It is an analogy which will haunt the Indian National Congress for decades. ‘The Congress is like an impoverished landlord sans land in a crumbling haveli!’ Sharad Pawar may not top the marquee chart of political orators but his ability for strategic diagnosis has few parallels.
This is not the first time Pawar has presented his diagnosis of what ails the Congress. Pawar, who joined the Congress in the late Fifties, has an interesting history with the party. He quit the party in 1978, rejoined in 1988 and was expelled in 1999. Two decades back, after his expulsion, and the formation of the NCP Pawar had famously said the ‘Congress is a power-oriented party’ and mocked its lack of internal democracy by stating that ‘nobody can defeat the Congress president’.
The NCP chief is hardly your loquacious politician. His utterances are calibrated and his appearances on mass media are rare. Often, where Pawar is concerned, the ‘why’ and ‘why now’ questions overwhelm what he says — unsurprisingly interpretations of the interview to Mumbai Tak are rife across the corridor of subedars in western Maharashtra.
It is true that Pawar is a grand master of signal politics — often his moves are aimed at multiple possibilities. It is equally true that his moves, even if plebeian, acquire Machiavellian countenance. Speculation aside what was intended to be a reflective conversation, a Pawar-nama of sorts if you please, on six decades in politics, instead turned the mirror on the grand old party.
Every discussion on the state of the opposition and the possibilities of forging a united front inevitably leads to a predictable cul-de-sac — the unbearable lightness of being Congress. As this column has observed, history reveals that challenges to ruling regimes in India are subject to the critical mass theory — coalitions of opposition in the past three decades were built around parties with at least 100 seats.
The landscape in 2021 is similar to the first two decades of India’s electoral history — between 1952 and 1971 when the runner up secured less than 50 seats in the Lok Sabha polls. The Congress, which is the second largest entity in the Lok Sabha, has been unable to touch the three figure mark in two successive parliamentary polls. The daunting challenge of outwitting the BJP juggernaut led by Narendra Modi combined with compounding blunders left the Congress with a cumulative score of (44 plus 52) 96 seats in 2014 and 2019.
Outcomes in elections are primarily a function of arithmetic of contested seats. The BJP contested 436 seats to win 303 seats. Now that is a tough rate to match. But even if one assumes a strike rate of 50 per cent, a party must contest at least 200 seats to notch a score of 100. In 2019, only two parties contested more than 100 seats. The BSP, which contested in 383 seats, won 10. The Congress contested 421 seats and won 52. The Trinamool Congress, the current mobiliser of opposition unity, contested 62 and won 22. Congress ally DMK contested 23 in Tamil Nadu and won 23.
Together, the national parties including the BJP account for 397 seats in the Lok Sabha. Effectively, the scope for the regional parties with a narrow geographic footprint with niche offerings is limited — in 2019, a total of 89 regional parties contested 354 seats, polled over 13 per cent of the votes and won 135 seats — of these 42 had single digit scores with 28 parties winning just one seat. The sum of pieces theory too is subject to the statue of limitations. The burden of expectations, therefore, rests on the Congress to get its act together.
Like UP Zamindars Pawar referred to, the decline of the Congress and its march into irrelevance has been steady and constant. It has undoubtedly a national presence and bagged over 11.94 crore votes in 2019. However, winning vote share and electoral victories depend on capillary reach and on the ground presence. Fact is the organisational capabilities of the Congress have corroded beyond help in many states where it must win to make a difference. The Congress is out of power for decades in states which account for 248 Lok Sabha seats — these include Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, UP, Bihar, Gujarat and Odisha.
Arguably, a party facing an existential crisis would be agitated about survival. That is not the case. Committees were appointed to analyse defeats all the way from 2013 Assembly polls for the party leaders to reflect on. Nobody quite knows if the committees submitted the report, if there was any introspection or what action was taken. After much has been said, it is apparent that little has been done if at all.
Frequently decisions on issues are up in the air, triggering a guessing game and a race among party officials to lobby with all three members of the family. The uncivil war between satraps in Punjab and Rajasthan illuminates the chaos caused by the collapse of the chain of command in the absence of a full-time president.
What ails the Congress is not a secret and has been listed by not just Pawar and those who left the party, but also by those who continue to be in the party such as the ‘G23’ or group of dissidents. And as of now, from the looks of the G23 stalemate, all bets are off the table. The leadership question is in suspended animation and there is little clarity on how and indeed who will initiate the process of revival.
Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India email@example.com