Congress-mukt Bharat to Congress-yukt BJP - Hindustan Times
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Congress-mukt Bharat to Congress-yukt BJP

Feb 22, 2024 08:37 PM IST

The belief that the Gandhis are the only glue that holds the Congress together has been shaken by high-profile departures in the last decade

There is a new guessing game on in Delhi’s power corridors: Who will be next to leave the Congress for a “Congress-yukt” (Congress-filled) Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)? While the BJP leadership boasts of crossing 400 seats in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, an enfeebled Congress is confronted with a more discomfiting question: Will the grand old party cross at least 54 seats to earn the Leader of Opposition status this time?

Rahul Gandhi’s yatras are a good exercise in re-building a lost mass connect, but episodic journeys can’t compensate for years of organisational neglect (ANI FILE PHOTO) PREMIUM
Rahul Gandhi’s yatras are a good exercise in re-building a lost mass connect, but episodic journeys can’t compensate for years of organisational neglect (ANI FILE PHOTO)

Recall the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when the Congress ended with its lowest-ever tally of just 44 seats. 2019 was only marginally better with the party winning 52 seats, with Kerala and Tamil Nadu providing some southern comfort. In 2024 too, most opinion polls suggest the Congress will struggle to enter double digits in any state barring Kerala and possibly Telangana. The “north-west” wave that swept the BJP to power on both previous occasions threatens to do so again in a vast belt stretching from the western seaboard to the Hindi heartland, leaving the Congress floundering. In 2019, for example, the Congress won just six out of 243 seats in 10 states across this north-west belt.

The Congress’s electoral decline did not begin in 2014 with the ascent of Narendra Modi. The Congress hasn’t won a simple majority in the Lok Sabha since the landslide sympathy wave in 1984 in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. But even beyond the shrinking numbers, the nagging question remains: What has the Congress done in the past decade to make itself more electable? Congress leaders will allege institutional capture by the BJP (including large sections of the media) as proof that there is no level playing field. Be it a rigged mayoral poll in Chandigarh or Operation Lotus-like plots to topple elected governments, the brazen misuse of State power has undoubtedly given the BJP a hefty edge over its political rivals.

But the Congress leadership cannot escape responsibility for its own failures in rebuilding the party as a cohesive national alternative. Rahul Gandhi’s yatras are a laudable exercise in re-establishing a lost mass connect, but episodic journeys cannot compensate for years of organisational neglect. At times, Gandhi looks like a valiant but confused captain of a creaking ship amidst turbulent waters. While the captain’s determination to sail on regardless may be seen as an act of courage, it is foolhardy to expect the ship to stay afloat when the parts are falling off. While party chief Mallikarjun Kharge has made a genuine effort to be more accessible and link with even block-level workers, he lacks the stamina or authority for a prolonged fight.

Ironically, there are as many as eight sitting chief ministers (CMs) who were once in the Congress. At least 13 former Congress CMs have left the party in the last decade alone. In many cases, this can be attributed to vaulting ambition, the “ugta suraj” (rising sun) syndrome of constantly staying on the right side of power. In some cases, the obvious fear of enforcement agency action has precipitated a departure. But there is also a growing disconnect between the party’s status quoist central leadership and restive state units that has spurred periodic acts of rebellion. For example, a Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh or a Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam quit the party after losing out to an old guard unwilling to cede power to gen-next leaders. A pragmatic and accommodative “big tent” approach that once managed competing interests within the Congress has been replaced by a more inflexible “them” versus “us” tug of war where a small coterie calls the shots.

At the Jaipur party session in 2013, Rahul Gandhi spoke of “power as poison”, perhaps forgetting he was addressing a grouping whose core identity is driven by the power principle. The BJP, by contrast, is a political wing of an ideological force called the Hindutva sangh parivar. It is this cadre-based brotherhood in saffron that holds the BJP together through good times and bad. For example, when the party won just two seats in 1984, there was no mass exodus from its ranks at any level. Now, when Modi’s personality cult towers over all else, there may be private rumblings over the highly centralised decision-making but no one dares to rebel against the diktats from above.

The recipe for a Congress revival is not to become more authoritarian like the “new” BJP but to become more inclusive like the “old” Congress. This means creating more avenues for talent recognition and jump-starting the careers of younger leaders in the states, who have shown the appetite for a tough battle rather than relying on tired and fossilised geriatrics. Revanth Reddy in Telangana is a good example of how an empowered 54-year-old leader was able to inspire the Congress by leading from the front. Who is to say that projecting a Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan or even a Shashi Tharoor in Kerala or investing in younger leaders in Maharashtra or Madhya Pradesh will not deliver similar results in the future?

As for Rahul Gandhi and the Gandhi parivar, the family surname alone is subject to diminishing returns beyond traditional Congress faithfuls. A third big Lok Sabha defeat would be catastrophic, only accelerating the distinct atrophying of a once dominant force. The belief that the Gandhis are the only glue that holds the Congress together has been shaken by a number of high-profile departures in the last decade. Sooner or later, the Congress will have to decide: Can the party bank on a family that isn’t quite a vote-catcher any longer, or should the umbilical cord finally be severed? 2024 is an acid test for shaping the Congress’s immediate future.

Post-script: At a recent luncheon gathering, party chief Kharge was surrounded by senior Congressmen. As one of them sought permission to leave, a journalist quipped: “Hope you are only leaving the lunch and not the party!”

The writer is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal

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