The present times are politically different from any in the past. It isn’t that one-party dominance is new to India. The Congress had perfected one-party electoral dominance long before the BJP succeeded in securing a simple majority in the Lok Sabha in 2014.
However, never did the Congress have it as easy as the BJP has it now. It is worth remembering that Rajiv Gandhi’s honeymoon period as Prime Minister lasted barely two years despite the Congress having more than 400 seats in the Lok Sabha.
Such was the nature of the opposition in those days.
It could be electorally decimated but not made irrelevant. From Ram Manohar Lohia to Jaya Prakash Narayan to George Fernandes to Atal Bihari Vajpayee and VP Singh, the ruling party always found articulate voices to contend with.
Today’s Congress has pulled off what would in saner times be considered a miracle.
There is a high-command that loves to command and direct within the party but has no electoral heft left. But as it must command, it chooses to cut to size and humiliate regional mass leaders who have helped the ship stay afloat in turbulent seas.
The elevation of Navjot Singh Sidhu, a middle-level BJP leader till some years back and best-known for his appearance in the famous comedy show Laughter Challenge, to the post of Punjab Congress Committee president is an example of the durbar politics the Congress loves to practice.
The decision wasn’t required. Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh had enough political heft to win the state yet again, particularly at a time when the farm agitation has created a strong sentiment against the Central government in the Sikh-majority state. The Punjab CM had withstood the Modi wave in 2019 and delivered eight of the 13 Lok Sabha seats from Punjab to his party.
In a sane political context, he should not just have been an asset for the Congress but a good bet for a larger national role in 2024. As an army veteran in a context of a militarized sense of nationalism sweeping large sections of the populace—and coming from a state that has had a strong army tradition— Captain Singh was ideally suited to be one of the possible national faces of the grand old party.
But this was not to be. Leave alone thinking of a larger national role for him to halt the Modi juggernaut, the Nehru-Gandhis—Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka—thought of cutting him to size in Punjab and making a potential battle out of what was an easy victory.
The rift within the Punjab Congress—where a mass leader has been taken on by a leader with no mass appeal and no proven commitment to any of the values the Congress loudly proclaims—with high-command blessings may result in a gain in seats for Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) or the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). Any gain for AAP will be music to the ears of Arvind Kejriwal, who has been trying to expand beyond Delhi. Any shrinkage in the already-diminished geographical reach of the Congress will certainly help him and damage the Congress in symbolic terms.
The damage isn’t just symbolic. If the Gandhi siblings break down the performance of the Congress state-wise in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, they will realise that 23 of their 52 seats came from Kerala (15 out of 20 seats) and Punjab. This means that 44 percent of the Congress’ entire tally comes from these two states. With the Left Front under Pinarayi Vijayan bucking Kerala’s pattern of a vote against the incumbent in every assembly election, it is possible that the CPI (M) may do well there in the next Lok Sabha polls. If the Congress leadership deliberately damages the party in Punjab by deepening the rift and creating an alternative power-centre, it is possible that the party may suffer a dent in the state in the Lok Sabha polls. Any Congress leader wanting the party to do well will shudder at the thought of losing these two states and gaining nothing in return.
Where, after all, will the gains come from? The Congress is nowhere near revival in UP or Bihar. It has lost Assam twice. It has been decimated in Bengal. It is just one among multiple players in Maharashtra. It is facing infighting in Rajasthan and has split in Madhya Pradesh, with the crossing-over of Jyotiraditya Scindia giving an edge to the BJP over its traditional rival in the state.
Gone are the days when the Nehru-Gandhi family could exercise electoral influence throughout the country. It is now a pale shadow of its former self and is often cited by common voters as the reason they don’t want to vote for the Congress.
The Congress needs strong regional leaders to stay afloat. If it wishes to have any future relevance, it needs to respect its mass leaders like Amarinder Singh, Ashok Gehlot and Bhupinder Singh Hooda. It cannot any longer afford to allow a Himanta Biswa Sarma to quit the party and deliver a whole region of the country to the BJP. Nor can it afford departures like those of Jagan Mohan Reddy—which cost the Congress the state of Andhra Pradesh—or Scindia.
The high command is unlikely to be able to revive the Congress itself. The Congress has to aim at first taking states and then the Lok Sabha. It has to do what the BJP did after Vajpayee bowed out due to health reasons and LK Advani could not step into his shoes: survive in states like Gujarat, MP, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Bihar and wait for the tide to turn. And from among the Chief Ministers of these states, the BJP chose its next leader: Narendra Modi from Gujarat.
All signs indicate that the Nehru-Gandhi family is thinking in the opposite manner: in order to ensure that the party stays under the high command, it is trying to balance mass leaders with yes-men.
Outsourcing ideology, strategy
Commitment doesn’t any longer pay in the Congress. If a leader rises from the NSUI, the party’s student wing, she will struggle for decades to make a mark. But if a leader crosses over from the left or right, she is likely to be seen as more crucial to the high-command’s scheme of things. The other side of the river always looks greener, after all.
The Congress earlier effected lateral entries of experienced administrators to run governments. Now it borrows from other parties for ‘sage’ political advice. More than 20 established leaders writing to Sonia Gandhi for a complete overhaul and an effective leadership does not matter. But Sidhu wanting to disturb the Punjab CM despite lacking mass appeal, a serious image and ideological commitment makes the leadership bend over backwards to promote him.
That apart, the Congress leadership is also following in the footsteps of Modi in roping in political strategists. The Nehru-Gandhis know that they need a broad opposition coalition to take on the BJP but also believe that they need Prashant Kishor to ‘manage’ that. In contrast, Sonia Gandhi in her heyday had inducted Ram Vilas Paswan into the first UPA by just dropping by at his residence. Now, just as every marriage made in heaven needs an officiating priest, the much-desired coming together of parties that are familiar with one another for decades needs the officiating strategist.
All these ideology-agnostic acts of the Congress leadership are accompanied by the claim that ousting the Modi government is necessary to protect the constitution. Rahul Gandhi has seen himself as the sole fighter against the current regime. This claim has a moral charge. However, actions do not bear it out. If the fight is first and foremost about values, how does Sidhu become so important for Punjab? How can he be allowed to have his way against Amarinder Singh? If the battle is one of principle and not power, how can a political strategist who was assisting the BJP when it came to power under Modi become so important in the current scheme of things?
It is very difficult to be convincing when one talks about core values but promotes ideology-agnostics. That is like having one’s cake and eating it too.
The present state of the Congress resembles that of the later Mughals. When present reality does not match up to the legacy, it’s important to come to terms with the reality. Else, the present exodus from the Congress – Scindia, Jitin Prasada and many others—is what happens, much like Nizam-ul-Mulk in 1723 left for the Deccan, convinced that the Mughals could not be revived.
When self-image has no link with reality, one ends up with the name of the later Mughal emperor Shah Alam II, whose ‘empire’ extended from Delhi to Palam. A couplet in Urdu said as much: Saltanat-e-Shah Alam, Az Dilli te Palam.
—Vikas Pathak is a political journalist and media educator. The views expressed in the article are the author's own.
(Edited by : Ajay Vaishnav)