It’s time for Congress to buck up

Given that the BJP seems all set for a hat-trick, what should the grand old party do to revive its fortunes and regain the trust of the voters?
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

Let me make myself perfectly clear. Unlike many ruling party supporters, I do not wish for the demise of the Congress. Rather, it would be good for the nation if it undergoes a major if not complete makeover and rejig. So that, adjusting to the times, the Congress starts taking itself seriously as India’s principal if not only nationwide opposition party.

Yes, after ruling the country practically unchallenged for over 50 years, such a reboot might be difficult. Akin to going through rehab. But drastic measures are needed if the party is to survive.

The truth is that other than the BJP, the Congress is the only national party in India. That is why, its persistence—if not that of the Gandhi family at its helm—is good for Indian democracy. An effective and principled opposition is a much-needed check and balance to single-party rule in any functional democracy but especially in a parliamentary one.

But therein lies the rub. Neither Rahul Gandhi nor the Congress come across as part of an effective and principled opposition in the country. In fact, oftentimes, they do not even behave as if they are in the opposition. They still display the massive hangover and mannerisms, if not arrogance and conceit, of the ruling party. No wonder they appear confused, if not clueless, about their identity and central messaging. Given that the Modi-led ruling BJP is all set for a hat-trick, what should the Congress do to revive its fortunes and regain the trust of voters?

First of all, should the Congress oblige the BJP by giving up, rolling over, and dying? Either swiftly or slowly, by jhatka or halal? Thus, facilitating the way for the BJP’s much-trumpeted objective of a “Congress-mukt Bharat” or Congress-free India? Certainly not. The party’s sporadic though not spectacular electoral victories in Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, and, more recently, Telangana demonstrate that the Congress is not about to give up its ghost so easily.

As, indeed, does Rahul Gandhi’s brave, if inept, persistence. His Bharat Jodo Yatra, which even if not stunningly successful, was certainly not an utter failure. Now, he has signalled his doggedness by embarking on another, this time East to West, Bharat Nyay Yatra, which has just been rechristened as Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra or Unite India Justice Rally. Therefore, neither is the Congress giving up, nor is its ruling family. But the hold of the latter on the former must make the BJP happy. They have publicly declared that Rahul Gandhi is their star campaigner.

The Congress, though not about to self-combust instantly, still shows a painful and prolonged death wish in its own repeated self-goals and egregious mistakes. Its decline is partly its own doing. Dynastic politics, corruption, minority appeasement, pseudo-secularism,  identity politics, populism, economic mismanagement, lack of new ideas, decline of idealism, and so on, have all contributed to its undoing. Many of its past victories have, in fact, been because of the failures of its opponents.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. The Congress’s downfall is a direct consequence of a better and more politically proficient opponent. The crucial factor that has contributed to its decline is the rise of the BJP and its charismatic leader Narendra Modi.

The BJP has emerged as the dominant party in Indian politics, winning consecutive national and state elections with a strong mandate. The BJP has also expanded its base across regions, castes and communities, posing a serious threat to the Congress’s traditional support base. The BJP has successfully projected itself as a party of development, governance and nationalism, while portraying the Congress as a party of corruption, dynasticism, and appeasement.

The Congress, so far, has been unable to come up with a comprehensive strategy to counter such an attack. The charge of being anti-Hindu, even anti-national, seems to have stuck. In addition, from being India’s traditional mainstream and centrist party, its decisive tilt towards the Left has also alienated it from the rising Indian middle classes and the aspiring youth. But its biggest inadequacy is that the Congress has failed to articulate a coherent alternative to the BJP or to Narendra Modi’s leadership.

To begin with, the Congress must not resort to negative campaigning and personal attacks. Endlessly criticising the ruling party or the prime minister have not worked. Trying to convey that both Modi and BJP are politically illegitimate and untouchable should be replaced by acknowledging the real accomplishments of the government. The Congress must offer constructive criticism like a good opposition party. Speak the truth to the public to regain their trust.

The Congress should try to return to the  centre of the political spectrum from its ‘woke’ and leftward tilt. Try to reclaim the middle ground and the mainstream space that it traditionally occupied. Remove the anti-Hindu and anti-national tags, not merely by slogans but by actions. Reclaim past heroes and icons, now appropriated by the BJP. These include Sardar Vallabhbhai  Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose, BR Ambedkar.

Reorganise the party, at the national, state, and local levels. Welcome and recognise talent. Institute comprehensive reform and intra-party democracy at all levels, in addition to transparency and good governance. Try to institutionalise a grievance-redressal and dissent-management system so that defections and dissensions are reduced. Make Congress attractive once more to the young, aspiring, and talented from all communities, regions, castes, and linguistic groups.

Strengthen booth-level voter management. Concentrate on winnable seats, especially where the BJP’s margin of victory has been small. Field good candidates, not necessarily rich, powerful, or corrupt ones. Try to offer alternatives at the micro level to the BJP even if there is no national narrative. Above all, demonstrate commitment to clean, corruption-free, and responsible government in the states where Congress has been voted to power.

The Congress can still boast of hosting a slew of smart people, not only popular and experienced leaders at the local, regional, and national levels, but also competent and dedicated managers, strategists, legal luminaries, and other professionals. It has the resources, but must now display the resolve, to clean up its act, to rethink, reorganise, reinvent, and rejuvenate itself.

Rather than being in a state of drift or indecision, this is the time for some serious introspection and reconstruction at all levels of the Congress. This process may take months if not years, but the impending crisis in the 2024 general elections might serve as the necessary trigger.

(Tweets @MakrandParanspe)

Makarand R Paranjape, Professor of English, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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