Whither the Congress party: The need for a serious introspection
The results of the just concluded Assembly elections in four states and one Union Territory are critical in shaping the course of Indian politics in the days ahead. While a lot is being said of the results in West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, there is limited focus on the performance of the Congress party. This round of elections did not bring any good news to it. It was unable to lead the coalition back to power in Kerala, it did not succeed in wresting power from the BJP in Assam, it could not return to power in Puducherry, it was pushed out of the competition in West Bengal and rode piggy-back on the DMK to be part of the winning alliance in Tamil Nadu.
The party is today in power in three states of India (Punjab, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh) and a junior partner in a ruling alliance in three other states (Jharkhand, Maharashtra and now Tamil Nadu). This accounts for less than one-fourth of the Indian states. Ever since its defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections the party does not seem to have recovered and appears to be in a state of perennial drift.
The dream of the BJP leadership for a Congress-mukt Bharat seems to be unwittingly being pursued by many in the Congress itself! With this round of elections, it appears as if the Congress is all set to concede the leadership of the anti-BJP forces to one of the powerful state based political players. The challenge that the Congress faces today, is three fold. Unless it makes an attempt to squarely address these challenges, the future for the party looks truly bleak.
Firstly, the Congress appears to have this unique skill of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Let us take two recent events. Firstly, its inability to put up a fight in Assam. During the five years that the BJP was in power in the state, the Congress appears to have gone into deep slumber. It woke up just before the state elections were announced. The writing was clearly on the wall even at the time of the Lok Sabha polls of 2019. As the state assembly elections were being announced they hastily stitched an eight party grand alliance. This included the AIUDF as well as the left parties.
Yet the campaign clearly shows that this alliance did not truly take off on the ground as it was a patchwork created too late in the day with very little strategizing and literally no planning. The killer instinct was clearly absent and the passion to win was hardly visible. The second case is Puducherry. The Congress did little to check the infighting within the party when it was in power in the state.
It focused more on the Chief Ministers battle with the Governor rather than on governance. Once the government resigned and President's Rule was declared prior to the election, the Congress decided not to nominate its former Chief Minister as a candidate in the elections! While there may have been pressures from the alliance partner, the Congress appeared to have given up on the battle even before it began. This made the task of the NDA much easier in this tiny Union Territory.
Secondly, the Congress and its leaders (at multiple levels) cannot come out of the hang-over that they were the ruling party in the past, in a one party dominant system. Even when in the opposition, they continue to behave as if they are merely out of government for a brief period and are destined to return as a party of choice! For many in the Congress, becoming a party of choice is not about the effort that they do, but either a result of a revolving door process that the state may have had in the past or that the bungling of their opponent will make them the automatic (or inevitable) choice! The hopeless factionalism within the party is a sad reflection of this point. Two examples would suffice in this context.
Firstly, the recent developments in Kerala. As the head of the United Democratic Front (UDF) the Congress assumed that the four decade old vote out the incumbent trend of the voter will naturally get them back to power. The factionalism within the party was so intense that no Chief Ministerial candidate was declared and one faction was hell-bent on hurting the electoral prospects of those from a rival faction. The second case that can be cited is Madhya Pradesh. The party won a tough election and came to power. Factionalism within the party and arrogance of its leaders did not allow it to remain in power. The self-destructive nature of the government was visible from day one of the party coming to power. Similarly, while it is in the opposition, the party appears a collection of factions, with each faction leader more keen to protect their small political territories, losing sight of the larger picture or the party unity.
Third and last, the serious leadership crisis that the party faces. The party is clearly not able to look beyond the Gandhi family to provide it leadership. And even when it comes to the Gandhi family, there is clear hesitancy on the part of Rahul Gandhi to take on the leadership and remain fully focused. Political leadership today is about a 24x7 commitment and a 3600 vision. Both seem to be absent.
Further, when the party realizes that the national leadership is not able to win it elections, there is a need to empower mass based, popular leaders at the state level. Those leaders who are there in the party and even head governments are either seen as rebels or are more keen in edging out those opposed to them. Recent developments in Rajasthan are a case in point. The focus does not seem to be in taking everyone in the party along but in merely protecting one's own small political fiefdoms.
This recently concluded election results are yet another wake-up call for the Congress. The alarm has rung loud and clear. Does the party press the off button and not recognize that the alarm bell is ringing or merely press the pause button to silence the alarm for a while and assume all is ok! On the other hand, is the party and its leadership willing to recognize that to reassert its position in politics it needs to do a deep soul searching to infuse itself with the passion so much needed to get back to its winning ways. This action needs to be taken soon, very soon, in order to continue to remain politically relevant.
(Dr. Sandeep Shastri has been a keen student of Karnataka politics for over four decades)
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