Monday, 24 January, 2022
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Congress thinks it only needs to rejuvenate from the grassroots, it couldn’t be more wrong

Parties fail and die because of splits and because they lose their raison d'être. Not just because of organisational atrophy.

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Crises can become moments of opportunity for those who can decipher the root cause and are willing to remedy it. The 2019 Lok Sabha election results unravelled the deep crisis within the Congress party. This has led to many calls for a reorganisation of the Congress party. While there are disagreements about how this reorganisation should happen, there is a consensus that the party needs to become more democratic and have a more significant grassroots presence. The rejuvenation of the party, they say, has to begin from below. Once the party has reorganised itself, the argument goes, it would lead to the emergence of independent leaders, who will inspire the masses, and the Congress will get back to its winning ways.

While we agree that the Congress party indeed needs an overhaul, the ‘organisational rejuvenation’ argument is frankly a stretch for two reasons. First, the link between a party’s organisation and its electoral success is grossly overestimated. Second, even if there is a positive relationship between the two, party organisation building does not happen in thin air – it needs a glue that binds the various components of the party on the ground, especially when it is out of power.

The role of organisational variable in determining party fortunes is greatly exaggerated. The Congress has had both spectacular successes with virtually no organisation and electoral failures with the same level of organisation. Congress won the assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, and competed hard in Gujarat with a sclerotic organisation locally and dynastic leaders at the top. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has always had an active organisation backing it – the Rashtriya Swayamevak Sangh (RSS) and its various affiliates. But, neither the size of the RSS nor its reach has expanded as dramatically as the vote share of the BJP has expanded in the past few years. It strains the imagination to believe that the BJP made massive inroads in West Bengal and Odisha in this election, or its success in the northeast in the past few years is because of its superior local organisational skills.

Also read: Congress today doesn’t need a leader or an election win, it needs an ideology

Many regional parties in India, even some of the larger ones, do not have robust local organisations. They too are dynastic. They have continued to perform relatively better than the Congress and haven’t declined as much. In a comprehensive study of party decline in Eastern Europe, Elisabeth Bakke and Nick Sitter show that a strong organisation with many members is far less important than commonly believed.

Parties fail and die because of splits and because they lose their raison d’être. The Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra, and the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) in Andhra Pradesh are led by politicians who were all part of the Congress party at one time. They see no ideological differences between themselves and the Congress.

Supriya Sule, whom we interviewed, remarked that the Congress and the NCP had similar views on many issues. This, we believe, is the crux of the problem. The Congress does not have a vision or an ideology that distinguishes it from many regional parties. What, after all, is the real ideological difference between the Samajwadi Party and the Congress, especially when we compare that difference with the ideological gap between the SP and the BJP, or the Congress and the BJP?

In our view, the Congress’s decline and its prospects for future electoral success lie in whether it can develop a compelling vision for India, a vision that clearly distinguishes it from the BJP and the regional parties. The Congress’ current crisis has all three elements that mark party decline – organisational atrophy, absence of credible leadership and an unclear ideological vision. We suggest that the Congress would be better placed if it prioritises re-defining its ideological programme over other factors. Why? Because vision enables both, the process of organisation building as well as the emergence of leadership. It is the ideological vision that makes foot soldiers toil hard. And when a leader presents an articulate picture of ideological vision, she enthuses the cadres and inspires masses.

Also read: BJP is in power because only one Congress can rule India at a time

One may ask then how did the Congress party perform well in some states in the past few years? After all, it did not offer any new vision. The Congress may keep doing well in certain states, but nationally it would not be able to pose a challenge to the BJP in absence of an alternative vision. In a national election, the opposition cannot merely rely on people’s dissatisfaction with the incumbent. For instance, the BJP’s 2014 win must not be attributed solely to the unpopularity of the UPA government alone. Among other factors, it was also driven by Narendra Modi’s ability to offer an appealing alternative vision to the voters.

The first order challenge that the Congress now faces is neither the organisation nor the leadership, but what does it stand for, and how is it different from the BJP? The BJP under Narendra Modi has successfully incorporated the ‘pro-poor’ agenda. A voter will be hard-pressed to distinguish the BJP and the Congress on their pro-poor stance. Modi’s personal appeal and the success of the BJP in addressing some of the daily inconveniences faced by citizens through massive welfare programmes have given the BJP an edge in appearing more people-friendly.

