For Congress, minimum is maximum now

Grand Old Party sports a new philosophy: minimum is the new maximum. Its new electoral algorithm is ‘fighting for less with confidence and score a better strike rate’.
Congress MP Rahul Gandhi walks with his mother and AICC interim president Sonia Gandhi.
Congress MP Rahul Gandhi walks with his mother and AICC interim president Sonia Gandhi. | Udayashankar S

All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.”

- Mark Twain

Twain should know. He was a professional gambler on a Mississippi steamboat he captained, and tried to invent a children's game which he was confident would make him rich. The 139-year-old Congress is still a children’s game—of two siblings who claimed their superiority with the supreme confidence that only true ignorance can sustain. This genetic flaw in the party’s political DNA has caused a mutation in its legacy and stature, thanks to a Triple Gandhi Whammy.

Now, the Grand Old Party sports a new philosophy: minimum is the new maximum. Its new electoral algorithm is ‘fighting for less with confidence and score a better strike rate’. For the first time, the Congress is fielding less than 330 candidates for the Lok Sabha. Has the party conceded its inability to win a majority on its own in this election? Although the first round of filing affidavits ended last week, the Congress is yet to announce all its candidates despite having released 20-odd lists. Its new strategy of naming candidates in easy, politically correct tranches stems from the fact that the party has got the memo: it is no more a pan-India player.

Today, its genome has been corrupted by dynasty, defeats, defections and denial. The consequence is a talent famine, and organisational paralysis and ideological infirmity. Until a few decades ago, there were more than 25 aspirants per Lok Sabha seat who wanted a place on the Congress list. Now it cannot find even one winnable individual in 200-plus constituencies. It is incredibly ignorant of the deadly depletion of its social and political equity.

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The puzzle is its cockiness about its future. While dissing Narendra Modi’s “Achcche Din” slogan, the shrinking Congress cabal at the top is expecting ‘achchhe din’ for itself by clinging to their faithful fiefdoms. With allies as crutches, the party is seeking redemption somewhere along INDIA’s tenuous and ideologically vulnerable journey. The reason it vacated space for its allies in large states like UP, Bihar and Maharashtra stems from compulsion, not compassion. The copycat has been belled; the party has copied the Left’s formula of liplocking with likeminded parties to retain its numerical pertinence and winning seats it otherwise wouldn’t have fighting solo. The Congress depends on Akhilesh Yadav, Tejashwi Yadav, M K Stalin, Arvind Kejriwal et al to retain its minimum electoral base. However, the party hasn’t been too gracious towards its buddies in other Northern states and Karnataka. Its target: achieve a better strike rate even if vote share dips.

The Congress leadership hasn’t lost its illusion of invincibility: it claims to have made tangible concessions to its local besties because it has a bigger nationwide market share. It is yet to figure that it exists only in name and the game, and remains an undesirable voter option in many states. It is left with few generals and even fewer soldiers in many states. The plausible and possible justification for the Congress to fight for fewer seats in 2024 could be ‘No charismatic neta, nara and niti’. For the past four decades, the party leadership manufacturing system has been decaying; not one marketable leader who can connect successfully with an inclusive India made of numerous castes, beliefs and social communities has surfaced. Indira Gandhi converted her party into a rainbow social coalition of Christians, Dalits, Adivasis, minorities, upper castes and classes. After her, not Rajiv, not Sonia or Rahul could restore its sheen.

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Indira’s assassination generated a sweeping sympathy wave for Rajiv in 1984 that gave the Congress a record 400-plus seats in the Lok Sabha. But Rajiv was the first Gandhi who couldn’t get a second consecutive mandate. In 1989, the Congress put up 510 candidates, of whom only 197 reached the Lok Sabha: a number not even half of what it had won in the previous elections. Rajiv died brutally and terribly, and the Congress lost the Gandhi Midas touch. It failed to win an absolutely majority in 1991. Of the 505 candidates fielded, only 244 made it. P V Narasimha Rao cobbled together a majority and ran a minority government for a full term—a first in modern Indian history.

But the Congress was humiliated in 1996. Of the 529 candidates, only 140 won. Rao was unceremoniously ousted as Congress president and replaced by Gandhi faithful Sitaram Kesri who led the party to a disastrous debacle in 1998 with the Congress scoring only 141 seats. The Gandhi parivar threw him out, homespun cap and all. Sonia Gandhi became party president. The Congress hoped that fortune would smile again with a Gandhi at the helm. But it was trashed in 1999 when only 114 contestants out of 453 won. However, Sonia’s hidden talent as a coalition metallurgist who could forge incompatible elements into the semblance of a shape led to the ouster of the Vajpayee-led NDA government. In 2004, the Congress reduced its candidates to 417; of them 145 won. It performed well in 2009 under the stewardship of Manmohan Singh, who was pitted against the redoubtable L K Advani. Of 440 Congress candidates, 206 crossed the finish line.

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But since then, the party has been going downhill, losing senior leaders in most states. The arrival of a determined, focused and aggressive Modi made life miserable for both the party and the Gandhis. In 2014, the GOP’s Lok Sabha presence shrank to less than 50 seats, and it lost the Leader of the Opposition status. In 2019, under Rahul, who was only genetically entitled to be party president, the tally marginally rose from 44 to 52. Even after 20 years in politics, Gandhi Jr is yet to acquire acceptability nationally and in his own party. His fan boys derive hope from the fact that his popularity ratings are up after two successful political yatras. The gap between him and Modi has narrowed a wee bit, but is still too wide for a swing at the prime minister.

It is obvious the Congress isn’t fighting this election to make magic, since it lacks the manpower, muscle power and money moxie. The government has frozen its accounts. Its committed donors are vanishing faster than its leaders. Choice 2024 is just an exercise to win a small battle by scoring more hits in order to claim the crown in a later war. Retaining its present score in parliament can still be claimed a success. The party waxes pompously about saving democracy. Instead, its pathetic performance has weakened democracy, which today lacks even a semblance of a credible opposition. It is for the Congress to correct the imbalance. For the first time in its political life, it can refuse to be inspired by ignorance. It can be confident about its ground reality by accepting its flaws. Then success would be sure. Or maybe, barely sure.

Prabhu Chawla

prabhuchawla@newindianexpress.com

Follow him on X @PrabhuChawla

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