The biggest takeaway from the results of the recent Assembly elections in five states is that the Congress can no longer claim to be the national alternative to the BJP. With its shrinking footprint, it is certainly not the other pole of Indian politics. Nor can it hope to lead a non-BJP opposition formation, if it materialises, in the 2024 parliamentary polls. The grand old party stands greatly diminished in stature and relevance after a string of election defeats, especially the wipe-out in Uttar Pradesh which by virtue of being the country’s most populous state is also its most crucial with 80 seats in the Lok Sabha.
Yet, it may be too early to write the obituary of the Congress. It takes a long time for an elephant to die. So too with the Congress which has been around in different avatars for 137 years. As it grapples with questions about its future, the leadership of the Gandhi family and other existential issues, it’s clear that the time has come for yet another metamorphosis for the party to survive. The Congress must re-invent itself once more to live to fight another day.
Herein lies the challenge. Is this generation of Gandhis up to the task of thinking out of the box to keep the Congress afloat? More brutally, is the Gandhi family even relevant any more in the churn to find a way forward?
The Gandhis were integral to the Congress as long as it was a national force and a dominant pole of Indian politics. They had an appeal that cut across castes, communities and regions. They were the party’s pan-India calling card. But a downsized party that no longer has a national standing may not need a high command centralised in the personality of one family. It is increasingly obvious that the Gandhis are no longer vote-catchers for the Congress.
While the future of the Gandhi family looks uncertain against this backdrop, the story of the Congress itself may not be over yet. As the recent Assembly results show, the party is still alive and kicking in pockets. It lost all five states but in three of them — Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur — it won the second-largest vote share after the BJP and was way ahead of those who wanted to grab its space like Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.
Election results since Narendra Modi’s second coming in 2019 show us that the challenge to the BJP lies in the states. Strong regional leaders have managed to halt the BJP juggernaut in states like West Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and even Maharashtra and Delhi. The best bet for the Congress then is to concentrate on strengthening regional units where they are still active by nurturing strong state leaders, instead of frittering away its resources and energies on trying to recapture its glory days as the country’s pre-eminent national party.
There are lessons to be drawn from the recent elections. For instance, had the Congress given Harish Rawat a free hand in Uttarakhand instead of first diverting him to handle the crisis in Punjab and then playing games with him on the leadership issue for the elections, there was a chance that the BJP could have been defeated. Not only was the ruling party in the state ridden with factionalism which saw sitting chief minister PK Dhami lose his seat, the Congress managed to bag a respectable vote share of 38 per cent, just six percentage points behind the BJP, despite the AAP snapping at its heels.
Similarly, in Punjab, there was so much interference from the Gandhis that the party was reduced to shambles, paving the way for AAP’s stunning sweep in the state. This was one state where the party had strong and competent local leaders. Had they been given the autonomy to manage the elections, the Congress may not have ended up snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
It is vital for the Congress to introspect honestly and learn from its mistakes because all the Assembly elections in the run-up to 2024 are in states where it is the other pole to the BJP. Later this year, there will be polls in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. And next year, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh will have elections.
The AAP is already trying to muscle its way into Himachal and Gujarat. Whether it succeeds in displacing the Congress as the main Opposition to the BJP depends entirely on the Congress. In all these states, there are vibrant local units and prominent leaders. At one point, Deve Gowda’s JD-S was emerging as a third force in Karnataka but that challenge seems to have receded, leaving the field clear for a bipolar clash between the Congress and the BJP.
But for the Congress to reshape itself as a coalition of regional units, it has to change its self-image first and swallow the bitter truth that it is no longer the grand old party of Indian politics. The late Pranab Mukherjee used to say that the Congress was a coalition of different interests. Unfortunately, over the years, it lost that flexibility as power centralised in the hands of one family.
Can the Congress revive its coalition nature with regional leaders as pivots in states where the party still matters? It’s difficult to imagine a role for the Gandhis in such a Congress unless this generation sacrifices its sense of entitlement and pulls back. At the same time, are regional satraps of the Congress capable of sitting together and evolving some kind of collective leadership to keep the party going?
Clearly, radical measures are needed and quickly as critical Assembly elections loom. Or else, the grand old party may actually crumble into dust.
The writer is a veteran journalist and political commentator. Views expressed are personal.