Congress is a party that lacks the courage to face up to the monumental organisational crisis that confronts it, and is not even good for its own supporters, let alone the country.
The Indian National Congress has ambitions of building a coalition of regional parties to dethrone the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the next national election in 2019.
The Congress has a track record of successfully leading pre-poll alliances and post-poll coalitions. Circumstances are favourable now. And yet, a Congress-led alliance is unlikely to pose a strong challenge because of the party’s own weaknesses.
The BJP is in power in 22 states, so the party and the National Democratic Alliance it leads should face anti-incumbency-related headwinds in the electorally consequential northern and western states.
The BJP’s governance report card on economic as well as security affairs has been underwhelming at best. Demonetisation, the rollout of the goods and services tax (GST), and the inability to increase jobs have hurt citizens. India’s defence preparedness is suspect at a moment when the geopolitics of the region continues to shift in favour of China. The credibility of India’s three gold-standard institutions — the Supreme Court, the Election Commission, and the Reserve Bank of India — stands damaged because of political interference. Together, these failures offer a spectacular opportunity to deny Prime Minister Narendra Modi another term. Even so, the Congress’ prospects seem bleak.
Congress’ diminished stature
At the inauguration of the 16th Lok Sabha in 2014, the Congress held 44 seats; this was the weakest the party had been in its entire electoral history. Since then, the Congress has contested 21 state assembly elections and won only two. Currently, out of India’s 29 states, the Congress is in power in just three: Karnataka, Punjab, and Mizoram. Its aura as one of the two major poles of Indian politics stands seriously diminished. An opposition coalition with such a weak centre presents a number of challenges.
To begin with, a diminished Congress will not show generosity in seat-sharing arrangements and will squabble with alliance partners who will not accept its authority easily. As a manager of an alliance, it is required to bring rival parties together and contain personality clashes. But the Congress simply lacks the heft to supervise bargains among allies, and, when necessary, threaten and persuade them.
Without a strong party at its centre, an alliance will also appear weak to voters. Even if such an alliance wins the next election, it will be inherently unstable without a large party at the centre, and vulnerable to the predations of the BJP, which will emerge as the party with the largest seat share in Parliament.
A Congress-led opposition alliance will compete against a gifted, charismatic politician, Narendra Modi. His sincerity notwithstanding, Rahul Gandhi has so far not demonstrated the cunning or the charisma required to confront Modi effectively. The cult that Modi has carefully and systematically developed has produced the Modi-voter. These voters may vote BJP, but they are not entirely beholden to the party; instead, their loyalty is to Modi. “Modiji to kisi ko bhi jitwa denge. BJP koi khamba bhi khada karta, vo jeet jaata (If the BJP had fielded a lamppost, thanks to Modi, it would have won,” a BJP worker in Lucknow told me in 2014.
There are no such Rahul Gandhi-voters. Thus far, no poll has suggested that, despite the BJP government’s many failings, Modi’s popularity has been dented sufficiently for the BJP to lose the next election. In cities and in villages, the voter has either heard about or heard from Modi. The BJP information cell has ensured that Modi’s name features in people’s daily life.
Modi and Amit Shah came up in a system that does not spare failure. L.K. Advani, for example, a man who gave his life to the cause of building the BJP and spearheaded the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, was eventually fired from leadership position by the party after losing two successive parliamentary elections. The incentive structure Rahul Gandhi has been trained in is different.
He has a poor record in the state election campaigns he has led. Still, the leadership position in the Congress has been reserved for him and failure does not have the same consequences for him as it does for a BJP leader.
Drought of ideas
So far, the Congress party’s best idea is that Modi and the BJP have not delivered on their election promises; they are authoritarian, communal, and have damaged the economy. But is that enough? The party has not been able to articulate an alternative vision for the country. The BJP may very well go into the next election with unfulfilled promises, but it does not have a rival idea to fear. Such an idea has yet to be articulated.
The Congress party complains that the BJP has a financial advantage over the Congress and is using the state machinery to quell political opposition. There is truth to these claims; still, they represent excuses. If the money advantage guaranteed electoral success, then the Congress would not have lost a single election, for it has had this advantage for most of its life as a political party. And poor people’s parties like the BSP, which had very little money to begin with, would have failed. Money certainly matters in Indian electoral politics, but its transformative power is limited.
The Congress led India’s freedom movement and took on the might of the colonial state, which was far more authoritarian than anything the BJP has thrown at it. And the Congress as a ruling authoritarian party was trounced by a spirited opposition in 1977.
One-party dominance has not served India well in the past and will not do so in the future. India needs a strong and effective opposition at the national level. An electorally stronger Congress, then, makes India’s national politics more competitive, and competition makes parties more accountable to voters. But a party that lacks the courage to face up to the monumental organisational crisis that confronts it is not even good for its own supporters, let alone the country.
Amit Ahuja is an associate professor of political science at University of California at Santa Barbara. He is the author of the upcoming book Mobilizing the Marginalized: Dalit movements and Parties in India, to be published by Oxford University Press this autumn