Zoya Hasan writes on why India still needs the Congress and why it lost

The party lost the battle of resources, was outwitted by mass media which made no pretence of being non-partisan and its economic agenda for the country was swamped by nationalism and muscular leader

Zoya Hasan writes on why India still needs the Congress and why it lost

Zoya Hasan

When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi stormed to power in 2014, the Indian National Congress was reduced to 44 seats in the Lok Sabha. In 2019, the Congress has suffered another colossal defeat. It won 52 seats, just eight up from 2014, still not enough to claim the post of the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. The Congress has drawn a blank in 18 states and Union Territories and nine former chief ministers lost on Congress ticket in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The Congress has been completely routed in the Hindi heartland states, where the BJP has yet again won nearly every seat. This is true for Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, which the Congress won in assembly elections just a few months ago.

In Uttar Pradesh, the party’s vote share dipped from 7.53 per cent to 6.31 per cent. It has disappeared from the East and the North-East, except in a few places. It has lost Maharashtra, done poorly in Karnataka, and West Bengal, - which means it lacks the geographical base of a pan-India party. Punjab and Kerala are the only two big States which continue to lean towards the Congress. This dismal result shows that the revival of the once-dominant powerhouse isn’t happening any time soon.

Complicating the Congress’s hopes of returning to its old strength is that its decline has coincided with the rise of regional parties, most of which are breakaways from the Congress. These parties are fighting intensely for a larger share of the political pie.

Strong regional parties in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have put paid to the Congress plans for revival in these two states. The Congress leadership must be ruing its decision to deny Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy the CM’s post a decade ago, leading to a bitter estrangement. After this, the Congress has found it impossible to regain ground in its erstwhile bastion of undivided Andhra Pradesh where it won a sizeable proportion of seats in 2009. The Congress was responsible for creating Telangana (when it was bifurcated from Andhra Pradesh in 2014) and yet has made no electoral gains from doing so.

Why has the Congress, been restricted to a mere 52 seats? In attempting to answer this question, we need to consider the structural and political shifts that together account for the BJP’s impressive win and the Congress party’s spectacular defeat.

While there are many strategic and tactical reasons for the Congress defeat, we must begin by noting the asymmetry in resources: the government’s misuse of instruments of state power, its mind-boggling money power and corporate-owned media building up the Modi cult. If Modi used his charisma in electioneering, he also poured money into electoral spending which was many times more than the Congress and all the other political parties. This is in addition to the asymmetry in media coverage. Modi cult is not just “there”; it has been built up over the past five years by the political machine, by the RSS, by technology, and by the media.

There can hardly be any doubt that Modi is a clever and charismatic political leader. This election was all about Modi’s political leadership and what he symbolised: a strongman standing against a divided Opposition. Rahul Gandhi is a genial and affable figure, but this seems to put him at a disadvantage when pitted against Modi’s muscular leadership in ‘new India’. So, one part of the explanation is the role of Modi and his aggressive leadership in the astonishing growth of his party.

BJP today has many more loyal supporters than a few years ago which is apparent from its vote share going up from 31 per cent (2014) to 38 per cent (2019). The Modi landslide is not based on any pretence of development, but on the readiness to make political use of hate and divisiveness to marshal the Hindu vote.

This strategy succeeded in securing an unprecedented endorsement for Hindu nationalism as large numbers of people voted for the BJP as the party that best represents, protects and propagates Hindu interests. In brief, Hindu consolidation constitutes the basis of the BJP’s second successive win.

The real gains for the Congress would have come if people had voted in their own interests owing to the discontent with the government’s economic failures, but strangely this didn’t happen. The economic discontent alone should have cost the BJP votes but the Congress couldn’t exploit it because somehow people didn’t blame the BJP for their economic hardships.

