He came, he spoke and he quietly went away. This describes Prashant Kishor’s latest effort to revive the Congress party, which the self-styled election strategist seems to have given up for now. It is not known who in the Congress entered into the ‘party revival consultancy’ with him and for what financial consideration. What he gained from this consultancy is for the Income Tax department to determine after scrutinising his tax returns. But the Congress party has certainly lost another round at the attempts to show signs of life.
The over-a-century-old party, which was in power at the Centre and in various states for a major part of the 75 years of India’s Independence, has gone into a state of deep coma in the last seven years. This induced inertia seems to have seized the organisation so strappingly that intermittent victories such as the recent one in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, fail to make headlines or enthuse party workers. It is evident that Congress candidates have probably won not because of its apex leadership but in spite of them being there.
So where does the Congress go from here? The party has a choice either to revive and strengthen itself once again or go into oblivion and be written off forever. Although the party can’t be written off yet, its current state of stupor has greatly affected its image and benefitted its friends and foes alike. Many Congress stalwarts who could win a good number of seats have either left the party to join the BJP or withdrawn into a shell and nowhere seen in public. They might either be waiting for their opportunity to reappear on the scene once the party bounces back or might be looking for an opportune moment to jump the ship. Either way, the loss is for the Congress. Any more procrastination on its part to set its house in order will seriously affect its prospects in 2024. Given the current mood within the party, it appears to be difficult to predict even a double-digit win for the Congress in the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
History in splits
The only choice left for the Congress is revival. There is a churning going on within the party. But those who are coming very close to a solution are still afraid to openly demand the removal of the “Gandhi triumvirate” from the apex leadership. It is common knowledge that the ‘mother-son-daughter’ leadership has failed to lead the party to victory but the votaries of change are willing to strike but afraid to hurt. Individually and collectively, for example the G-23, many of them seem to know the solution but no one is willing to risk administering the bitter medicine. Even Prashant Kishor appears to have diagnosed rightly but is unwilling to do the surgery himself. At this juncture it will not be surprising if a big chunk of the party functionaries decide to quit and form a new platform.
Splits are not new for the Congress. Jawaharlal Nehru’s leadership was challenged by the socialists who wanted greater state control and the liberals demanding more economic freedom and private enterprise by a group which was later called the Swatantra Party led by C. Rajagopalachari. The resultant split strengthened Nehru’s hold over the party. His daughter Indira Gandhi faced a similar situation though not exactly on ideological or policy reasons. The stalwarts of the time formed Congress (O) and challenged the leadership of Indira Gandhi whose supporters formed Congress (R) suggesting it was the ruling party. She emerged powerful after the split, won the election, led the country to a decisive war later against Pakistan in 1971 and went on to impose the infamous Emergency.
Congress witnessed yet another split engineered by party veterans like Arjun Singh, N.D. Tiwari and Sheila Dikshit even when one of its stalwarts was the Prime Minister. Stronger regional leaders like Sharad Pawar and P.A. Sangma challenged the Congress leadership and split the party in their respective states to form a new platform. It is another story that this party, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), is now in partnership with the Congress in Maharashtra. West Bengal’s current Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee quit the Congress to fight the Left Front in her state. The result is for everyone to see.
Those in the Congress who are interested in a better political future for the party and for themselves too will have no choice but to take an extreme step of quitting and floating a new party. If this happens, this time the split might strengthen those who want the revival of the Congress and get it freed from the clutches of the “Nehru clan”, euphemistically called the “Gandhi parivar”.
BJP path isn’t clear
The total eclipse of the Congress from the political scene of the country is likely to have yet another interesting consequence on the political landscape. The BJP has successfully occupied the space vacated by the Congress. After 2014 the BJP has won a number of states defeating the Congress. But it has failed to stake a claim to power wherever the Congress party is weak. In states like Punjab, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and a few others, it is the regional parties that have taken the place of the Congress. Therefore, it would be safe to say that the BJP will face not one but many regional parties in states where it is organisationally weak and yet to catch the imagination of the voters. This may take a lot of time and investment in leadership and organisation like in Tamil Nadu or other southern states except for Karnataka. Thus, the eclipse of the Congress should be a cause of worry for the BJP as it has to contest against not one but many political adversaries.
Even a slight tilt in the voting percentage in favour of these regional parties in their respective states can result in an unfavourable arithmetic for the BJP in Parliament. For example, in the 2004 general election, the Congress got 145 seats, just seven more than the BJP. It was the regional parties. which were part of the NDA, that lost out to their rivals in the states. On the other hand, a new set of regional parties moved towards the Congress to help it ascend to power after nearly ten years.
The UPA consisted of the CPI, CPM, All India Forward Bloc, the Revolutionary Socialist Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party, Kerala Congress and independents. Needless to say, these parties had a say in the overall policy formation of the central government including policies in strategic areas like foreign policy and defence. Besides, they were able to increase their base in their respective states at the expense of the Congress.
Both the Congress and the BJP are national parties with sufficient experience in handling complex domestic and international issues. There could be serious differences of opinion on certain issues but no one can overlook the need for a strong and stable government and a responsible opposition with a constructive approach. The current Congress leadership is anything but this.
The author is the former editor of ‘Organiser’. He tweets @seshadrichari. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)