The Congress simply doesn’t recover in states where its vote share dips below 15 per cent, as has happened in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal. And its recent loss in Delhi wasn’t merely a defeat — it signals the burial of the Congress in yet another key state.
To stem this seemingly interminable decline, tactical tinkering is not enough. The Congress must fundamentally reinvent itself. The party is riddled with a ruinous trifecta — weak organisation, unappealing leadership, and confused ideology. Unless the Congress can address each of these elements, it would continue to shrink, occasional victories notwithstanding.
The fundamental flaw of the Congress is that, even though it has shrivelled into a catch-none party, it still behaves as a catch-all party that it was until the 1980s. In place of a loose, passive centrism that enthuses few people, the Congress needs to redefine itself and take advantage of the infirmities of the BJP model of dominance.
Congress’ working base
The ideological domination of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) conceals simmering discontent among various groups — Dalits, tribals, Muslims, and large sections of farmers and poor. There is a vast opportunity for the Congress to turn itself into a party of the marginalised and the underprivileged, which would provide it with a formidable base.
In fact, in states where the Congress has done well in the recent past, it did so through gains made among Dalits, tribals, and the economically underprivileged. These are also the states where its primary opponent is the BJP.
In Gujarat, the Congress won 16 out of 27 seats reserved for the Scheduled Tribes (STs), doubled its previous tally in seats reserved for Scheduled Castes, and won almost twice as many rural seats as the BJP. In Chhattisgarh, the Congress commanded a lead of 22 per cent among tribals and 17 per cent among Dalits as compared to the BJP. In Madhya Pradesh, the lead was 10 per cent among tribals and 16 per cent among Dalits. In Rajasthan, while the tribal vote was equally split, the Congress held a 5 per cent lead among Dalits. In all the three states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the Congress did far better among poorer voters than the BJP.
In Jharkhand, the alliance of Congress and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) rode to power by sweeping 25 out of the 28 tribal seats. However, in states with strong regional parties, such as Delhi, the Congress is unable to gain from this disaffection among the marginalised, who prefer a regional party that caters to their interests. In the recently concluded Delhi election, which the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) swept, the Congress lost its deposit in 63 out of the 66 seats it contested. In a state where it was until recently the dominant player, winning three consecutive majorities from 1998, its vote share plummeted to below 5 per cent.
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Reform at the top
It isn’t enough for the Congress to merely signal resolve or to redefine itself in the abstract. Dalits, tribals and Muslims won’t automatically vote for the Congress on the basis of slogans, gestures or symbols. Only by taking up the issues of these communities in a sustained manner, and by offering them organisational help and a larger stake in leadership, can the party build a reliable base among them. This will entail reforming the upper caste, nepotistic character of the Congress. A good test of this would be whether the Congress decides to more actively intervene on the ground on issues such as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the perceived dilution of reservation for SC/STs, and the alienation of tribal land.
It is beyond time the Congress shakes off its confounding passivity and hits the streets. In Lokniti surveys, over the last few years, anywhere between 30-40 per cent of voters invariably cite unemployment or price rise as the single most important issue to them in state elections. The combined share of ideological national issues — from Ram Temple, Article 370, CAA to terrorism — is always in single digits. This explains why the BJP has not won a single assembly election outright since the 2017 Gujarat election.
Staying away from streets
Yet, it’s difficult to recall the last time the Congress organised a sustained campaign on issues of unemployment, farmer distress, or price rise. Its activism on these issues is limited to tweets by the Gandhis. The Congress is not failing because it opposes (albeit cautiously and fitfully) the ideological stands of the BJP. Its current state is such because it has singularly failed to transform widespread material discontent among the people into potent political issues.
The Congress can learn from the new Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren, who conducted statewide yatras — ‘yuva sangarsh yatra’ and ‘jan samvad yatra’ — for a year before the election, covering each constituency, foregrounding the material issues of ‘jal, jangal, zameen’ along with the issues of unemployment and pension. Not only was he able to foster a strong sentiment of anti-incumbency against the BJP, he built himself up as a strong tribal leader during the campaign.
Meanwhile, the Congress state campaigns are overcentralised and riven with infighting. Delhi saw up to four leaders working at cross purposes. In the end, there was no single identifiable campaign whatsoever. The Congress needs to move away from the Gandhis and empower a single (relatively autonomous) regional leader who can build up the party through sustained campaigns like Jaganmohan Reddy did in Andhra Pradesh or Hemant Soren did in Jharkhand.
What Congress needs to do
If the Congress is able to shake off its political inertia and becomes actively involved in social and political movements, it would substantially address all its three weaknesses.
First, the people, particularly from marginalised groups, who might get associated with the party, would provide it with a layer of organisational strength. Second, nothing gives the voting public as much clarity on a party’s ideology and message as its political movements on the ground. Third, it’s only through sustained political activities that new leaders emerge and capture the popular imagination.
Some of these active political stands and political movements might prove counterproductive for the Congress. But political inactivity, as the Delhi election shows, would be fatal.
The author is Research Associate at Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and scholar in political science at the University of Delhi. Views are personal.