What the Congress must do to ensure its revival
The 2019 results have brought back the 2014 crisis facing the Indian National Congress with an added complexity. It has a simple reason. The party won the last major election cycle in 2018 before the 2019 Parliamentary elections. It wrested back Rajasthan in keeping with the political cycle in the state and managed to defeat 15-year-old Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. However, none of these victories mattered in 2019. The Congress would have won 34 out of the 65 Lok Sabha seats in these three states if the 2018 assembly results were to be extrapolated. It has won just three seats in 2019. The Congress was not the only party which lost its pre-2019 assembly election lead/vote share in the Lok Sabha elections. Anywhere in the country, where the BJP was already a strong political force, it has increased its vote share significantly compared to pre-2019 assembly elections. From now on, the BJP will confidently dismiss the adverse effects of any assembly defeats — if one assumes they do happen — on its national prospects citing the 2019 example.
Is there a way out for the Congress? As of now, two processes seem to be playing out. Rahul Gandhi seems to be unwilling to continue as the Congress president and a host of leaders are trying to persuade him to stay on. The other opinion, advocated by the likes of Yogendra Yadav, is to write off the Congress party. Neither of these can help in carving out a better, national alternative to the BJP. Here’s why.
Even if Gandhi (and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, his sister and a general secretary in the party) were to make way for others in the Congress’s leadership, it will not do much to help the party in gaining new ground in the country or even make it stronger in states where it already exists as a significant political force. The only Congress chief minister who has delivered in these elections is Punjab’s Amarinder Singh. But he is not the future of the party because of his age; he is 77 years old. Also, if the Congress was able to do well in state elections after Gandhi took over as the President in 2017, the abysmal failure of the party in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections has to be located in something more than the personal failings of its national president. Similarly, no other political formation can be expected to replace the Congress in states such as Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan, where it is the direct adversary to the BJP. In fact, 2019 results in two places, Kerala and Delhi, show that voters actually preferred the Congress more than the party running the state government (the Left in Kerala and the Aam Admi Party in Delhi) against the BJP.
The solution to the Congress’s current predicament lies in something other than the two options of looking for a person-centric solution or liquidation being offered currently. There are four key challenges the Congress must surmount in order to retain its relevance and pose a counter to a stronger than ever pan-India BJP today.
One, it needs to reconcile itself to the fact that dislodging the BJP from its current position of the national political hegemon will take a long-term struggle rather than hoping for a United Progressive Alliance-type of jugaad. Two, as the BJP weakens (single) caste-based parties such as the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, a multicaste coalition will have to be built in these states to take on the BJP. Three, the Muslim vote, especially in sub-regions/constituencies where it is in a majority, should be prevented from consolidating behind parties such as the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen as this will only help the BJP in achieving a counter polarisation of the numerically much larger community, Hindus. The fourth and perhaps most important challenge facing the Congress is to maintain its current strength as it works on the first three challenges.
One possible answer to how this can be achieved lies in the recent history of the Congress. In 1998, Mamata Banerjee walked out of the party to form the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC). A year later, Sharad Pawar formed the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). In 2011, YS Jaganmohan Reddy formed the YSR Congress party. These splits have inflicted major damage to the Congress’s base in West Bengal, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. These three states account for 115 Lok Sabha seats. Among these three parties, YSR is the only clear winner in the 2019 elections, while the political stock of both Pawar and Banerjee seems to be plummeting. To be sure, both the NCP and AITC will continue to be forces to reckon with in their respective states in the near future. Reddy’s Andhra Pradesh victory is no accident. He built pressure on the Telugu Desam Party to sever ties with the National Democratic Alliance on the question of special status for Andhra Pradesh, which fragmented his opposition in the elections. This, in hindsight, can be termed as an excellent political strategy.
What if Gandhi, with the weight of all the political capital of the Gandhi family within the Congress, were to reach out to YS Jaganmohan Reddy, Banerjee, and Pawar and invite them back, on equal, respectable terms, to the party? In one stroke, this will alter both political optics and lend strength to the opposition.
Why should Reddy or the likes of Pawar and Banerjee agree to such as request? The BJP has now set itself a target of 333 seats in the 2024 Lok Sabha. After having achieved its targets in West Bengal and Odisha, it will now plan to expand in the southern states. Any political party which does not align itself with the BJP today will face near-certain irrelevance at the national level and an increasing squeeze even in its regional strongholds. Preserving the status quo amounts to nothing but attempts to kick the can of political marginalisation down the road.
Getting all three offshoots back, to be sure, will not be easy. It will require Gandhi to acknowledge that treating Jagan unfairly after the death of his father was a mistake; it will require making compromises in Maharashtra on the leadership question; it will require making peace with Banerjee, with whom Gandhi has had somewhat strained ties. There will also be a tussle over the issue national leadership. But survival dictates that these formations, particularly the Congress, make compromises.
The Gandhi family faces the challenge of preventing the Congress from atrophying under its own watch. The challenge facing the Congress is similar to that of a promoter who wants to revive a family-run business by getting back capable managers who parted ways because of differences with the owner.