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Assembly Elections 2021: Congress faces existential crisis

The party relies on the leadership of the Gandhis to win votes, but that ability to win votes of the family has not been visible for a set of elections now.
By HT Correspondent, New Delhi
UPDATED ON MAY 03, 2021 08:32 AM IST
The Congress will seek to overcome immediate questions by focusing — and rightly so, in many ways, as this is its job as the Opposition. (Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)(HT_PRINT)

The Congress, under Tarun Gogoi, governed Assam for 15 years till 2016 — it will now remain out of power in the state, despite its ideologically inconsistent alliance with Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front this time around, till 2026. By then, it will face an even more entrenched Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and a new political grammar in the state, which saw a change in this election with deep communal polarisation replacing the insider-outsider debate which spanned across religious lines. Remember, Assam sends 14 parliamentarians to the Lok Sabha.

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The Congress was last in power, on its own, in Bengal in 1977, under Siddharth Shankar Ray. It briefly entered government as a junior partner of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in 2011, but the alliance did not last. It will, therefore, for all effective purposes, be out of power in Bengal, with little chance of a revival, till 2026 — for a period of almost 50 years, an eternity in politics. It has lost a large segment of its Muslim base to the TMC, and a majority of its Hindu voters, to the TMC and the BJP. Remember, the state sends 42 parliamentarians to the Lok Sabha.

The Congress lost power in Kerala in 2016, but that was seen as par for the course. After all, just like Rajasthan in the north in recent decades, power switched between the two major formations of the state (since 1977), and so the party thought it would return to power in 2021. An impressive performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, with the then party president Rahul Gandhi contesting and winning from the state, added to the confidence. Yet, it will , like in Assam , remain out of power in Kerala for 10 years, with its next shot at power only in 2026. Meanwhile, a third force, the BJP, is slowly rising, in terms of vote share for now, but with outright ambitions of replacing the void filled by the Congress. Remember, Kerala sends 20 parliamentarians to the Lok Sabha.

The Congress lost power in Tamil Nadu in 1967, and its last chief minister in the state was M Bhakthavatsalam, a name probably the current generation of Congress workers can barely recall. It has, through alliances, kept up a presence of some sort in the politics of the state. And it will be of relief to the party that it will, under the leadership of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, be a part of the ruling coalition. But here is a reality check — it has won three seats and is leading in 13 in an assembly of 234. Remember, the state sends 39 parliamentarians to Lok Sabha. Now, add the party’s depleted performance across key southern and eastern states to its historical and current weakness in Uttar Pradesh (80 Lok Sabha seats) and Bihar (40 seats). And it is clear that Sunday’s results have only reinforced the existential crisis in the Congress.

This, then, will bring back the question of how the party can possibly revive — when it cannot pull off a credible performance even in the south, where surveys have claimed Rahul Gandhi is more popular than elsewhere in the country. It will bring back the question of leadership — the party relies on the leadership of the Gandhis to win votes, but that ability to win votes of the family has not been visible for a set of elections now. It will lead to demands for an organisational reshuffle — except that the dissenters too don’t appear to have either a credible face or the strength within the party to mount a challenge. And it will prolong the crisis in India’s Opposition — where the Congress is unwilling to cede leadership space, but it is the other regional, non-BJP forces, which have shown the ability to pose a challenge to the national hegemon, although this is limited so far to state polls.

The Congress will seek to overcome these immediate questions by focusing — and rightly so, in many ways, as this is its job as the Opposition — on the Centre’s mismanagement of Covid-19. It will seek to deflect the question of its political deficits by pointing to the defeat of the BJP in Bengal. And it will hope, as it has hoped for the last seven years, that the crisis will blow over, the party leadership will once again win over voters, and anti-incumbency will see the end of the BJP’s dominance. That may or may not happen. But betting on fate and hope isn’t often the best strategy in politics

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