This was largely because the BJP shrewdly sidestepped its economic record by diverting to a one-point campaign on national security after the Pulwama attack. The surge of nationalism after Modi ordered airstrikes inside Pakistan following the Pulwama attack transformed the 2019 election into a khaki election. The focus shifted from Modi’s track record to teaching Pakistan a lesson. He has been re-elected on this plank despite an abysmal economic record. The economic downturn and shrinking employment opportunities didn’t matter in this election.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi put up a spirited fight but it was not good enough to slow down the Modi juggernaut. The party’s campaign was well-crafted, supported by a manifesto that promised jobs and a minimum income, but it just didn’t appeal to voters. He singlehandedly took on Modi despite facing the biggest negative campaign as a leader even before he took over as president. The entire BJP machinery tried to challenge him, ridicule and undercut him, launched daily attacks on his leadership style and questioned his capabilities and even his nationality.

After the Balakot airstrikes the BJP shifted the narrative to nationalism and national security, which completely derailed the Opposition as Modi used this narrative to project himself as the strong leader of a ‘mazboot sarkar (solid government)’. The Congress couldn’t counter this strategy. It tried to change the subject by returning the focus to people’s issues. The Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY) income guarantee proposal was part of this attempt, but it came too late and the party didn’t carry it to the people. Consequently, NYAY did not become a talking point in the campaign; it did not even figure prominently in Rahul Gandhi’s speeches.

The Congress made a strategic mistake when it decided to focus its attack entirely on Modi. Many voters had said that although they felt that Modi had not delivered on his promises, they will vote for him because they believe strong decisive leadership can solve the country’s numerous problems. Rahul Gandhi appeared to see the danger of personalising the campaign, but even then, he persisted in repeating the slogan ‘chowkidar chor hai’ to dent Modi’s image as a scrupulously honest leader. In almost every speech he would begin and conclude with the Rafale issue. But it didn’t excite people except perhaps his core supporters and hence failed to translate into votes.

The dismal performance of the Congress has raised questions over Rahul Gandhi’s leadership and many outside his party are calling for a change of leadership. It is true that a series of missteps over the last five years, strategic and tactical blunders and poor messaging played their part. Rahul Gandhi will have to take much of the blame for the rout. While the failure of political leadership is a factor but that is not the main reason for its defeat. Two other issues are important. These pertain to the Congress’s ideology and organisation.

During the past five years, the secular idea of India was pushed to the margins of Indian politics but the Congress did not defend it. The party remained silent on the subject of secularism and the rights of minorities. Even as Rahul Gandhi embarked on a series of visits to Hindu temples to burnish his Hindu credentials to fight the BJP charge that his party cared only for Muslim minority votes and not for the Hindu majority, it failed to make a distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva which is a political project.

The Congress didn’t join the battle of ideas to try and present an ideological opposition to Hindu nationalism even though Rahul Gandhi frequently attacked the politics of hate but without engaging with Hindu nationalism. This larger battle has not received the emphasis it should from the Congress and the Opposition.

The major problem is that the Congress lacks a distinct social base and with successive election defeats, its ability to retain its supporters has dwindled. To regain its influence, it needs decentralisation and it needs to build social coalitions at the state level.

Besides, and most critically, the Congress lacks an organisation. Its organisational structure in most states is atrophied, yet, it failed to revamp its organisation during UPA rule (2004-14) and it failed to push this process during its years in opposition (2014-19). After the party’s defeat in 2014, the party appointed the Anthony Committee but that report was never made public and there is no evidence that any action was taken on its recommendations.

The Congress has no ground game because it lacks cadres and workers at the booth and mandal level which is essential for winning elections. The BJP, in contrast, has a well-oiled political machine at its disposal led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliated organisations which provide ground support to the BJP and have helped to build a second Modi wave.

The Congress party’s decline is not irreversible. But in the long road ahead, it has to figure out what it actually stands for, and what it will take to stand up to Modi’s BJP.

The real key to rejuvenation lies in mass contact, a distinctive and far savvier campaign based on an egalitarian platform and the leadership’s ability to communicate this to the people and not depend on verities and varieties of dynastic leadership which has cost the Congress dearly. The Congress does not have the luxury of time; it must start today.

(Zoya Hasan is Professor Emerita, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Distinguished Professor, Council for Social Development, New Delhi. Views expressed are the author’s own)

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