This week, the Congress notched a new low in its electoral history. In May 2016, it is in power in six states and Puducherry, which contribute barely 43 seats of the 543 in the Lok Sabha. In 1967, following the rout of the Congress in eight states, it was fashionable for followers of Ram Manohar Lohia to say that you can drive from Calcutta to Delhi without encountering a single Congress-ruled state. In 2016, you can drive down from Kashmir to Kanyakumari or from Kutch to Kamrup in Assam without encountering a Congress-ruled state.
Drill down the granular details of the polls to appreciate the magnitude of the slide. In the 10 states that went to polls after May 2014, the Congress won just 217 out of 1,681 seats. In the elections in Bihar, Delhi, Haryana, J&K, Jharkhand and Maharashtra, the Congress won only 102 of 636 seats contested and its candidates forfeited deposits in 340 seats—of which 152 were in Maharashtra and 62 in Delhi, where it was in power for 15 years. In the recent polls, Congress candidates could win barely 115 of the 822 seats across five states. It is almost as if the Congress party has taken to heart the “power is poison” observation of its vice-president in Jaipur in 2013.
The genesis of the failure is embedded in the nature of the organisation. To be fair, India’s political landscape is dotted with family-run enterprises. The aggravation in the Congress is the bipolar schism in leadership and the Hamletian decision-making of a reluctant prince. The disconnect is worsened by the virus in the operating system that demands subscription to obsequious sycophancy—access and ascent require biometric physical presence at choreographed expressions of loyalty as witnessed during the National Herald and Agusta controversies.
Thanks to this disconnect from reality, the Congress has failed to learn any lessons from its failures— or from the victors, the chieftains of regional parties who have kept the national parties at bay from their principalities. It is striking that regional parties have held their own against the BJP across diverse geographies. The BJP has a stellar record in defeating the Congress, whether it is Gujarat, MP or Chhattisgarh, and in recovering ground in Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. It has, however, struggled to oust regional parties be it in Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha or Tamil Nadu in recent times or Uttar Pradesh in the past.
It has been remarked by cricket aficionados that in many of the states, the Congress has been reduced to a tail-ender. The truth is, in many states it has been reduced to the status of a 12th man or a runner for struggling batsmen. And even that contextual role is at risk after the manner in which the Congress party ‘ran out’ the Left Front in West Bengal and the DMK in Tamil Nadu!
In January 2013, Rahul Gandhi, on anointment as vice-president, observed “power is grossly centralised in our country; we only empower people at the top of a system. We don’t believe in empowering people all the way to bottom.” He could well have been describing the operating system of the Congress party.
The flawed operating system has led to a serious crisis of ideology and identity. The Congress party scarcely stands up for what it pompously proclaims to believe in. It is seen as a party where conviction is mostly about political convenience. Indeed, Rajiv Gandhi put it succinctly in the famous 1985 speech when he observed that “the ideology of the Congress has acquired the status of an heirloom, to be polished and brought out on special occasions”. Three decades later, little has changed. The duplicity of its political approach has rendered its rant about communalism ineffectual and its definition of secularism into a political pejorative. On issues that define a party’s political ideology, it has often mutated into a political amoeba. Consider its stance in Delhi and in the legislative Assembly on the chanting of Bharat Mata Ki Jai. While in power, it promoted the idea of peace with Pakistan, and now in Opposition, the tune is set on a different track.
On economic policy and governance, it is bereft of ideas on what it does or must stand for. Indeed, the track record proves that it stands against everything it stood for when in power. It binned the achievement of P V Narasimha Rao in 1991 and instead appointed A K Antony to study if reforms were anti-poor. It claimed to be pro-reforms and growth, but through UPA I it shunned celebrating the nation’s achievement of 9-plus per cent GDP growth. It waffled and stalled the only grand idea it had in UPA II—the Aadhar
programme, which could have curbed leakage and prevented leakage of allocations for welfare. Post-2014, it has blocked the GST which was its own baby.
The Congress is in a delusional denial. Despite setbacks, party apparatchiks continue to drone about victory and defeat being cyclical. The fact is, the party has been electorally eclipsed across large geographies of India. It has not been in power on its own in Tamil Nadu since 1963, in West Bengal since 1977, in Uttar Pradesh since 1989, in Gujarat since 1989, in Bihar since 1990, in Tripura since 1993, in Odisha since 2000, and in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh since 2003. These nine states account for 290 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha.
Notwithstanding the state of stasis, it would be premature though to write the obituary of India’s Grand Old Party as yet. The Congress did bag over 106 million votes in the 2014 polls. It is the principal opposition party—albeit emaciated—in many states.
Like it or not, India needs a credible alternative at the national level. It cannot be the thug-brigades, it cannot be the freebie populists, and it cannot be the caste warriors. India could yet have a credible alternative if Congressmen evangelise and convince the party about the idea of a professionally run political enterprise. In 1991 and 2004, the party chose to anoint a professional CEO while in power. Why is that not an option in 2016?
Shankkar aiyar Author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change