Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a savage verbal assault on the Congress in Parliament this week. His speech included the now traditional bitter attack on Jawaharlal Nehru and the claim that Congress leaders were cut off from the poor. But the sting was in the electoral calculation. The Congress would not come to power for another hundred years, he said, and then proceeded to read off a list of states that had rejected the party.
In West Bengal, he said, the Congress had not won an election since 1972. In Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Gujarat, the party had lost since 1985. And on and on he went, pointing to the Congress’ recent Lok Sabha debacles.
These days, the Congress has rarely crossed 50 seats in the Lok Sabha. Contrast this with the 1984 Lok Sabha election when the party won 83 seats in UP alone. The Congress, Modi suggested, was dying a rapid death. The Prime Minister was so pleased with this diatribe that he repeated the same sort of thing in the Rajya Sabha the following day.
Two questions follow from the Prime Minister’s speech. The first relates directly to Modi’s vicious verbal assault. If the Congress is more or less dead, then why waste time attacking it? Why was the entire BJP communication apparatus—the IT cell, ministers, spokespeople, two-rupee trolls, tame news channels—mobilised to publicise the PM’s speech just as it had been used to rubbish Rahul Gandhi’s speech in Parliament a few days before? If Rahul Gandhi and the Congress are so irrelevant, why expend so much energy in attacking them?
There is a second mystery. While much of what the Prime Minister said can be dismissed as political rhetoric, there is no doubt that when it came to election results, he was right: the Congress is dying, electorally at least. Modi is not the only one to make that point. Prashant Kishore has said similar things about how the Congress has lost 90 per cent of the elections it has contested over the last several years.
So, why isn’t the Congress worried?
Dynasty not really the issue
When most political parties in the world are confronted with a crisis, they look at the problem from all angles and try to find solutions. Do they need to change their leaders? Should they re-examine their policies? Are they failing to get their message across? And so on.
The mysterious thing about the Congress is that no such exercise is taking place. In 2014, Rahul Gandhi offered to resign after the electoral debacle and then later withdrew his resignation. In 2019, after a second debacle, this time entirely on his watch, Rahul resigned again and stated that no member of his family would lead the party.
Since that dramatic announcement, he has nevertheless continued to operate as an extra-constitutional authority, exercising the same power he held before. There has been no change in the Congress’s policies or the way in which the Congress gets its message across. There have been some personnel changes though: Rahul’s trusted ‘young generation’ advisers have either left the party or are trying to. And his sister Priyanka has now taken a role in the family drama.
As far as changes go, that’s it.
This might be the Congress’s fatal mistake — along with its inexplicable complacency. Rahul Gandhi has demonstrated that he can no longer reach out successfully to the vast majority of voters. Forget about Amethi where he lost the seat his party had held for decades. Even in Kerala, where elections usually follow a revolving-door pattern, the Congress was defeated.
The lazy and easy way of explaining away Rahul Gandhi’s failures is to say that India is now an aspirational country that has lost patience with dynasty. So, there is only so much that Rahul can do. But this is not true. If India has turned against dynasty, then why isn’t this the case in Odisha where Naveen Patnaik continues to be the state’s most popular politician? Why is Jayant Chaudhary drawing such huge crowds in UP while invoking the legacy of his family? Why does Akhilesh Yadav pose such a strong challenge to the BJP? How did MK Stalin come to power in Tamil Nadu? Why is the BJP laying out the welcome mat for the Congress’s dynasts as they hurry to switch parties? If India had really turned against dynasty then the BJP would not be so eager to embrace dynasts.
Uneasy sits the crown
A more plausible explanation for the Congress’s repeated failures is political mismanagement. Take Punjab, for instance. It should have been a done deal for the Congress. Now the outcome is not so clear: The election is up for grabs with pollsters predicting a hung assembly. This is a direct consequence of the ineptitude of the Gandhi siblings — for the first time in the history of the Congress, the leadership actively propped up a state dissident, encouraged him to topple a chief minister and then let loose a factional fight. Instead of putting Navjot Singh Sidhu in his place early on, the central leadership let the infighting go on for too long.
Then, a few days ago, Rahul Gandhi, in the manner of a visiting celebrity game-show host, grandly declared that the suspense was over! Charanjit Singh Channi had won the contest and would be the chief ministerial candidate. You could have been forgiven for thinking that Rahul had perhaps hosted his own talent show: Punjabi Idol.
The story is the same in other states. It was crazy to have bodily lifted Harish Rawat out of Uttarakhand, where he should have been preparing for the assembly election, and sent him to Punjab only to destabilise Capt. Amarinder Singh. Now Rawat has got a taste of the same medicine: though he is clearly the most popular Congress leader in his state, Rahul Gandhi has been reluctant to declare him as the chief ministerial candidate. In Goa, tacit and discreet seat-sharing arrangements with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) were possible but the idea was spurned by the Congress.
But here’s the thing. None of this seems to worry the Congress. The leadership is surrounded by sycophants who tell the Gandhis how brave they are, how they are the only people with the guts to take on Narendra Modi, how the Congress will sweep the assembly elections, etc. These sentiments are magnified by Congress-cheering trolls on Twitter who take the line that any secular liberal who does not think that Rahul Gandhi is the Son of God must be a Modi-supporter.
The complaints about Rahul’s inaccessibility are not new. The same sort of thing was said about Sonia Gandhi too. But Sonia had people like Ahmed Patel who Congressmen and potential allies could reach out to and who could keep her informed of the mood of the party. Now, say Congressmen, there is no one they can talk to if they want to get a message across and no one who can tell them what the leadership is thinking.
Method to Modi’s attacks
All this is troubling because the Congress is the only national alternative — feeble as it may be — to the BJP. Modi knows this. That is the solution to the first mystery — the reason why he keeps attacking the Congress while simultaneously calling it irrelevant.
Estimates vary but the distinguished psephologist Yashwant Deshmukh reckons that around 220-250 seats will see a BJP-vs-Congress battle at the next Lok Sabha election. If the Congress revives and wins even half those seats (say 120), then the BJP loses its overall majority and has to depend on allies to form the next government. The aura of the invincible Narendra Modi is punctured and the opposition becomes a solid force to reckon with.
Modi knows this, says Sanjay Kumar, the political scientist and psephologist. So, while other BJP leaders will focus on the regional battles, Modi never takes his eye off the real threat. He wants to keep reminding us that the Congress is an enfeebled bunch of perennial losers who no one can take seriously or trust to run the country. If he keeps hammering away at the Congress, he believes, then no matter what the failures of governance are, when it comes to voting for the Lok Sabha, voters will believe that they have no alternative.
So there is a method to Modi’s seemingly unnecessary attacks on the Congress. But is there a greater purpose or a larger strategy to the Congress’s battle against the government? As Yashwant Deshmukh says, the opposition can never damage, let alone defeat, Modi in a Lok Sabha election unless the Congress becomes an effective election-winning party. And yet, more and more opposition parties are abandoning any hope of working together with the Congress, finding the party’s leadership strangely complacent and out of touch. And Congressmen are leaving.
Unless this drift is arrested, the Congress is looking at another electoral rout in 2024. Should that happen, says Sanjay Kumar, it is unlikely that the Congress can survive in its present form. It may fragment and break apart.
So the time to save the Congress is now. Except, of course, the Congress believes it is in no need of saving.
Vir Sanghvi is an Indian print and television journalist, author, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)