Congress and the art of being in limbo

While the BJP continues to consolidate its rise to the top and usurps Congress vote banks, Congress has become a sleepwalking opposition party, showing no signs of wanting to seriously reinvent itself.

It has been nearly a month since the Congress faced yet another severe electoral drubbing in recent assembly elections, and yet much remains the same in the party, with no serious introspection or political course correction in sight. This, even as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continues to usurp what were earlier the Congress’ core vote bastions, the latest farm loan waiver decision by its government in Uttar Pradesh being a case in point.

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Food Security Act, the new Land Acquisition Law were all brought in by Congress-led UPA governments to further bolster the party’s pro-poor, pro-farmer image. And these very constituencies made up the core of the Congress vote-bank and contributed to its electoral successes.

However, in three years of being in power at the centre, the BJP has fairly effectively snatched away the unique selling points the Congress had so carefully built its politics on.

With demonetisation, the BJP created, and sold, a poor versus rich narrative, sending out a signal that it was a party that was willing to punish the rich to benefit the poor. In one stroke, it managed to get past Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s smartest political jibe against it — of being a “suit boot ki sarkar” (a government that belongs to the rich). The sweeping victory of the BJP in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections proved how successful the attempt to rebuild this narrative has been.

The recent decision by the BJP government in UP to waive farm loans worth over Rs 36,000 crore is yet another step in this direction. The party had taken a huge risk by seriously diluting the 2013 Land Acquisition Act and making it less favourable for farmers, but showed political acumen by taking a step back in the face of heavy opposition and possible electoral consequences, despite a possible loss of face. The one time the Congress really stepped up as opposition and got other parties to rally behind it was when it protested against attempts to water down the land acquisition act, but the Modi government backed down before it could become a major electoral issue.

The farm loan waiver obviously confused the Congress ranks and this was reflected in the slightly conflicting reactions. Rahul called it “a step in the right direction” and said the Congress “supports loan waiver for farmers”, but added that this was just “partial relief”. The party’s communication-in charge Randeep Surjewala, however, dismissed the UP government’s decision with a Tweet that read “Oonth ke munh mein jeera, nahi hua vada poora” (this is like a drop in the ocean, the BJP has not fulfilled its promises).

With the BJP walking its own political line, the Congress seems unsure of how to counter it effectively. On the communal card — which the BJP continues unabashedly using to further its electoral and political agenda — the Congress competes with other ‘secular’ forces in opposing it. Samajwadi Party, Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), Lalu Yadav’s RJD — are just some of the regional parties which are equally vocal on this count. On several other issues, Chief Ministers such as Arvind Kejriwal and Mamata Banerjee have emerged as more vocal and visible faces of the opposition than Rahul.

With the BJP consolidating its traditional vote-banks further, and eroding that of the Congress, the latter has every reason to worry. The Congress needs a fresh narrative, a new vision if it wants to revive itself both politically and electorally. Merely criticising BJP’s populist decisions like the farm loan waiver as not being enough can hardly make it the politically relevant force that it needs to re-emerge as. However, three years since the humiliating Lok Sabha numbers and several electoral disasters later, the Congress does not seem any wiser, any more focused or at all serious about reinventing itself.

Ruhi Tewari is Associate Editor with ThePrint. You can follow her on Twitter @RuhiTewari

Picture Courtesy: inc.in

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