It’s more than a month since the Congress party suffered a crushing defeat in the Lok Sabha elections. Taking full responsibility for the party’s defeat, Rahul Gandhi proposed to resign from the post of Congress president. Now a month after he decided to step down, he has remained firm about his decision, while the party is insistent on maintaining the status quo. Whether Rahul should continue as Congress president or the party is forced to find a suitable replacement is the call the Congress needs to take without undue delay. But a notion has been created by the Congress party’s opponents, particularly the right-wing parties, as well as a large section of the media which is sympathetic to the ruling dispensation, that not only the Nehru-Gandhi scion is a misfit to the Congress president’s chair, he is also a story of failures. Another impression that has gained currency is that the Congress is a dying political force.
By his decision to quit as Congress president, Rahul not only seems to be playing to the notion but also giving weight to the argument that in politics, the end result is all that matters. It is true that a 52-seat tally that denies the Congress the claim to elect the leader of Opposition is an embarrassment. It is also true that today politics is highly competitive and victory and defeat do matter. But to judge a party’s political capital only in terms of victory and defeat may be wrong because, like life, politics is a long journey and victory and defeat are part of life and politics alike. Life of a political party does not come to an end with a couple of defeats. If that was the case, then the BJP would have been a forgotten story by now. After all, between 1952 and 1977, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, BJP in its earlier avatar, fought five elections and its seat tally ranged between 3 and 35 seats before it merged with the Janata Party in 1977.
Four years after its creation in 1980, the BJP had won only two seats in 1984 general elections. It was the hard line Hindutva politics of L K Advani which helped BJP bounce back with 85 seats in the next elections. Subsequently, with the Ram temple movement in 1990, the BJP’s graph started rising. So, it is the consolidation of Hindu votes around the Ram temple movement and the era of coalition politics, which dawned in India in 1989, that helped the BJP rise from 2 seats to running a government in 1998. The very factors that led to the rise of BJP were also largely responsible for the decline of the Congress. The leadership issue the Congress faced through most of the 90s as also the split in the party were other factors that made the Congress weaker. It was after Sonia Gandhi’s entry in politics and her subsequent election as Congress president in 1998 that the party regained some of the lost ground and returned to power as head of a coalition government in 2004 and retained power with a bigger victory in 2009.
The sharp decline of the Congress in 2014 when its vote share came down from 29 per cent in 2009 to 19.3 per cent has been arrested in 2019 and the credit for this goes to Rahul Gandhi. This should negate the popular perception that Rahul is a story of failures. It is true that despite his remarkable comeback as Congress leader, he has failed to deliver a remarkable electoral performance for his party. But that’s not because of lack of efforts, but for Pulwama, Balakot and consolidation of Hindu votes around BJP which proved to be a game-changer. Six months before the general elections, Rahul had led the Congress to victory in three heartland states, demonstrating the ability to win back lost political ground and the gumption to take on Modi on several key issues: economic incompetence, aggressive majoritarianism, institutional decline, agrarian distress and toxic social climate. It is another matter that a combination of offerings by Rahul in 2019 – social peace as a public good, a return to constitutionalism, a surge in institution building and a strong social democratic policy – failed to deliver substantial seats for the Congress.
After its resounding defeat, the Congress is not only low on morale but with Rahul Gandhi remaining adamant on his decision to quit, the party is facing a conundrum on leadership issue. While how it resolves the leadership issue remains to be seen, the major challenge before the Congress today is how to rebuild the organization on the foundation of a strong nationalist ideology based on its core values which will create a strong emotional connect with voters. This is easily said than done. However, for its long term survival, the party needs to reinvent itself by creating the narrative and aura of the earlier decades to counter the BJP’s right-wing nationalist ideology and its toxic propaganda. Though it is true that all is not well with the grand old party, things cannot get worse than this for the Congress which still has a pan-India presence. Look at the positive side: there is no dearth of party leaders who can serve the Congress; there is huge pool of talent and experienced hands as also many veterans in the party with decades of experience at their command to resurrect the Congress from the current crisis. Another huge positive for the Congress is its vote share: 19.5 per cent or 12 crore votes.
That’s a huge political capital for the party – no other opposition party commands such political capital – to reverse its decline. Theoretically, Congress is the only party to take on the BJP in direct fight in large parts of the country. Since politics cannot be uni-polar, sooner than later, the second pole will emerge to play the role of Opposition. Once again, its vote share should make the Congress the core of any significant opposition front to counter the government, both inside and outside the parliament. It is this fact which worries Prime Minister Modi. Last week, while replying to the Motion of Thanks in both houses of parliament, the prime minister led a scathing attack on the Congress and its leaders. Why should the PM do this when the Congress is clearly down after being badly beaten? Modi’s continuing obsession with the Congress indicates that perhaps he considers the Congress to be an opponent that could find its feet again and re-emerge as a strong political force.
A L I Chougule is an independent senior journalist