The Congress conundrum is quite similar to the coronavirus crisis — both thrive on varied reasons and symptoms. Just as there is no single medicine to cure Covid-19, there is no one answer that addresses (let alone resolves) the Congress conundrum. In the absence of any vaccine, social distancing has come to be a universally acceptable precaution against Covid-19. Similarly, the need for a strong central leadership for the Congress looks like the only possible shot at rebuilding the party. And just like only God knows when the pandemic might end, it is again only bhagwan who can tell us when the Congress would become relevant again.
Not just routine loss of power
In a democratic polity, no party can remain in power forever, hence it is routine for them to win and lose elections. So, this cannot be the real reason for the current Congress crisis. The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), after being in power between 1998 and 2004, remained out of power for ten years (2004-14). Yet, it was able to circumvent the sort of crises the Congress is facing today. The grand old party, though, is unique in that it has faced large scale desertions even when in power with thumping majorities.
In terms of ideology, it is reasonable to say that there has hardly been any change in the Congress party’s (official) ideology. Clearly, the crisis within the Congress cannot be ascribed to this. Loose or strong, the ideological bonding of Congress leaders has been historically consistent. Indian voters may have some unease about the party’s ideological leanings, but its leaders don’t usually have to deal with such tensions.
Factors determining Congress crisis
There are three plausible and interrelated factors that could allude to the present crisis within the Congress — feeble central leadership, generational divide, and the ambitious rants of the younger lot.
Let’s look at the issue of the ambitious younger generation — is it wrong to be ambitious in politics? Certainly not, because in the world we live in, politics is hardly a social service. Instead, it is, in the Weberian sense, a vocation, a lucrative career opportunity. Political parties are said to be organised bodies with voluntary membership, which are in pursuit of political power. The ambition of their members is to capture top party positions and hold on to them for as long as they could.
Naturally, these features make parties prone to factions, defections, splits, and mergers. Hence, parties have to be constantly on guard, and to be fair, the Congress does have a record of successfully accomplishing that feat. Recall the developments in 1967, 1977, 1989, and 1999 — when several Congress leaders deserted the party to join other groups or formed their own organisations. Most of those crises, however, were resolved only because of the Congress’ strong central leadership. Any party facing an existential crisis is able to rebound — much to the chagrin of columnists writing obituaries of that party — only due to the effective leadership at the helm of its affairs. The BJP is an exemplar of such an argument, seemingly more focused on this count than the Congress.
This brings us to the most crucial factor regarding the Congress’ weak central leadership. Findings of the survey conducted by Lokniti-CSDS between 2014 and 2019 indicate that while the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been rising over the years, in relative terms, Rahul Gandhi’s appeal has been on a steady wane. In the beginning of 2014, Modi was the choice of only 34 per cent Indians for the PM’s post, while Rahul Gandhi was preferred by 23 per cent of the population. But by 2019, Modi’s popularity went up to 46 per cent, while Gandhi’s declined to 19 per cent. Even when jobless labourers were facing an existential crisis across the country due to the sudden announcement of Covid-19 lockdown, evidence suggests that Modi’s popularity hardly declined. And in spite of Rahul Gandhi’s efforts, people did not recognise him as a promising leader. Clearly, the Congress has its tasks cut-out.
Widening generational divide
Such weak central leadership then provides an opportunity for the emergence of generational divide between the elder and younger leaders, where the former stake their claim on experience, while the later demand their pound of flesh on dynamisms. Unfortunately, the Congress’ top leadership also seems torn between these two choices. The latest crisis in its Rajasthan unit has only strengthened this divide. In conjunction, these factors pose insurmountable challenges to what was once the ‘predominant party’ in India’s political landscape, primarily on account of its accommodative spirit.
Factions causing some kind of crisis are inherent in party politics and can be seen as normal. In some political parties it is more than normal, while in others it could be uncommon or subdued. The issue is about managing these factions or growing sections of dissent, and that depends a lot on its leaders, their crises management abilities and their style of functioning.
But the severity, span and the range of crises that the Congress party faces appears despairingly interminable. However, if the democratic spirit is about choices and alternatives, then a reawakened and assertive Congress is a necessity for the resilient operation of India’s parliamentary democracy. The way ahead, though, will be shaped by how the party’s top leadership responds to the many challenges. Will it take them head-on, or see them through as just another episode of ‘squabble’ in its organisational structure?
Sanjay Kumar is a Professor at Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and Dr Chandrachur Singh teaches Political science at Hindu College, University of Delhi. Views expressed are personal.