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Options before Congress : Reinvent or Become Irrelevant

Jacob Peenikaparambil Jacob Peenikaparambil
10 May 2021

The results of the elections to the four state assemblies and one Union Territory have further exposed the inability of the Congress to revive itself and become a credible challenger to the BJP at the national level. It appears that the Congress is becoming irrelevant in the political space of India. On the other hand, Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal has proved that she could take on the all powerful BJP. 

The BJP deployed all its resources- money, muscle, Central level agencies, including Election Commission. Its super leaders, Modi and Amit Shah, together addressed more than 70 rallies, blatantly violating Covid 19 protocols.  Stalin of DMK in Tamil Nadu and Pinarayi Vijayan of LDF in Kerala have also demonstrated that they have the capacity to withstand the BJP in their own respective states. 

On the other hand, the Congress party emerged as a great loser in all the states except in Tamil Nadu because of its alliance with the DMK. The big question is whether the Congress can convert this crisis into an opportunity to reinvent itself. Is Congress party ready to learn from Mamata Banerjee who took head on the Modi-Shah behemoth with determination, hard work and being connected with the people? 

The Congress had the chance to come back to power in Assam and Kerala. The Gandhi siblings were leading the election campaign vigorously in the two hopeful states. But in both the states it was defeated, and its defeat is humiliating in Kerala, as Kerala had the practice of alternating the UDF and the LDF for the last four decades. Out of the 93 seats it contested it could win only 21 and its strike rate was 22.5%. In West Bengal, it is totally wiped out along with its ally the Left Front without getting a single seat for both. Its strategy of aligning with the Left Front and Indian Secular Front backfired miserably. The Congress knew very well that its greatest adversary at the national level is BJP and all secular parties have to join together to challenge the formidable force of the BJP. But the high command could not convince the Congressmen in West Bengal of the dire need for the secular parties coming together to defeat the BJP. 

Political analysts have put forward various reasons for the rout of the Congress in the recently held assembly elections. Almost all of them have pointed out that the main reason is its failure to resolve leadership issue at the top. Along with the vacuum of leadership at the top, it did not have strong state level leaders like Mamata Banerjee, M K Stalin and Pinarayi Vijayan. Election results in recent years have proved to a great extent that only strong state level leaders can take on the BJP juggernaut. 

The election of the Congress president is indefinitely postponed on the pretext of various reasons. Some political observers are of the view that the election to the top leadership was postponed in view of the five assembly elections with the hope that the Congress will come back in Kerala and Assam and Rahul Gandhi would be in a better position to reclaim the leadership of the party. 

The Congress has been in a dilemma with regard to its president ever since Rahul Gandhi resigned after the 2019 elections to the Lok Sabha taking responsibility for the rout of the party. Despite the repeated requests by the top leaders of the party he is not willing to take up the post of the president. At the same time, Gandhi loyalists in the party are not ready for electing someone else as the leader of the party. The protests by the G 23 against the indecision on the leadership issue were suppressed by the loyalists.  

The Congress is in a precarious situation. Despite the reluctance of Rahul Gandhi, a powerful group in the Congress is indefinitely waiting for the return of Rahul Gandhi. Even though Rahul Gandhi is not the president, it is evident that he and Priyanka Gandhi continue to take vital decisions in the party. The election campaigns in the three states- Kerala, Assam and Tamil Nadu were led by them. Rahul Gandhi campaigned only for two or three days in West Bengal and that too after the elections in Kerala and Tamil Nadu got over. 

It appears that the leadership conundrum can be tackled only by Rahul Gandhi. Either he has to accept the top leadership of the party or he has to facilitate the election of a capable and committed person as the president of the party. His indecision has done irreparable damage to the party. Driving from the backseat has proved to be disastrous not only for the party but also to the nation due to the absence of a credible opposition voice. As a Congress leader he is able to identify the woes of the nation and the fault lines in tackling Convid 19 pandemic. He makes right noises against the mismanagement of the Covid 19 situation and of the declining economy. At the same time, there is no national level leader who can bring together the opposition parties and expose the omissions and commissions of the Modi government. 

By refusing to resolve the leadership issue, the Congress is helping the BJP to realize its dream of “Congress mukt Bharat”. BJP knows very well that Congress is the only political party that has got a pan Indian presence, and only with its decimation it will be able to remain in power for a long period and convert India into a Hindutva Rashtra. The BJP also knows that the regional parties will not be able to come together without a national level player who can function as the glue. That is why it is focusing to annihilate the Congress in state after state. 

