India’s oldest party Congress loses in its last big state: Why the party is on an endless decline
Is the old failing to live up with the changing times? A few days after a party in power for six decades got toppled in parliamentary elections in Malaysia, the oldest party in India – the Indian National Congress (INC) – lost grip on its last big province in the country, Karnataka.
The INC may still cling on to power in the state which is home to Bengaluru, India’s information technology capital and answer to the Silicon Valley in the West, but only in a supporting role to a regional party Janata Dal (Secular) or JDS which got fewer seats in the election which took place on May 12. It shows the national party is ready to play a second-fiddle role to a much smaller outfit in order to somehow remain relevant.
This is a sorry picture for a party which played a big role in India’s independence movement against the colonial masters and will turn 133 this year.
The worse fact about the INC’s loss is that it hasn’t been able to make any change to its dwindling fortunes even under the new president Rahul Gandhi, the great grandson of India’s iconic first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who took over towards the end of 2017.
Rahul Gandhi, 48, hasn’t been able to lead his party to a single election win to-date – either as the president or vice-president or a leader – against all sorts of opponents, be it Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP (Indian People’s Party) or the Left or any other regional party. For a party which had been led by stalwarts in the past, such a reality is indeed heart wrenching but that’s how it is at the moment.
The ruling BJP and its supporters have been calling for a Congress-free India for some time now and with the party now in control of political affairs in just three small states, that project seems to be on the way for the Hindu nationalists. But the problem for the INC is not about its support but its severe crisis of leadership.
Although the INC’s seats have gone down from 122 in the same state in the 2013 elections to 76 this time, its vote share has consistently gone up since 2008 till date (from 34.5 per cent to 38 per cent) which clearly indicates that the party has its share of support on the ground but a lacklustre leadership at the helm has failed to tap it and turn it into a higher number of seats. It also explains the shabby organisation that the INC – once a powerful political organisation with a truly national presence – has now.
The systematic destruction of INC’s grassroots grip
The reason for the INC’s current crisis can be explained in two parts. One is its over-centralising drive which was executed during the rule of Indira Gandhi, the daughter of Nehru, in the late 1960s and 1970s. Although she was a popular and strong leader, her quest for making the INC a family-run business in order to centralise power in one family like a paranoid, did the INC’s grassroots reach a massive harm. Since her ascent to the throne of the prime minister of India, the INC only saw members of the Gandhi family automatically being chosen to lead its missions. This gave birth to a culture of sycophancy instead of merit-based leadership and the seeds of today’s leadership crisis were sown then graciously. After Indira Gandhi’s assassination, her son Rajiv Gandhi became the prime minister (like a royal succession) and in 2004, Rajiv’s widow and Rahul’s mother Sonia Gandhi, an Italy-born individual, had all the opportunity to become yet another prime minister from the family but she declined, apparently as a response to her inner call. Now, the INC’s sycophants are eager to see Rahul as the next premier of the country but to their dismay, India has changed too much and too fast for their comprehension. Had the drive to centralise power in the family and systematic destruction of the party’s grassroots hold been averted, the INC would not have seen this day.
Rahul Gandhi’s failure as a politician
The other reason is Rahul’s failure as an individual. For some unknown reason (I believe it was complacency), the leader did not take up a proactive role in the national politics even when his party was doing good. He made his political debut in 2004 as a 34-year-old and the general perception towards him was the next big thing for the INC which came to power then after a hiatus and chose eminent economist-politician Manmohan Singh as the prime minister.
But Rahul Gandhi only wasted time since his appearance on the national stage, which was almost a decade earlier than Modi, whose mission towards national politics only started around 2012. Rahul Gandhi remained a mere parliamentarian who did not take up any ministerial or administrative role and neither showed an intent to exhibit his credentials before the people of the country.
Given the INC’s consecutive victories in the 2004 and 2009 national elections and the BJP’s growing inertia under an ageing leadership, perhaps the century-old party believed that it was just a matter of time before Rahul’s coronation as the next Gandhi prime minister was held. But Modi’s meteoric rise on the national scene post his third consecutive victory in Gujarat – the state where he served as the chief minister for over a decade – ruined the plans.
Modi, given his administrative experience and skills and also reputed oratory skills, was a more complete leader for the people despite the taint over the Gujarat riots of 2002 and Rahul Gandhi was caught completely unprepared to counter and match him as a leader. Not to say, the BJP’s well-organised and smarter campaigns that backed Modi’s prowess, unlike the INC’s more traditional and dull ways of politics that did not find much takers among the people, especially the youths.
Rahul Gandhi as an individual too has failed under the heavy expectations of matching Modi fire by fire and it started to show in his speeches and interviews and over all, his poll performances. The man only went on sinking each day in his massive tests for public approval and when the main face of a party experiences such a tragedy, it is very much likely that its fortunes would not be any better.
To conclude, it may not be feasible to complete write off the Congress from India’s political landscape, given the Nehruvian and centrist legacy it still has against the majoritarian Hindu nationalism but its current leadership certainly needs to be changed if it wants to re-invent itself. If that requires passing on the party’s baton to a non-Gandhi, so be it.