The Decline and Fall of the Congress Empire
Defeats tend to form a pattern and set up decimation. The Congress must exit the delusion that it is the fall-back option.
By Shankkar Aiyar |Published: 13th March 2022 06:27 AM |
Raw data doesn’t quite care about sentiments. Few expected the Indian National Congress to make waves. Even so the 136-year-old party managed to make the expected dramatic and stunning.
The party’s score at the end of the polls for five states stands 0–5. Its vote share in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state accounting for 80 Lok Sabha seats, stood at 2.33 per cent. It won two seats and none in the so-called family boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareli. Even if one adds up the 2017 tally, the numbers fall short of double digits. Indeed, the sum total of the Congress tally in Uttar Pradesh for the last three decades doesn’t make the halfway mark.
Its performance wasn’t much better in the four other states. In Punjab, the party invested its claims on the Dalit card — the sitting CM Charanjit Singh Channi lost in both seats he contested in. Both the party and Harish Rawat, the CM hopeful who the party refused to project, were trounced in Uttarakhand. In Manipur, the Congress helped the BJP get elected on its own. In Goa, its post poll hopes on the sum of pieces alliance was shattered to pieces. Again, the results don’t seem surprising and yet the granular details are shocking.
Congress, it seems, is scripting a textbook on how not to fight elections. In 2021 in West Bengal, it aligned with the Left Front and scored a spectacular duck in the company of Communist cousins and its vote share plummeted to 2.9 per cent. And in Kerala, it fought against the very same front and enabled the re-election of the Pinarayi Vijayan-led CPI (M) government breaking the tradition of decades. It signed up with rank opportunists and allowed the BJP to return to power in Assam. It lost Puducherry in a series of blunders to the breakaway N R Congress and hung on to the tail of DMK in Tamil Nadu.
Defeats tend to form a pattern and set up decimation. The Congress party has been shut out of states for decades — Tamil Nadu for 55 years, West Bengal for 45 years, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar for over 30 years, Odisha and Gujarat for over 25 years and so on. In the recent past, voters have ousted it as soon as they found a viable alternative front to represent their cause and address their linguistic and cultural grievances — in Telangana, in Andhra Pradesh, in Delhi and most recently in Punjab where the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party decimated it spectacularly.
In January 2013, the Congress initiated a succession plan anointing Rahul Gandhi as the vice-president at a jamboree in Jaipur. The insolence of presumption was manifest in the appointment of a person with little or no administrative experience to head the grand old party. The consequences are visible. Since then, the party worsened its record in successive Lok Sabha polls and lost more elections than it has won. Every defeat has been followed by promises of introspection — the findings of the 2014 Antony Committee report are yet unknown. Indeed, introspection has assumed the characteristics of an archaeological dig.
There is the issue of calibre, of organisational leadership and then there is the question of what the party represents or what it stands for. It campaigned on the plank of Nyay in 2019 but struggled to get states it is in power to implement it in full or even in part. It promoted the idea of reserving one-third of government jobs for women but flailed at executing it in Punjab, Chhattisgarh or Rajasthan. At best, the party’s articulation mirrors the sentiments of NGOs and at worst, it represents a house in disorder.
There is no dearth of literature the party can consult from to understand what afflicts it. In 1936 at the Lucknow session, Jawaharlal Nehru had said “We have largely lost touch with the masses and, deprived of the life-giving energy that flows from them, we dry up and weaken and our organisation shrinks and loses the power it had.”
50 years later, in 1985 his grandson Rajiv Gandhi, speaking at the Centenary Session in Mumbai, observed “Millions of ordinary Congress workers throughout the country are full of enthusiasm for the Congress policies and programmes. But they are handicapped, for on their backs ride the brokers of power and influence, who dispense patronage to convert a mass movement into a feudal oligarchy.”
The words ring true in 2022. The party and its leaders have come to believe that while in the Opposition, they need only to make guest appearances and play a cameo role for issuing statements which derive headlines. Party and politics have been rendered into part-time CSR activities! The Congress is the principal opposition in states accounting for over 180 Lok Sabha seats yet it is virtually invisible and surfaces, if at all, for air on Twitter. When the Group of 23 or G-23 as they have come to be known argued for elections and reorganisation, the signatories were branded in private and mocked on social media as stooges of the ruling front. The promise of organisational polls and inner party democracy are fading as the party embraces irrelevance.
Edward Gibbon, author of the seminal ‘History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, observed that the Roman era’s declension (decline) was one where “bizarreness masqueraded as creativity”. In the Congress, the bizarreness is pedigreed entitlement masquerading as experience and expertise.
India’s democracy needs competitive politics of ideas and argument, full-time engagement on issues not just tweet storms of slogans. The Congress must exit the delusion that it is the fall-back option — that one day it will be back in power. Voters are already looking elsewhere.
Shankkar Aiyar, political economy analyst, is author of ‘The Gated Republic –India’s Public Policy Failures and Private Solutions’, ‘Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12-Digit Revolution’; and ‘Accidental India’. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ShankkarAiyar. His previous columns can be found here. This column was first published here.