The Congress is dead. Long live the idea of Congress. Exit polls 2019 have sent the binate message that though the space for the Grand Old Party in state legislatures and Parliament has substantially shrunk, its foot soldiers are alive and well in all corners of India. Even if the psephological speculations of May 19 shuffle the stack of electoral outcomes, it will still be miles away from the first step of Raisina Hill. Of course, the vagaries of democracy do not preclude an invisible subterranean wave catapulting a Gandhi to the prime ministerial seat on May 23.
From the kindest to the cruellest, none of the pollsters has given more than 90 seats to the GOP led by the 49-year-old third generation Gandhi. The party contested around 430 seats nationwide. If the exit polls prove to be correct, only one out of every five Congress candidates will win. Party president Rahul Gandhi spent over 100 days on the road, addressing over 150 rallies and road shows big and small.
Sister Priyanka formally joined the organisation as a general secretary. Her maiden role as official political campaigner took her to various parts of the country in an effort to dent and blunt Modi Magic. Butall TV channels seem to have chosen the Sardar of Sabarmati over the silver spoon-fed dynastic duo seeking democratic endorsement to retain the family’s hold over the 130- year-old party. A Gandhi has been conspicuously absent from South Block since 1989 since Rajiv Gandhi left the building after a humiliating defeat; the Congress then won barely 200 seats as against over 400 it had captured five years before.
Three decades on, the party he led remains relevant while his surname has lost its sheen and appositeness. Previously the Congress survived thanks to the Gandhis. Now the Gandhis keep their political identity because of the Congress. Unlike in the past when a Gandhi like Indira could ensure victory for her party even if a lamp post was the party candidate, none of the current crop of Gandhis from Sonia to Priyanka possess the magnetic power to attract the masses.
They have so far been able to keep their hereditary outfit, though shrinking in size, together. But they aren’t election winners anymore. However, the Family hasn’t expanded the party and attracted effective and credible new talent to its ranks. Unlike Amit Shah who has set an international record by converting the BJPinto the world’s largest party in less than five years, Rahul and his faceless team haven’t spurred a spectacular surge in Congress membership.
The organisation is ineffective and faction-ridden at both state and national levels. Such absence of cohesion is perhaps responsible for the party failing to exploit the anti-incumbency against the BJP which rules most of the states. The BJP has the maximum number of MPs and MLAs, governs 16 states and Narendra Modi has been helming the Centre for the past five years. It has trounced the Congress in almost every state; according to TV anchor wisdom, the Congress is unlikely to cross double digits nationally because it cannot score a double-digit victory in any state.
For the past five years, the Congress has been conceding its space to its mortal enemy in the North, the West and the East. In spite of a direct face-off with the BJP in over 200 constituencies across the country, it lost over 150 to its saffron nemesis. The political erosion of the Congress started in the 1990s after most of its powerful state satraps bid au revoir to float their own outfits. New regional parties like the TDP and TRS had already mauled it in the South. For the past two decades, it has been heavily marginalised in the North and the West by the Hindutva wave. In the absence of a charismatic leader, the party also lost its traditional vote banks like the minorities, Dalits and even farmers. It could assume power in 2004, not by riding the magnetism of a leader or a slogan but thanks to the bargaining skills of Sonia Gandhi to strike deals with opportunistically sympathetic regional parties.
The Gandhi label did not bring the GOP victory in 2004 and 2009; instead, political engineering and the credible performance record of the Manmohan Singh-led government were responsible. Moreover, the BJP had fought the 2009 election under an ageing L K Advani who did not have an inspiring agenda to vamp new age voters.
Then Modi descended on the national stage like an Avengers superhero with a promising slogan and resolve to govern the nation with an iron hand. Congress had neither a leader nor a slogan. Modi majestically rode the chariot of victory into South Block without even facing symbolic resistance from his dynasty-delirious detractor. The Congress party’s decline emanates from its inability to change with the times. It has been replacing one Gandhi with another in the captain’s cabin at frequent intervals without reinventing itself with new ideas and individuals.
On the other hand, the BJP offered the New Deal of a New Leader, a new charter and new aggressive faces. The only consolation the GOP can derive from this dismal detail is that the idea of Congress remains is still alive. Rahul Gandhi has to accept the irreversible reality that only a collective leadership in Delhi and the states can convert the party into an alternative Opposition to the BJP. Party abhi baaki hai. The Congress would be well advised to grab the space vacated by the Left in various states. With the eclipse of the Communists, it can own the pan-Indian liberal space to counter the hard-line nationalism represented by the BJP and Narendra Modi.
As India takes yet another decisive turn to the extreme right, only the party that delivered India its Independence can push its saffron foe back to a centrist position in the long run. To achieve that near-impossibility, Congress will have to convert itself into a federal party comprising individuals and organisations with divergent political cultures and organisational traditions. Gandhis should sit back and wait for the revival of brand Gandhi in future