Is It the End of the Road for Congress as We Know It?
Yes and no. Depending on one’s perspective.
Yes, because it is like a first-time boxer who entered the ring believing he could defeat Mike Tyson. At the end of the fight, the boxer had to be taken out on a stretcher. Does it mean it’s the end of the boxer’s career? It’s an answer only the boxer can give.
No, because politics is never about one battle. Political parties need to evolve. Else they wither away when there is an ideology or leadership vacuum.
And the decline began…
The main reason behind the comprehensive defeat of the Congress party in 2014 was also due to an anti-incumbency against the UPA II regime rather than a massive pro-BJP sentiment.
People rejected everything the Congress was perceived to represent – corruption, dynastic politics, poor governance, and lack of opportunities for younger leadership to emerge.
As the Congress continued to watch helplessly, the Modi persona grew into a wave after the 2014 victory, when the victory margin saw him emerge as a giant killer. After that, in state after state, victories in assembly elections further cemented his position in people’s hearts and minds, and he was viewed as a decisive leader and a man of action.
Family ties, dynastic leadership
In 2014, 44 of 545 seats won by India’s oldest political party – the Congress, marked the moment for serious introspection into the reasons for the debacle and to go in for a complete overhaul of leadership. There was resentment against the Gandhi family’s dynastic rule, but the party simply refused to recognize or accept it.
There were serious discussions on the way forward. Party veterans agreed there was no one to replace Manmohan Singh. The only next acceptable leader who may have provided the required leadership – Pranab Mukherjee -had already left the party to take over as India’s President in 2012.
The party suffered a crisis of confidence to introduce a fresh young team to take over the party reins. And develop a new grassroots team to prepare for 2019 general elections. They had the time and the opportunity, but lack of confidence in a non-Gandhi Congress leadership gave cold feet to the high command.
They decided to continue with the old guard under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership. The thought within the party was to continue to groom Rahul Gandhi to take over from his mother. It happened in December 2017, by when Narendra Modi was firm and strong in his seat as the PM. The family once again trumped merit.
The move displayed a complete lack of ideology, direction, and lack of confidence which forced the party veterans to remain silent and continue to rally behind a Gandhi.
There were no elections to choose a leader as no one came forward to present himself or herself as an acceptable alternative to Rahul Gandhi. It was Advantage Modi.
The Modi mistake
As the 2019 elections drew near, Rahul Gandhi made two cardinal mistakes – misreading Narendra Modi, and failing to read his impact on the people of India. The clean sweep by the BJP, and the false expectation of the Congress leadership in believing it was putting up a serious fight, exposes the two cardinal mistakes.
People across India have given a massive mandate for Narendra Modi’s leadership, ignoring all traditional electoral issues like caste and religion. The Congress continued to believe caste arithmetic, and thought highlighting central issues like development and jobs, along with welfare doles, would deliver the old magic.
People schemes like MNREGA introduced in 2006 worked wonders for UPA 1 when it won the 2009 elections. In 2019, the personality of Narendra Modi and the lack of a matching alternative worked against the Congress, despite its best effort to introduce welfare schemes like NYAY in the hope of an encore. It didn’t work. BJP trumped the Congress in reading people’s mood.
Moreover, the concept of universal basic income of Rs 72,000 for the poor under NYAY alarmed the middle class. They felt that the burden would be passed on to the honest taxpayers.
“Now what” moment for the Congress
Once again, the same questions stand before the Congress party. Should it continue to exist under Rahul Gandhi’s leadership? If not, then who? Priyanka Gandhi? And if not her, then who? It’s not a decision anyone within the Congress would dare address, since no one has the answers. Not even the family.
But does this mean it’s the end of the road for the Congress? It doesn’t have to be, provided they go back to basics and clarify to the people of India what the Congress stands for, and what kind of a society and nation it wants India to be. That would be a start.
There are two ways to win a race – perform better than the competitor or be patient and wait for the competitor to make a mistake. Either way, one has to be prepared for the window of opportunity to open up.
If Congress wishes to challenge Team Modi and Shah in 2024, then they must begin with finding a credible and competent leader who offers hope, clarity, competence, and integrity.
Remember, the NDA sweep this year represents a little more than half the total vote share in the country. The other half will once again wait for a better alternative. Is the Congress willing to face the reality and do the needful?