16-22 May 2014 #707

The rise and fall of the Congress

India’s grand old party faces an existential crisis
Ajaz Ashraf
By the time you read this column in Nepal, the results from India’s mammoth month-long elections will be coming in and there is one thing we can predict: the Congress will be blown out of power. What is uncertain is the magnitude of its impending defeat. 

India’s grand old party faces an existential crisis that Sonia Gandhi’s son and heir apparent, Rahul, may not be able to overcome. The crisis has both immediate and long-term implications.

In the short-term, the party needs to analyse the reasons for its defeat and the ouster of the Congress-led coalition government of Manmohan Singh, the only prime minister other than Jawaharlal Nehru to have completed two five-year terms in office. This remarkable feat has been diminished by inflation and economic slowdown.

But what really damaged the government was the slew of massive corruption scandals. You can say the Congress entered the 2014 electoral race with a torn hamstring, that it is victim of the worldwide recession, over which it had little control. It’s possible to claim, therefore, that the debacle of the Congress is a hiccup, and not an existential crisis.

But Congress does face a crisis of perception. Beginning 1989, it has won over 200 seats in the 545-member Indian lower house of parliament only twice – in 1991 and 2009. In 1991, it won because the coalition government comprising regional groups proved notoriously unstable.

The BJP couldn’t become a national alternative as it failed to find allies in pockets where it was absent. No less significant was the sympathy vote the Congress mopped up following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi during the 1991 elections. In other words, the Congress won in 1991 not on its strength but because of the weaknesses of its rivals.

This was the dominant theme of the 2004 elections as well: the BJP-led coalition government’s slogan of ‘Shining India’ triggered a reaction among the teeming poor who thought their poverty was being mocked. They gave the Congress 145 seats, and a surprising shot at governance. It interpreted the mandate to introduce a slew of social welfare measures because of which it swept past the 200-mark in the 2009 elections.

When out of power, the Congress wins because of the failures of others. In power, it woos the electorate through pro-poor policies, and its innate capacity to mean something to everyone. This dichotomy proves that the party suffers from organisational atrophy which has disconnected it from the politics of the streets, precisely where new leaders and ideas are spawned.

This explains why the Congress has been out of power for nearly 25 years in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar bordering Nepal, which together account for 120 seats in India’s parliament. It hasn’t had a government in Gujarat for 20 years, and failed to mount a credible opposition to its chief minister, Narendra Modi, who is the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in this election. It doesn’t have a credible response to the BJP touting the achievement of its ‘Gujarat Development Model’ which Modi promised to scale-up nationwide if elected.

The biggest factor for the crisis in the Congress is the splintering of its social support base, comprising upper caste Hindus, Muslims, and Dalits. In 1990, the government of VP Singh set aside a quota of jobs for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) much to the chagrin of upper castes, who felt betrayed by the Congress because of its reluctance to oppose this administrative measure.

Worse, the party did not support the policy of job quota either, thus alienating both the OBC and Dalits. The demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque in 1992 during the watch of Congress Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao in 1992 led Muslims to desert the mother ship.

In the last 25 years, there has been a proliferation of parties in India representing the interests of lower castes who have greater allure for them than the famed charisma of the Nehru-Gandhi family. The diminishing importance of charisma is inversely proportional to the rationalisation of India’s politics, evident in the slogan the ‘lower’ castes have coined: Our Vote, Our Rule’.

Sonia Gandhi’s children, Rahul and Priyanka, can rebuild the Congress by taking to the streets, not by waving at people from vehicles.


Read also:

India’s last lap

Reversing reservation

The shaky pillar of Indian democracy, ANURAG ACHARYA

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