The leadership drama in the Congress, which grabbed headlines with another stormy Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting, masks a deeper crisis in the party: the credibility of the Congress brand being at an all-time low. The party’s weak performance in the local body elections of last year illustrated the depth of the crisis. In management and marketing, branding matters because that gives the product, company, and entrepreneur a reputation, and ultimately, a future. In our view, the crisis of the Congress brand has reached such proportions, that myopia now plagues the party and is shaping its strategy in the forthcoming state elections as well.
Political scientist Noam Lupu defines “party brand” as what makes voters identify with a party, and generates partisan loyalty. Political parties mobilise voters on the basis of a distinctive brand appeal. When voters are not sure what the party stands for, as it is with the case of the Congress now, it loses its ability to attract voters. The plummeting brand value of the Congress symbol is vividly demonstrated by the setbacks the party suffered in the local body elections last year in Telangana, Gujarat, Kerala, Kashmir, and Goa.
In the local body elections, ideological platforms are unlikely to play a crucial role in determining the outcomes. This should have brought some relief to the Congress party, judged by its flailing responses in recent years to heated ideological issues of national identity and national security. But reversals even in local polls suggest that the fundamental challenge to the Congress, though related to, goes deeper than its ideological failings.
Congress has lost sheen
In local elections, a candidate’s chances of success depend on two factors: one, her own credentials and money and muscle power, and two, the organisational support and credibility of the party symbol.
Why could Congress’ candidates not perform well in the recent local elections across many states?
First, the party’s enduring organisational weakness at the grassroots level. What many have written extensively about is a legacy of the ‘de-institutionalisation’ of the Congress party that began during the Indira Gandhi period. The organisational resources of the party have steadily withered away owing to the loss of power at the centre and most of the states since the organisation of the party was primarily based on the ability to dispense patronage. The workers who remain are hobbled with passivity, in the absence of social and political movements that can activate them.
And second, the party’s credibility crisis, or the depleting value of its brand. According to Lupu, when a party’s brand is diluted, it leads to severe erosion in partisan attachments. The crisis in party brand is severe when both conditions — poor performance in office and inconsistency in the ideological platform due to conflicting signals or sudden shifts — take place in a short span of time or simultaneously.
The Congress in the pre-Emergency period despite being an umbrella party had a clearly defined party brand. However, its party brand started to get progressively diluted after that. The Congress took ambiguous and contradictory stands on all the major issues confronting the nation — from regional identity assertion to caste-based quotas to religious issues (such as the Shah Bano issue and Hindutva politics) and to economic reforms. The strategy of not risking losing support from any section jeopardised not only the party brand but also the erosion of loyalty in every segment. Furthermore, when political parties are confronted with the perception of poor performance in office, along with strong and rising opposition, it fails to evoke any strong partisan loyalty. This is how parties implode, much like what happened to Congress during the second term of the UPA.
The crisis in the Congress’ party brand seemed to accelerate during the second Manmohan Singh term, when the party lost sheen on multiple fronts. This meant that the median voter, who was already moving away from the Congress on questions of nationalism and Hinduism, started to lose trust in the party that governed independent India for the most number of years. The Congress instead of regaining the trust of Indian citizens post-2014 has been marred in a series of internal conflicts that have further eroded its brand value. While the party may have won some state elections and remains the second-largest national party, yet the Congress brand no longer ignites faith and excitement. So much so that some argued that perhaps the death of the Congress is a necessity for an effective opposition to emerge, and some others suggested that the departure of the Gandhis from the Congress can only revive the party.
In it to win it? Upcoming state elections
Can the Congress resurrect itself in the upcoming elections in four states and one Union Territory: Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and Puducherry? We are not optimistic of the Congress reconstructing a distinctive and attractive brand. In fact, the Congress brand seems to be getting further diluted in these states, on account of being either a junior partner in coalitions, or lacking a clear, unified, and active leadership. The party seems to be entirely focused on piece-meal adjustments to contest another round of elections, myopic strategies to gain an upper hand vis-à-vis allies, with leadership in Delhi unable to choose a captain who can at least steer the wrecked ship to a safe harbour.
In Assam, the party is hoping to come to power through a grand alliance with Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), the Left parties, and Anchalik Gana Morcha (AGM), a new party formed during the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA movement. The alliance with Badruddin Ajmal not only means that the Congress has accepted that AIUDF’s claim of representing Bengali Muslim voters of Assam, it also makes it harder for it to undercut religious polarisation and bring Hindus back into its fold. The Congress-AIUDF rout in the recent Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) elections, where it won one out of 40 seats, doesn’t augur well for the upcoming elections. The dithering over months of whether to tie up with the AIUDF was an apt reflection of the confused and faction-riddled state of the post-Tarun Gogoi Congress, which has far from capitalised on the opening provided by the CAA agitation.
The Congress is part of the third front in the West Bengal election that is increasingly becoming bipolar. As the BJP is well placed to sweep the anti-incumbency vote of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), as much as Mamata Banerjee’s party is well placed to sweep the minority vote that the Congress enjoyed in its strongholds, the Congress-Left Alliance seems to be squeezed from both fronts.
Similarly, the Congress has long resigned itself to being a marginal player in Tamil Nadu and would be hoping to ride the coat-tails of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) to be part of the winning alliance. The party’s campaign is being run by sprawling jumbo committees, meant to satisfy numerous factions, which Congress MP Karti Chidambaram criticised as “serving no purpose” and having neither “authority” nor “accountability”.
In Kerala, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) is well placed to break the four-decades trend of alternation between the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the LDF in power. Since the UDF in Kerala is, to a large extent, dependent on Christian and Muslim votes, the shift in Christian votes during the local election is a huge setback to the Congress. This shift is partly due to the desertion of Kerala Congress (M) to the LDF in 2016, after three decades in the UDF, and partly due to Christian anger over the Congress’ confused handling of the issue of reservation for the economically backward (which is supported by Christians) and the inclusion of the Jamaat-e-Islami-backed Welfare Party in the UDF coalition. The lack of political initiative in cornering the government has meant that the LDF looks favourite to return to power despite corruption and money laundering charges against the government particularly in the high-profile gold smuggling case.
No breakthrough, again
In none of these states, does the Congress seem driven enough to create a distinctive brand that attracts a cross-section of voters. Instead, it ambles along in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, resigned to its marginal status, and has failed to capitalise on openings provided in Assam and Kerala (such as the CAA agitation and corruption charges respectively) to emerge as the leading contender for power in these states. Yet, as the performance of the Congress in local elections shows, the crisis in the party is more fundamental – failure to define and communicate its distinctive brand. The decision in the recently held CWC meeting to postpone matters till June 2021 indicates that Congress will be no closer to doing so after these states’ elections than it is now.
The authors are with the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi. Views are personal.