Terms of Trade | Three lessons for the Congress party before 2024 - Hindustan Times

Terms of Trade | Three lessons for the Congress party before 2024

Dec 05, 2023 08:58 PM IST

Congress must steer clear of political pundits with unfounded theories of the Hindi-speaking voter, and state satraps must do some soul-searching

The Congress’s impressive Telangana victory in this election cycle has been completely overshadowed by its losses in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The results have strengthened the BJP’s position ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. The Congress and its ideological fellow travellers must answer some questions before they get back to the 2024 campaign.

Raipur, Dec 03 (ANI): A view of the Chhattisgarh Congress office during the counting of votes for the State Assembly elections, in Raipur on Sunday. As per official EC trends, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is leading in the state with 54 of the total 90 seats. (ANI Photo) (ANI)
Raipur, Dec 03 (ANI): A view of the Chhattisgarh Congress office during the counting of votes for the State Assembly elections, in Raipur on Sunday. As per official EC trends, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is leading in the state with 54 of the total 90 seats. (ANI Photo) (ANI)

A segment of the Congress leadership and the left-liberal commentariat continues to insist that democracy in India is increasingly coming under a squeeze. While one can always debate about what the ideal state of democracy is and whether it ever existed in India, the state of purely transactional electoral democracy seems to be absolutely fine even from the Congress’s perspective. It has won the state of Telangana in this election cycle, even though it has lost the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Its vote share – the best measure of popular support in an electoral democracy – in these three states is actually higher than what it is in Telangana. The Congress’s problem is that the BJP’s popular support is much higher than that of its own in the states it has lost. Even before these elections, the Congress had been able to defeat the BJP in other state elections. Where the Congress party has failed completely in the post-2014 period is to get its own state governments reelected.

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That’s anything but a sign of weak democracy.

The Congress party’s top leadership, especially Rahul Gandhi, seems to have reached a conclusion that the best way to revive the party’s fortunes in 2024 is to resurrect Mandal politics (read: Other Backward Classes consolidation). The only state where the Congress has won in this election cycle is where it had fought the polls with a dominant caste (Reddy) face, whereas it has lost power in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh where its incumbent chief ministers were OBCs.

One of the Congress’s running criticisms of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has been that the party is pro-rich and anti-poor, especially anti-farmer. And yet, the biggest reason the Congress has not been able to hold on to its Chhattisgarh victory of 2018 seems to be a course correction by the BJP to announce a bonus over and above the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for paddy farmers in the state.

Another of the Congress’s running refrains, not exactly untrue, is that it faces a huge political finance deficit vis-à-vis the BJP. In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress entrusted its battle to one of the richest politicians not just in the Congress party but perhaps the whole of India. In fact, there is good reason to believe that Kamal Nath’s ticket to Congress’s leadership in the state was only because of his financial clout. And yet, he could not preserve his 2018 government and has failed to defeat the BJP despite the latter being in power for almost two decades.

One could highlight more such contradictions in what the Congress party claims and what is exactly harming or helping its political prospects in the country today, but these illustrations are adequate to make the point this column wants to make.

Which is simply this: It is not Indian democracy which is letting down the Congress, but the Congress leadership which is letting down the cause of democratic competition in what increasingly looks like a BJP-dominated polity in India. And unless the Congress leadership gets its act together, this will not change.

Let us elaborate on this a bit more.

Contrary to the BJP’s call of “Congress-Mukt Bharat” after 2014, the Congress is far from dead in the country. In fact, there is good reason to argue that Congress has ceded more political ground in India in the period before 2014 than after 2014. It continues to be the major challenger to the BJP in states such as Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Assam, Karnataka and perhaps even Maharashtra. That is almost 200 out of the 543 Lok Sabha seats in the country. Simply speaking, the Congress is the biggest challenger to the BJP in the country. In all of these states except in Assam, the Congress has managed to either defeat or come very close to defeating the BJP (2017 Gujarat, 2019 Haryana) in state elections since 2014.

But these performances have not been sustained, the political capital frittered away — and the learnings from these experiences have been more mechanical than organic. So, what the Congress has, instead of a protracted struggle and evolving strategy against the BJP, is a string of losses with some irreversible damage (Madhya Pradesh results have proved that Jyotirdatiya Scindia’s departure is one such) with some flash in the pan victories thrown in.

What does the Congress need to do to get its act together? Three things can be listed here.

The first one applies to Rahul Gandhi, who notwithstanding his official position in the party continues to be the most important person as far as its political line is concerned. He needed to realize that the Congress needed a national political narrative over and above Gandhi’s understanding of class and communal harmony. There is good reason to believe that voters of this country, overwhelmingly Hindu and poor, are interested in the nation-building narrative Narendra Modi and the BJP are selling them — which means they are either indifferent or downright irritated when the Congress or its biggest leader ridicules this without making any substantive points. Two, Gandhi also needs to understand that political power in Delhi cannot be conquered without fortifications at the level of states of the sort that Narendra Modi created in Gujarat. This would require far more careful and perseverant engagement with state-level issues, governance and party organisation (or factionalism) by Gandhi than he currently seems to be doing.

The second one applies to the leadership of the Congress party in states where it is either in power or still has a shot at it against the BJP. These leaders — most of them are in their 70s — need to realise that the nature of the political challenge confronting them has changed drastically in the post-2014 period. They are not fighting against a state-level party backed by local politicians and contradictions but are faced with the might of a hegemonic force whose top leadership has an unsatiated appetite for power and unparalleled attention for even the smallest issues which can affect political outcomes.

At one level, these leaders are trapped in the past, and the old ways. On another, their presence has robbed the next-generation leadership of the party of oxygen.

While it is very unlikely that the Congress’s sharp politicians cannot see this writing on the wall, whether or not they will do something to solve this depends on a different question. Are state-level leaders of the Congress such as Ashok Gehlot or Digvijay Singh and Kamal Nath or even Siddaramaiah more interested in the spoils (not necessarily money) that political power brings at a personal level (the party just being a means to achieve it) or are they committed to the larger ideological battle their party faces today?

The third lesson is relevant for each and every worker of the Congress party. There is good reason to believe that there are still hundreds of thousands if not millions of such activists. They need to guard against two kinds of people who are either close or seen as close to their leadership and the party.

The first are the political nihilists who keep telling them that Hindi speakers are not voting for the Congress because they are bigots and Congress’s confinement to the southern states should be seen as some kind of badge of honour. This lot’s engagement with politics, crudely speaking, is comparable to disenfranchised socialites and their political stakes are next to zero. They should be avoided like the plague. If the Congress party has to survive, it must rebuild its appeal in the Hindi belt.

The second are the proverbial snake-oil sellers who keep selling silver bullets to their party leadership. Any political activist who has their ears to the ground knows that politics in India and the BJP’s current success is too complicated for the latter to be dislodged by just one issue, whether it's Rafale or Hindutva or Adani. The Congress party’s cadre needs to tell its leadership that they need to work with the rank and file of the party in the spirit of fighting a long and difficult but sincere battle rather than be in a vicious cycle where every loss makes the Congress’s visible leadership look more bitter and the party's invisible organization more broken.

Every Friday, HT’s data and political economy editor, Roshan Kishore, combines his commitment to data and passion for qualitative analysis in a column for HT Premium, Terms of Trade. With a focus on one big number and one big issue, he will go behind the headlines to ask a question and address political economy issues and social puzzles facing contemporary India.

The views expressed are personal

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    Roshan Kishore is the Data and Political Economy Editor at Hindustan Times. His weekly column for HT Premium Terms of Trade appears every Friday.

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