Even if the Congress men don’t need Congress, the nation needs the Congress. Without a national level party playing the role of an anchor it is difficult to bring together the regional level parties to a common platform to resist the disastrous and divisive policies of the BJP. Regional parties have their own vested interests and they may not be willing to sacrifice their interest for the interest of the nation. Moreover, one of the strategies of the BJP is to align with the regional parties and gradually eat into their votes and destroy them. It has adopted a tactic of riding piggyback on a regional party to gain toehold in a state where it doesn’t have its footprint. The Shiv Sena realized it lately and that is why it broke its alliance with the BJP two years ago. But all regional parties may not have the stamina to withstand the power and pressure of the BJP at the Centre. As it has been evident from the behaviour of the BJP at the Centre during the last seven years, it uses all methods and all weapons available in its arsenal like the CBI, NIA, ED, and Income Tax Department, etc, besides the wholesale purchase of MLAs to weaken the regional parties. But a national level party will be in a better position to resist the Machiavellian tactics of the BJP. 

BJP is not a political party like other political parties in India. It is driven by strong and divisive Hindutva ideology and it has already proved that its aim is to decimate all political parties. As Prashant Kishore the political strategist has said, the BJP wants not only the votes but also the mind-space of the people; it dictates what they should believe, what they should eat and what they should wear. The decision of the BJP to go on with the implementation of the Central Vista project despite the vehement opposition from all other political parties, prominent citizens and social activists shows how undemocratic and dictatorial it is. Many political analysts have remarked after the declaration of West Bengal election results that for the time being Mamata Banerjee has saved Indian democracy. If the BJP had won the Bengal election, it would have presented the victory to gloss over its colossal failure in tackling the second wave of Coronavirus, and it would have become unstoppable.

When the BJP is facing its biggest challenge in governance, the Congress can play a positive role and revive itself. What are the steps needed to resuscitate the moribund Congress and make use of the opportunity created by the abysmal mishandling of Covid 19 situation? 

First of all, the leadership crisis in the Congress is to be settled immediately. Rahul Gandhi has to take up the post of Congress president or he has to facilitate the election of an acceptable and competent leader. 
Secondly, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is to be revamped by inviting Mamata Banerjee to take up the post of the Chairperson or Convener of the UPA.  The UPA can be further strengthened by inviting like-minded opposition parties to join the alliance. 

Thirdly, the UPA has to present to the government a comprehensive and creative plan to tackle Covid 19 and to revamp the economy. The plan may include strengthening health infrastructure, relief to the families whose sole breadwinners died due to Coronaviurs, relief to the poor, especially the landless labourers and self employed people, and schemes to generate employment. 

Fourthly and most importantly, the Congress has to reach out to the people with its own schemes and resources to support them in their dire need. As the chief of the battered and humiliated West Bengal Congress has said, the party has to quit the comfort zones of social media and “hit the streets in support of common people”. Along with its efforts to provide relief to the people, it has to make the government accountable, especially in the areas of transparent and truthful way of presenting data related to Covid 19, distribution of medical oxygen among the states and rapid vaccination programme. 

Fifthly, the Congress has to pay urgent attention to its fundamental problem of building up the party from the grass root level. This is to be started from the states in which the Congress is in power in view of the next assembly election and in the districts where it has considerable presence. Without committed grass root level workers, the Congress would not be able to confront the formidable BJP in terms of money power and manpower. 

Last but not least is ideological clarity. It has been proved again and again that soft Hintutva cannot compete with the hard Hindutva of the BJP. One of the reasons for the humiliating defeat of the Congress in Kerala is its effort to play second fiddle to the BJP on religious issues. The Congress has to say loudly, clearly and firmly that it is committed to protect the core values of Indian constitution, especially pluralism. It should desist from meddling with religious issues. The people of Kerala have said unambiguously that they don’t want communal politics to disturb religious harmony and peace in the state by closing the account of the BJP in Kerala assembly.  Because of its ambivalence with regard to religious issues the Congress has lost not only the support of the minorities but also of the secular minded Hindus. The West Bengal election results demonstrate that polarization of the majority community has a limit whereas the election results of Kerala proves that good governance can overcome anti-incumbency and communal polarization.  

If the Congress has to become relevant and even to survive, it has to go back to the approach of Gandhi and Nehru with the needed modifications, taking into account the present scenario. As the private sector plays a crucial role in the economic development of the nation, the Congress cannot appear to be inimical to private business. The Congress can make use of the expertise and experience of Dr. Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram and other renowned economists in formulating its economic policies. Its policies have to pay special attention to building up human capital by investing more on education and health. It is an opportune time for the Congress and other political parties to strengthen democracy when the BJP appears to be somewhat subdued in the aftermath of the recent assembly elections and a huge failure in managing the second wave of Covid 19. 

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