Home > opinion > Congress faces formidable hurdles in regaining lost ground

May has again come to haunt the Congress.

Two years ago, in this very month, it received a historical drubbing in the 16th Lok Sabha election; now, it is looking at a new all-time low. After it lost power at the centre, the Congress could have recovered only through important victories at the state-level. But the grand old party has not only lost six major state elections (Haryana, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Delhi, Kerala and Assam) since then, its lack of political acumen allowed the surrender of its domination in Arunachal Pradesh to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But for judicial intervention, it would have met a similar fate in the hill state of Uttarakhand. The next two years, it seems, are not going to provide much relief to the Congress because formidable odds are stacked against it in the elections due in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

At this juncture, the Congress must ask itself three crucial questions. Firstly, when and on what point will it start playing the role of a genuine national opposition party, going beyond the occasional and largely ineffective cameos by Rahul Gandhi? Secondly, if the party still believes in some sort of a strategic long-term blueprint, who would be in the think tank that would design it? Even an ordinary Congress worker knows that this issue is far too serious to be resolved by an outsider like Prashant Kishor. And, last but not the least, how does the party combat Narendra Modi’s oft-repeated intent of making India a “Congress-mukt Bharat"?

To begin with, the Congress may apply its once formidable mind to the third poser. In the process of seeking the right answer, it might get rid of the siege mentality that has gripped it over the past two years, given that a Modi-fied BJP isn’t letting go of any chance to attack the Gandhi family, leaving the party’s entire organizational apparatus constantly geared to the sole purpose of defending it. In the process, the party leadership has ignored the simple task of keeping an eye on Congress state governments; precisely for that reason, defections have become a regular occurrence in the party.

Had their intellectual juices been flowing in the right direction, the strategists of the Congress could have easily understood that Modi wants to alter the default position of Indian democratic politics. According to this position, the graph of the Congress must go up commensurate to the degree of the decline in the BJP’s graph, and vice versa. Modi’s successes and failures can be argued for and against depending on one’s own perspective, but some observers have reached a consensus that his government is not looking bright and taking too long a time to achieve tangible results. If this is the case, why does the Congress not find itself in a position to form a virtual shadow government? With the government’s graph inching southwards, and the lines of the main opposition party not looking up, should it not be construed that at least on one count, Modi has achieved something substantial.

The default position is beginning to alter. Sonia Gandhi’s party would ignore this reality only at its own peril.

In addressing the second question, the Gandhis would do well to remember one of the Congress’s own stalwarts—the late Arjun Singh. He was the last of the political generals who used to think and plan in terms of increasing the party’s catchment by appropriating the demands of other backward classes, Dalits and minorities so that the slow erosion in the support base of the Congress can be somewhat countered by winning over new social groups. Post-Arjun Singh, the Congress not only failed to find somebody like him, it put his strategic legacy of a long-term vision firmly in the cold storage.

As the party of opposition, the Congress is yet to find its niche. Right now, it looks a pale replica of what the BJP did during the 10 long years it spent listlessly in the opposition. The BJP was saved by the fortuitous emergence of Modi on the national horizon as well as by a down-and-out Congress government. Should the Congress wait for a moment when the BJP falters similarly and not take a proactive approach as the opposition party?

It seems Modi had sensed at the very beginning of his regime that the Congress would behave like his own party did in opposition by taking the default position for granted. That is why he decided to work to alter it. If the Congress does not want the present decline to turn into a steeper fall before 2019, it will have to find political sustenance by reorienting its organization as an effective and creative tool of opposition politics. Though it is easier said than done, the party has no other choice.

Abhay Kumar Dubey is an associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, and directs its Indian Languages Programme.

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