The Congress may cry hoarse (and may be legitimately for some) that the BJP has repackaged many of its schemes. Be that as it may, the fact remains that today, a voter cannot definitively say that the BJP or the Congress is more committed to the poor. This issue is off the table. The Congress can also legitimately complain that the BJP’s schemes do not work on the ground. Yes, may be, but the Congress itself has little credibility on delivering a government that performs. Is soft Hindutva an answer? Not really. Many have pointed out that playing second fiddle to the BJP on the ideological platform owned by the party is not an electoral strategy that can win votes.

Also read: Rahul Gandhi’s resignation can kill Congress, make India a one-party country

The Congress party has a challenging task ahead. The Congressmen and women must ask – who are we, and what do we stand for? And, does what we stand for resonate with India’s diverse citizens? It needs to present an active, visible, and viable alternative vision to the BJP, not a vision that is shared by many regional parties. It must ask itself what do Indian citizens who have not voted for the BJP (or may have, but still feel uncomfortable in identifying with the party) are looking for. Can the party fulfill those aspirations? More importantly, the Congress must not outsource the articulation of this ideological vision to its sympathisers within the civil society or academia, much like what happened to the party’s mobilisational efforts on critical issues in the past few years. The articulation of vision has to come from within the party. Only then it will be reflective of larger public sentiment, else it would resonate only within liberal elite circles.

The crisis in the Congress, which got accentuated with Rahul Gandhi’s resignation, presents the grand old party another opportunity to re-define itself and in the process re-organise the ideological space of the Indian party system. Focusing too much attention on the party’s organisation is just avoiding the tough question.

Pradeep Chhibber and Pranav Gupta are at the University of California at Berkeley, US. Rahul Verma is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. Views are personal.

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  1. Questions like, “Who are we”, and “What do we stand for” now for Congressmen to ask themselves have a unanimous and easy answer from them, regardless of their seniority, legal standing, academic brilliance and planning expertise: “We are what we are only because of “The Family”. We will do whatever it takes to keep the Family in power and do as they would have us do. We stand only for the political dominance of the Family over India.” Under such auspices, what price ‘opportunity’? When has Congress ever profited from lessons taught by its political vicissitudes?

  2. Political parties need charismatic, inspiring leaders. Also a dedicated cadre. At the moment, the Congress is falling far behind the BJP on both fronts.

  3. A well articulated study and guiding too. After H O Hume had established the party with a vision of liberty and freedom, Congress perhaps never thought of providing it with an ideology – it had various programmes and roadmaps but not an ideology ever. It could implement it’s programmes and achieve roadmaps and went on reaping the crops largely on the seeds of independence movement that it steered successfully. Since it went on winning election after election based on its history and the star value of it’s dynamic leaders commanding individual love from the countrymen, it did not feel it need an ethos to rest up on.
    Besides Congres has been a cluster of ideologies of individuals and groups and it never cared who cherished which ideas. It had with it the rightists, centerists and leftists – all very well nourishing with. Yes, a bit left to centre has been a prominent thinking.
    Since it did not have any ideology, it never had a think tank and training platform for it’s workers like RSS for BJP. That is why whenever Congress has been out of power it has no content to go ahead except finding fault with the govt.
    BJP mainly and solely had been seen as party of traders . But Modi ji has added lot of value to it. He stole Gandhi from the Congress and stole the pro poor ethos and programmes from it too. None before Modi ji spoke that much about the poor, not even a leader as popular as Vajpayee ji. He virtually made it a slogan for BJP, which the party did not have. He has started invoking Gandhi too frequently – much more frequently than anyone from Congress. His Jandhan and Ujjwala became more popular than Congress’s pro poor programme – this may be seen as the better PR capacity of Modi ji. Modi ji, thus, had added new feathers to BJP’s ideology. Therefore, with this Congress is now left with nothing. Pre Modi there was huge difference between outlook of Congress and BJP. Modi ji has encroached and annexed and just crossed over that boarder. It may be due to this that Congress at times appears to be encroaching BJP’s line – making Rahul ji worship in temples and terming him as Janeudhari Brahmin. But every Indian knows nobody in Nehru – Gandhi family even had known what Janeu is! Moreover, BJP has long been established as going even fanatic Hindu way, no party can infiltrate and grab that turf. So it looks awkward of Congress.
    So what Congress can do? It really needs a serious mental exercise from the Congress to find and adopt an ideology – unique but compatible with it’s history and geography and it can never go to ‘right’, it can only be at the centre and explore new ‘left’. It has to rather rediscover itself and reinvent it’s base.
    The authors are absolutely correct that it should be Congress’ internal research without outside intervention of academics. Since it has great roots spread over too well, it may not be too difficult for it to go for and have this …. But it has to first wake up and see for itself it own path!

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