Belief in the Congress party’s fitness for purpose as a political vehicle has been shaken yet again by its debacle in the Delhi Assembly elections. And it is not just the duck it scored in the Capital, where it had won three consecutive elections and governed beginning 1998 and ending 2013. It’s the manner in which the party went about the campaign.
Before beginning to write the obituaries for the ‘Grand Old Party’, it would be fair to mention that since its annihilation in last year’s Lok Sabha elections, the Congress had not done all that badly in the Assembly elections in Haryana and Jharkhand, though its performance in Maharashtra was distinctly below par. In Haryana, the unexpectedly good performance had everything to do with the efforts of state veteran Bhupinder Singh Hooda, while in Jharkhand the alliance with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and others gave it an edge that enabled it to win a touch over 50% of seats contested.
In Maharashtra, a Congress stronghold till 2014, however, the party had a strike rate of just over 15%, less than the over 18% scored by its ally, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Its main opponents in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at the time of the elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Shiv Sena also outdistanced it comfortably. In Maharashtra, the NCP’s excellent show—56 seats—had everything to do with industry and the desire to connect, especially on the part of its leader, Sharad Pawar, while the Congress’s flop—with 44 seats—had everything to do with the absence of even a semblance of an effort to put its shoulder to the wheel of the campaign, especially on the part of the central leadership, mainly the Gandhis.
Thus, both in Delhi and Maharashtra, the Congress showed the same symptoms. The absence of a coherent state unit to run a campaign remotely resembling an election campaign and the central leadership’s complete lack of effort and interest, arising out of an equally complete disarray.
It would have been easy to just write off the Congress as an anachronistic survival into the 21st century, which should down shutters, lock up and retire. Unfortunately, as the only party with a truly nationwide scope—even though it has been functionally wiped out of vast swathes of the country—it could have a critical and constructive role to play in cementing some kind of Opposition unity. We do not know what the BJP will do to democracy by 2024, but we know it will not be something good and we know that if it gets five more years—up to 2029—it will expunge even the fig leaf and install a fascist police state.
That is why the Congress needs to provide the cement that will keep disparate regional players together—the Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar, Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu, Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) in Telangana and others. But to be able to provide a nationwide glue, it will have to do two things. First, shed its pretensions of being an adult in a room full of children, which events have gradually but relentlessly torn to shreds over the past quarter of a century.
And, second, it will have to revive itself to some extent at least. Naïve and silly as this may sound, the Congress will have to do two things. One over, say, the next four-plus years. And the other, as soon as possible. Let us begin with the latter. The Congress will have to sort out its leadership crisis right away, because it is abundantly clear that current president Sonia Gandhi does not have the physical resources to stand up to the rigours of the job. It will have to turn to someone else and that someone else must not be former party chief Rahul Gandhi, not because he is a dynast—some dynasts have done decently in politics—but because he is incompetent and does not have the mettle for the job at hand. His default response to crises is chickening out. Especially when faced with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has charisma, energy to burn and an almost instinctive grasp of politics and political timing. Handing Rahul the responsibility will be tantamount to winding up the party.
The question, of course, is if not Rahul who? Not Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is the obvious answer. One thing the former party chief was right about when he quit his post last year was that his successor should not be a member of his family. One reason is symbolism. The other, for all the sentimental commentary on Priyanka, is that she has not won her spurs yet.
So, the Congress has to first elect an interim president according to the procedure laid down in the Congress constitution, by a vote. Not through a process ‘managed’ by the ‘old guard’ entrenched in the Congress Working Committee (CWC).
Once this has happened, the party must initiate a programme of mass contact and an enrolment drive nationwide over the next few years on the basis of which new membership registers can be drawn up and proper elections held to the primary committees upwards—district and pradesh committees, and finally All India Congress Committee (AICC). All the standing bodies must also be revived on the basis of elections, the Parliamentary Board, the elections committees and disciplinary committees, etc. This alone should infuse some new life into the party. The AICC must then properly elect a president, who will constitute a CWC in accordance with the party constitution.
The problem is not whether these steps will kick-start a revival. It is whether they will happen at all. Other parties and other leaders will, therefore, have to step up to the plate. There are some candidates, but options are deciding by consensus to let one lead or deciding to have a collegial leadership.
A related issue is that of the countrywide citizens’ protests against, in an immediate sense, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, and National Register of Citizens (NRC), and, from a broader perspective, the current regime and its attempt to subvert constitutional democracy and replace it with a majoritarian, theocratic, police state. How can political parties form alliances with these movements? It’s a tricky issue because parties are mostly driven by a mixture of expediency, opportunism and cynical calculation to get their hands on the levers of formal power, while, by and large, the citizens’ movements are actuated by real anxieties, real hopes and real idealism to shape a more participatory democracy based on many kinds of equity.
An alliance or partnership is perhaps not possible, but parties can harness the energy of protest if they are willing to forge a new kinds of politics. A distinction has been made of late in the context of US politics, which is encapsulated by the binary of ‘mobilisation’ and ‘organisation’. The first is top-down and instrumentalist; the second is bottom-up and participatory. The first has the capture of power as the primary object; the second has the objectives of power, or the agendas to be realised by the capture of power, as the primary object. In the first policy shapes people, mechanically and instrumentally; in the second, people shape policy, continuously, dynamically and dialectically.
If political parties in the ‘formal’ sector can jettison some baggage and engage with the citizen protesters constructively rather than cynically, it might be possible not only to thwart the authoritarian and obscurantist designs of the BJP and the Sangh parivar in the short term, but also to bring into play a different state-society dialectic that can create in the longer term a constitutionalism that goes beyond the imaginings of liberal democracy.
The author is a freelance journalist and researcher. The views are personal.