Home / Opinion / Views /  Opinion | Can the grand old party revive its fortunes?

If a singular political retrospective is possible for the complex and uncertain outcomes of politics in the past decade, it is without doubt the decline of the Congress party. The 2014 electoral outcomes for the party—with 44 seats in the Lok Sabha and just about 19% of the national vote share remain its poorest performance ever. Since the party entered the electoral fray in the 1950s, its lowest vote share had been in 1998, and even then the party had a high tally of 141 seats.

So, 2014 reflected a tectonic shift for a party, which had been the sole inheritor of the legacy of the anti-colonial struggle, had over a century of history to boast about, and its leadership hall of fame included portraits of the Gandhi(s), the Nehru(s), and Sardar Patel among others.

This sharp decline began around the beginning of the decade—by 2011, the India Against Corruption platform was a vibrant platform for civic activism, mobilizing public opinion against corruption, and calling for greater accountability. A motley group, it had a core of ‘Right to Information’ activists, who rallied against rampant corruption in the public sphere, and were demanding by now the creation of an ombudsman—the Jan Lokpal.

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-II government was fast gaining public reputation of taint and corruption. The government allocation of 2G spectrum for mobile telephony was objected upon by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG)—there was a “notional loss" to the public exchequer in allocations on lower rates, and private profits accruing to companies on immediate sale thereafter. This image was buttressed within Parliament, by persistent legislative inquiries by parliamentarian Hansraj Gangaram Ahir on coal mine allocations for captive consumptions. Coal mines were allotted on a first-come-first-serve basis, without due diligence and much below their realisable potential value.

In the spectrum allocation case, it was a minister of the Congress’s ally party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK’s) A. Raja, who was sent to jail, but in the coal allocation, the fingers were now pointed at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) led by Manmohan Singh as he held the coal portfolio for a short while. The anti-corruption movement gained momentum, with rural development activist Anna Hazare sitting on fast several times in 2011. By 2013, several Congress ministers had to resign on charges of corruption or misuse of public authority—Pawan Kumar Bansal, Subodh Kant Sahai and Ashwani Kumar were notable in this regard. Prior to this, another alliance party minister Shibu Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), had to send in his resignation to the PMO by fax, having been convicted by the lower court on a charge of murder.

While the Prime Minister himself remained above this taint, why did he not take action on his erring teammates as the first among equals? Was it that the real authority for governance lay elsewhere?

After all, Manmohan Singh was a competent technocrat, and led India’s tryst with liberalization as finance minister in Narsimha Rao’s government in 1991. Since 2004, he had been at the helm of affairs as prime minister. The script of power sharing with state regional parties, and retaining the Centre with the Congress at the helm, was finally challenged midway through the decade, and unfortunately for the party with a decline in status.

What is now dubbed as a “leadership" crisis is in effect a challenge arising out of an erosion of trust, and a winding down of effective hold at the grassroots. In the face of an electoral colossus such as the Bharatiya Janata Party under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it will be a while before the Congress can find a revival script to turn around its electoral fortunes.

Manisha Priyam is associate professor at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration and a political analyst.

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