Congress and its prospects of going solo in 2024

If ideology is one tricky area for the Congress in a polarised polity, even in terms of pragmatic seat-sharing, the regional players will push it to concede more seats than in 2019.

Published: 06th September 2023 12:53 AM  |   Last Updated: 06th September 2023 02:26 AM   |  A+A-

Congress and its prospects of going solo in 2024

Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

Going by the deep flux in the nation’s political landscape, one is tempted to ask if it is not better for the Congress to go it alone in 2024 instead of lugging along the burdens of the rest. A similar question was asked by regional parties in the recent past: should they quietly manage their turfs and terrains instead of sinking with the Congress?

Even when the Bharat Jodo Yatra was happening, not many regional leaders were ready to walk alongside Rahul Gandhi. But things somewhat changed: with great circumspection and palpable contradictions, an alliance was formed (or is still forming) a few months ago. The secular-regional entities and the secular national party buried their differences to fight the Narendra Modi-led BJP. They gave themselves the most contrived acronym to sound like a single force: I.N.D.I.A.

However, even as we began to think that the alliance had started off rather well after three meetings in Patna, Bengaluru and Mumbai, there are already signs of implosion written all over. Even before the overcrowded coordination committee constituted after the Mumbai edition could meet in mid-September, there was virtually a tornado uprooting the trees.

Look at the controversy that has just erupted over Udhayanidhi Stalin’s statements vis-à-vis the ‘eradication’ of ‘Sanatana Dharma’. His statement was cleverly interpreted as containing ‘genocidal intent’ by many on the extreme right because he used the language of pestilence and pandemics. Even without this extreme interpretation, the statement has quietly served the majoritarian impulse of the BJP and the defenders of the faith.

If Udhayanidhi had used the language of social justice and spoken pointedly on treacherous caste hierarchies within the Hindu faith, perhaps there would have been no controversy. But the Dravidian hyperbole, cultivated with great diligence, does not allow anything to be expressed with reasonable calm. The rationalism of the Periyarist variety is sometimes not just a drumbeat but a death beat. There is inherent violence in the rhetoric they generate sometimes. The demagoguery of Tamil Dravidian nationalism is so incredibly sharp that it even excludes other linguistic cultures in the south of India. That is a cultural aspect which most of India above Vindhyas does not easily grapple.

If Udhayanidhi and his party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), persist with the statement and offer no regrets, then within the existing Tamil cultural space, the simple calculation is they stand to gain electorally. This is perhaps why Stalin’s son has said he’ll repeat what he has said many times over. But the question is, where does it leave the Congress party across India? The BJP knows it cannot easily sink the DMK in Tamil Nadu but will use Udhayanidhi’s statement to sink the Congress elsewhere by projecting them as partners without faith.

Just observe the range of reactions, or rather the utter confusion, to Udhayanidhi’s statement within the Congress. There is the platitudinous line that Congress respects all religions (K C Venugopal), but there is also a complete rejection of Udhayanidhi’s statement (Kamal Nath). There is resolute criticism (Karan Singh) and there is a willing embrace too (Priyank Kharge). If an ally ends up dividing the Congress more than it is already divided, then should the Congress make its own plans for 2024?

For Priyank Kharge, a Dalit leader and son of Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, there is greater identification with the party’s Tamil Nadu ally than his own party’s caste elites. If this controversy is not about ripping the Congress apart at a deeper level of identity and self-respect, what else is it? Can Rahul Gandhi publicly condemn the Kharges on this? The Congress may soon learn that secularism and anti-BJPism is too universal a prop to unite parties; the local details, the ideological nuances and the languages in every corner of India will destroy the carefully and artificially constructed harmonies inside the I.N.D.I.A alliance. What if every ally of the Congress does what the DMK did? The BJP will only hold Congress responsible because that is electorally the best thing for it to do.

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After all, the regional players will look after their own interests first because they have fought the BJP when the Congress abdicated the space. From their point of view, they are only doing what they always did. To all the arguments that the BJP may build, it will also add the recent ideological stridency of Rahul Gandhi against the progenitor of Hindutva—Vinayak Savarkar. Speaking against Savarkar has created unease among the Congress’ Maharashtra allies. There again, the allies have had to defend their sub-nationalist existence. Where does this leave the Congress when it cannot speak with conviction about anything? When the emotions and arithmetic of its regional allies pushes the party to wear a cloak of unfeeling, where must it go?

If ideology is one tricky area for the Congress in a polarised polity, even in terms of pragmatic seat-sharing, the regional players will push the Congress to concede more seats than it conceded in 2019, which was around 423. In 2014, Congress had contested 464 seats. More than one regional player has indicated in the past that the Congress should contest no more than 200 seats. If this is the case, what happens to the national imprint and vote share of the grand old party?

Besides electoral adjustments there will be questions around the leadership of the secular alliance. Rahul Gandhi is naturally doing well in opinion polls compared to other secret competitors within the alliance like Nitish Kumar or Mamata Banerjee. We have already seen leaders of the Janata Dal (United) ridiculing their Bihar ally Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal for pushing Gandhi’s candidature for the top job. Also, Rahul’s mutton dish-making bonhomie with Lalu Yadav will create (or already has) suspicion in their own Bihar secular grouping.

Rahul Gandhi’s stridency on crony capitalism also makes a lot of Congress allies squirm when they actually need money and helicopters to fight elections. Congress targeting Modi in absolute terms on practically everything he proposes (one election, new Parliament, GST, etc) also does not make his allies happy. The lack of moderation and tactical concession, they feel, does not work well in a democratic set-up. It hardens the space. How can this dissonance go away?

Sugata Srinivasaraju

Senior Journalist and author of Strange Burdens: The Politics and Predicaments of Rahul Gandhi



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  • B S MANI

    It is suggested
    27 days ago reply
  • N.S.Rajan

    An excellent analysis. “There is a tide in the affairs of men Which
    27 days ago reply
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