The Congress party’s long twilight

The biggest problem for the Congress at this stage is that time is not on its side, as it has allowed the problem to fester for far too long


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The Congress’s problems seem to be never-ending. It has lost badly in Uttar Pradesh, managing to win a paltry number of seats out of those contested in alliance with the incumbent Samajwadi Party. It emerged as the single largest party in Goa and Manipur—which did not give clear verdicts—but lost to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in forming the government. To a large extent, Goa and Manipur highlight the kind of problems the Congress is facing—it could not act in time while the BJP leaders managed to swiftly garner support from other political parties.

The only solace for the Congress in the recently concluded assembly elections was Punjab, where it registered a handsome win. However, rather than the central leadership of the party, chief ministerial candidate Amarinder Singh is being widely credited for the victory. It should disappoint the Congress leadership that the party doesn’t have too many Amarinder Singhs to bank on.

Goa and Manipur highlight the kind of problems the Congress is facing—it could not act in time while the BJP moved swiftly to form coalition govts

The latest round of assembly elections has once again confirmed that the Congress is unable to match the leadership quality and the organizational capability of the BJP—now the undisputed dominant force in Indian politics. If the Congress doesn’t begin to turn things around soon, it will increasingly find it difficult to remain relevant in national politics. However, a revival will not be easy; its problems to a large extent have been magnified by a resurgent BJP and the leadership style of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The problems that the Congress is facing can broadly be classified into two categories.

Capt. Amarinder Singh and Rahul Gandhi. The Congress has registered a handsome victory in Punjab elections but its credit goes to Singh rather than the central leadership. Photo: PTI
Capt. Amarinder Singh and Rahul Gandhi. The Congress has registered a handsome victory in Punjab elections but its credit goes to Singh rather than the central leadership. Photo: PTI

First is organization and leadership. As Congress president Sonia Gandhi is no longer involved in the day-to-day functioning—and was not available for campaigning in the recent assembly elections—vice-president Rahul Gandhi has been practically in charge of the party for quite some time now. But he has not been able to make any structural change in the way the party functions despite continued electoral setbacks. In fact, the Congress has not taken any concrete steps to improve its chances after the party suffered its worst electoral defeat in the 2014 general election. On Tuesday, Rahul Gandhi said the party needs to make structural and organizational changes, but the question is when? With the party rapidly losing electoral ground, leaders are getting anxious and are now beginning to openly express their discontent.

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There are clear signs of lack of imagination at the top and there is no visibility as to how the party plans to reinvent itself in order to stay relevant. For instance, there is no movement on giving operational autonomy to regional leaders. Dating back to Indira Gandhi, the Congress is not best known for promoting strong regional leaders. But it is getting increasingly difficult for the central leadership to manage everything from the top—partly because the nature of the competition has changed significantly in recent years.

At a broader level, the problem for the party is that it may not survive without the Gandhis—but they demonstrably lack the requisite political nous, and the family name alone is now insufficient to attract voters. Therefore, a lot will depend on how Rahul Gandhi adjusts and reshapes the party or, if the party agrees, makes way for someone else to take on the challenge.

The problem for Congress is it may not survive without the Gandhis, but the family name alone is now insufficient to attract voters

Second, the party has not been able to put forward alternative policies or programmes to counter the BJP. Differently put, it has not been able to respond to the aspirations of voters, despite losing on the plank of doles and excessive reliance on the economics of redistribution. The BJP, on the other hand, has been able to channel the aspirations of the middle and the neo-middle class into votes.

Therefore, apart from addressing the organization and leadership issues, the Congress will have to work out a policy path which is better than what the BJP is offering. However, the biggest problem for the party at this stage is that time is not on its side. It has allowed the problem to fester for far too long. If fundamental changes are not made quickly in the way the Congress functions, it might become difficult for the party to even hold on to its current Lok Sabha strength in the 2019 general election.

This is not to suggest that it’s the end of the road for the Congress. As we have noted in these pages in the past, the party has emerged from trials by fire before and has adapted to changing times. However, revivals in the past don’t guarantee the future.

The coming months will be crucial for determining the party’s future. They will decide whether the Congress is able to learn from its mistakes or if it will simply allow the BJP to build on the electoral gains of 2017.

How can the Congress leadership revive the party? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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