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Saving India’s grand old party


March 24, 2020

In March 2017, the Indian National Congress was poised to win a record fourth term in the state of Manipur. While it had taken a drubbing at the polls, it was still the single largest party in the legislature of sixty with twenty-eight seats, just three shy of a majority.

However, events did not pan out as planned in this state which is almost as remote as you can get in the north-east from the centre of India. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) quickly swung into action with its twenty-one seats, and cobbled together a coalition which gave it a majority.

As a result, N Biren Singh who had left the Congress only in October 2016, became the first BJP Chief Minister of Manipur. By the end of 2018, seven legislators of the Congress had defected to the BJP and later rumours began to emerge that even more were hoping to jump ship especially in the wake of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Almost at the same, on the other side of India, in the small state of Goa, the state legislative assembly results in March 2017 showed a hung assembly with the Congress as the largest single party with seventeen seats in an assembly of forty. Only four short of a majority, and buoyed by its increased tally, the Congress did not want a repeat of Manipur and tried hard to install its own man as chief minister. However, in the ensuing political wrangling not only did the Congress not get the coveted spot, it suffered so many defections that by 2019 its tally was a dismal five.

The latest in this episode (the Karnataka 2019 issue is a bit different), was in Madhya Pradesh, where the government of Kamal Nath was toppled on March 20, 2020, after the resignation of 22 legislators who were loyalists of the titular Maharaja of Gwalior, Jyotiraditya Scindia, who had defected to the BJP.

Hence in the last just over two years, the Congress had missed a chance to form the government in both the east and west of India, was thrown out of power in the South (Karnataka), and now has been dislodged in the Centre (Madhya literally means ‘central.’). Thus, it is not that the Congress is no longer popular (it shocked itself by its strong showing in the recent Jharkhand elections), or that the people do not vote against the BJP (just look at the crushing defeat of the BJP against the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi), but that it lacks the leadership, vision and strategy to take it out of the rut it is currently engulfed in.

The grand old party of India, if it is ever going to come back in Delhi, or retain power in the states, needs to decentralise itself into several regional Congress parties. The ‘Congress High Command’ as its central leadership is known, needs to be dismantled and regional Congress parties need to be created. State elections over the last couple of years have consistently shown that regional Congress leaders fare better than central ones, and it is often the inertia and lack of leadership of central leaders which causes the party to lose power in states.

Strong and grounded regional party presidents is perhaps the only way the Congress can reinvigorate itself and have a creative balance between regional issues and central concerns. As was seen in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the wins at the state level did not transform into Lok Sabha seats for the Congress. This was precisely because the party had a huge gap between the regional and central leaders. This dichotomy needs to be eliminated and strong regional leadership needs to feed into the central leadership.

A strong Congress regionally is also dependent on a Congress which is properly organised. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Congress took root in most of India because of its organisation, the ability of a worker from a village to get elected, through its different tiers, to the Congress Working Committee, and for the existence of a certain degree of meritocracy in the party. Thus, internal democracy which is both open, dynamic and creative, needs to permeate the Congress before it can effectively counter the BJP.

The Congress also critically needs to go back to its roots as the custodian of the ‘Idea of India.’ More than a century ago, the Congress was the party which put forth the vision of a diverse, multi-religious and multilingual India, with equality for all. This ‘idea’ has kept the country together for over seventy years, and this ‘idea’ is certainly required if the country is to remain one in the future. Especially for the minorities, this is perhaps the only hope for survival.

The Congress furthermore needs to reimagine its centre-left agenda. With the BJP right-wing mantra, the Congress needs to develop a clear and strong alternative to the Hindutva bandwagon. Of course, it cannot be a repeat of the rhetoric of the 1960s and 70s, but be a new, modern, effective strategy which takes both the middle and working class together towards a new vision. This is certainly easier said than done, but the work needs to start now if in 2024 the Congress even wants to give a decent fight.

Ultimately, the Congress would need to come up with a strong charismatic leader. This leader could be from among the regional presidents, or someone totally new. But he or she needs to come up the ladder, be decisive, strong, and be able to deliver. The world is seeing the rise of strongmen, from Modi to Putin and Trump, yet if the Congress can come up with a person who can be a strongman (or woman) but also be transparent, a team worker, compassionate, and truly committed to the ‘Idea of India,’ then the party can certainly strike a different and compelling tone.

The next Lok Sabha elections are in 2024, while quite a few state elections are going to be held in between. The Congress is still perhaps the most regionally varied, deep rooted, and ideologically progressive national party in India. The vote in 2024 is there for its taking only if it rises to the challenge.

The writer is a historian at IT University Lahore.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter @BangashYK