will be allowed to operate autonomously or will continue to work under the shadow of the family. Either way, a decision on both party leadership and the projection of a face for 2024 elections cannot be postponed anymore.
The second question is one of messaging. A set of regional parties have discovered that a way to politically challenge the BJP is to stay quiet on Modi (criticising him often ends up being counterproductive), stay away from issues related to nationalism and faith, mute Muslim support, and just focus on local governance and economic issues.
The problem for the Congress is that it cannot replicate the same formula as a national party. If it keeps quiet on Modi, it gives the PM a free run, but if it criticises him, without being able to offer an alternative leader with the same credibility, it only reinforces his dominance. If it keeps quiet on the manner nationalism is now defined, it cedes the nationalist space to the BJP but if it criticises it, it opens itself to allegations of undermining national interest. If it stays quiet on Hindutva, it bolsters the BJP’s credentials with the majority, but if it criticises it, it comes across as “appeasing” minorities. This leaves it only with the economy (and how it is managed) card — but this is just one element in a complex set of factors which motivates voters. In any case, till the party is able to really provide an alternative economic paradigm, and counter the BJP’s complex class politics which hinges substantially on welfare, this approach will only fetch limited dividends.
The third question is of organisation. The party’s loose structure — where it lacks a dedicated cadre — is incapable of taking on what is clearly the most formidable organisational machinery that India has ever seen. The BJP’s focus on its sangathan is now legendary. This helps keep the party machine going, allows it to mount effective campaigns, but most critically, enables it to convert support into votes on Election Day. The reason that the BJP is able to convert, in the first-past-the-post system, even a limited vote share in state elections into a high number of seats is often due to the organisation. It is aided in this by both its ideological affiliates in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and substantial resources.
The Congress just cannot match these. Its ability to motivate people to join the party in large numbers, forsaking immediate dividends is limited; its ability to retain talent is even more limited since workers see little incentive in being with a party with no winning prospects; and since it is not seen as a winning horse, the ability to collect resources also diminishes. The fact that the party organisation is almost non-existent in three states which send 162 seats to Parliament - Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Bihar — erodes its standing even further.
And the final question is of its social base. The BJP is India’s Dalit party today — winning the highest number of reserved seats; it is India’s Other Backward Classes (OBC) party too — restructuring its organisation and leadership to accommodate members of backward communities, helped by the fact that the PM himself is an OBC; it is also clearly India’s upper caste party, catalysing an unprecedented consolidation of dominant communities.
The Congress, for its part, no longer enjoys the support of upper castes; it is bereft of OBC support except in pockets depending on state leaders (Ashok Gehlot or Bhupesh Baghel bring in the communities in their states); it is competing for the Dalit vote with regional parties and the BJP; and wherever Muslims find an alternative, the community drifts away from the Congress. The Congress won 120 million votes in 2019, and, therefore, it cannot be underestimated, but its social coalition has shrunk and it lacks a core vote in key states.
Unless the party recognises the scale of the crisis — and addresses each element of the crisis — it stares at a third consecutive loss in 2024.