In 1967, following Congress’ rout in eight states in the wake of Ram Manohar Lohia’s evangelism, it was fashionable to say that you can drive from Calcutta to Delhi without encountering a single Congress government on the way.
In 2014, you can drive from the Indo-Pak border in the West through the Gangetic plains upto the Bay of Bengal without encountering a Congress government. You could also drive from the Kerala border through Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal upto the Bay of Bengal without finding a single Congress government.
Living in denial, the Congress has engineered its own decimation. In less than 12 months, the party has lost in Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Vice-president Rahul Gandhi promised a comeback and a blueprint. Thereafter, it was routed in the Lok Sabha polls. It was alleged then that the party would introspect, but the accusation is yet to be proved. Six months later, the Congress is faced with its worst defeat in Maharashtra and Haryana.
The decimation has been spectacular.
Look at the score card of the Assembly polls. It won 21/200 seats in Rajasthan, 58/230 in Madhya Pradesh, 39/90 seats in Chhattisgarh, 8/70 in Delhi, 16/147 in Odisha and 21 of 294 seats in Andhra Pradesh—all in Telangana and none in the Seemandhra region. And in the Lok Sabha polls, it won 44 seats, the lowest ever.
In every state it has been in power and at the Centre where it was in power for 10 years, the Congress has won barely 10 per cent of the total seats and has struggled even for the pretence of the principal opposition party. Indeed, if the exit poll forecasts turn out right, the Congress will be number three in both states and will have cumulatively won in Haryana and Maharashtra fewer seats than it had in one state.
Yet the party is in denial. On Sunday, as results roll in, tired faces will voice the phraseology of evasion. The elephant in the room is an abject failure of leadership. But typically, cause will be obfuscated and the consequence will be dumped on all.
The Congress faces its worst-ever crisis in its history. Over half of India’s 125 crore populace is estimated to be less than 30 years old. And for nearly two decades or more, the youth have not seen a Congress government in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat and Tripura. Between them, these states account for over 200 seats in Parliament and nearly half the population.
To appreciate, consider the picture of erosion:
• In Tamil Nadu, the last Congressman who took oath as chief minister was M Bhaktavatsalam. That was October 1963. It lost power in Tamil Nadu in 1966 and has not discovered the route to popularity ever since.
• In West Bengal, there has been no Congress CM since April 1977, since Siddhartha Shankar Ray.
• In Uttar Pradesh, there has been no Congress chief minister since December 1989, since N D Tiwari.
• Bihar has seen no Congress chief minister since March 1990, since Jagannath Mishra.
• Take Gujarat. No Congressman has occupied the post of CM since Madhavsinh Solanki in 1989.
• In Tripura, a Congressman was last sworn in as chief minister in February 1992. The Congress has been out of power since April 1993.
• In Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Congress has been kept out of power by the BJP since 2003.
• In Odisha, Naveen Patnaik has rendered the Congress irrelevant since 2000. In 2014, the party scored 0/21 in the Lok Sabha polls and 16/147 in the Assembly polls.
The crux lies in an eroding leadership and corroding core, the idea of what the Congress is about. In power, the Congress does not stand up for what it claims to represent. Out of power, it can’t articulate what it stands for. The Congress is wracked by an absence of ideas and a void in its leadership. The singular Gandhi —the Mahatma—has been appropriated, and the plural—the Gandhi family name —has been rendered ineffective by a reluctant heir.
Politics cannot be conducted on blue-tooth connections sans ownership. To appreciate the value of leadership and ideas, one has to only look at the BJP before and after 2013. Narendra Modi took the remnants of the BJP in 2013 and converted it into a winning unit. He took ownership, redefined the core with his ideas and passionately engaged with the party and the people. The 2004 and 2009 victory afforded the Congress and its leadership an opportunity for renaissance. It was squandered when the leadership opted for the CEO-model, where power was shielded from responsibility, and authority was divorced from accountability.
Power may or may not be poison, but in politics the quest for power cannot be a part-time occupation. The dictum ‘shape up or ship out’ holds true in politics too. Congress needs new ideas and leadership. If survival is the imperative, the choice is binary: either the leadership finds new ideas or the Congress gets the idea and finds a new leadership.
There is, of course, always the Gandhian option of dissolving into oblivion.
Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change