The changing nature of the intensity of democratic consolidation in India has been the subject of much discussion in recent times. One important aspect of the deepening of Indian democracy thesis has been an effective role played by political parties. Fundamentally, political parties have brought about vibrancy to the democratic content and also been the primary site for organising of different contestations and mobilisations in India.
One of the founding moments of post-independent India was the continuity of the leadership of the Congress party from the colonial period. The legitimacy of the party at the helm of affairs in a nascent democracy stemmed from its success in the anti-colonial movement against the British forces and its accomplishment to transcend from a movement into a political party. In the national elections in 1952, 1957 and 1962, it won nearly three-fourths of the seats in Parliament showcasing its dominance in unprecedented ways. Congress ruled every state until 1967. Such ‘one-party dominance’ by the Congress was largely premised on a broad set of goals for industrialisation and development of the nation.
The story of factionalism within the Congress began with the first split in 1969. It commutated the Congress into a broad catch-all party motivated by an electoral agenda which propelled it to become ideologically flaccid to accommodate populist sentiments. The old vanguard is popularly known as the ‘Syndicate’, under the presidentship of S Nijalingappa expelled Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for fostering a cult of personality. The rupture was complete when the Congress defeated N Sanjeeva Reddy and favoured rebel Congress candidate VV Giri as party president. Indira Gandhi, of course, did not take her defeat in a happy stride. She said, “Nobody can throw me out of the Congress. It is not a legal question, nor one of passing a resolution to pronounce an expulsion order. It is a question of the very fibre of one’s heart and being.”
The dilution of Congress’s political identity has definitely created more space for other political parties to rise. (Photo: Reuters)
Since the first split, history has repeated itself far too often for Congress. Another major instance was the rebellion against PV Narsimha Rao. The assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi catapulted Narsimha Rao into becoming the Congress party president and Prime Minister. The electoral losses in various state legislature elections became the pretext for immediate apostasy. There was visible discontent about PM Rao’s advocacy of market-driven economic reforms in juxtaposition to Congress’ traditional political base among the poor. Rao not only expelled ND Tiwari — the man named to replace him as party president — but also declared the internal rebellion to be unconstitutional in an emergency session of the party’s governing body.
Again in 1998, there was a dramatic change in leadership of the Congress party from Sitaram Kesri to Sonia Gandhi. Initially, Sonia Gandhi was welcomed as ‘the saviour’ of the declining Congress. She joined the Congress in the plenary session in Kolkata in 1997. The internal politics within the Congress propelled factionalism to take over with the rebels aggressively demanding that Sonia Gandhi be made the party president. Finally, the Congress Working Committee passed a resolution and asked Sitaram Kesri to step down as party president in March 1998.
The 19 years that Sonia Gandhi reigned as longest-serving party president, Congress went through many ups and downs. In 1999, just before the Lok Sabha elections, there was disquiet in the Congress when Sonia Gandhi’s potential Prime Ministerial candidature was challenged by senior Congress leaders like Sharad Pawar, Tariq Anwar and PA Sangma on the purported grounds of her foreign descent. She resigned only to retreat on the pressure of agitating Congress workers. Her strength as a robust leader was witnessed when she forged an alliance between coalition partners under the umbrella of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. Her abnegation of the Prime Minister’s post after the UPA came to power, was a political masterstroke to win the goodwill of the cadres of the Congress. She displayed another feat at political acumen when in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections UPA retained power by winning 282 out of 543 seats. Congress ruled in 15 states during this time. However, Sonia Gandhi’s sense of entitlement to perpetuate dynasty succession in Congress led to eventual disillusionment in Congress. The Congress galloped towards its decline steadily as witnessed in the 2014 electoral debacle.
The retirement of Sonia Gandhi triggered murmurs within the Congress about it being treated as an inheritance of the Nehru-Gandhi family. The earlier reluctance of Rahul Gandhi in assuming the onerous responsibility of the high command of the party had generated a punctuated response from the cadres. Therefore when Rahul Gandhi was elected unopposed as the 49th party president, his competence as a political leader was always under the scanner. His disconnect with the masses was evident when compared with the relentless grassroots campaigning of the BJP. The 2019 Lok Sabha elections finally decimated the Congress as the BJP won a thumping majority. In its worst-ever electoral performance, the Congress could secure only 44 out of 545 seats. In an open letter, Rahul Gandhi tendered his resignation as the party president and conceded to the urgent need to transform the Congress itself. In its self-assessment, he wrote that a deeper ideological battle had to be fought that would require sacrificing the desire for power to dislodge the BJP. The mood was that the electoral competition was not against a political party, but the entire state machinery.
The 19 years that Sonia Gandhi reigned as longest-serving party president, Congress went through many ups and downs. (Photo: Reuters)
The self-realisation of Congress did not last long. The public image of Rahul Gandhi as a moribund leader was encashed by the BJP to ridicule him as a “reluctant prince” who had remote sensibilities about Indian politics. His elite disposition and armchair politics stood in his way to become a popular leader. A brewing rebellion took the shape of the expulsion of a young Congress leader, Jyotiraditya Scindia, for “anti-national activities”. It was a moment of nervous shock for the Congress in March 2020. The Covid pandemic saw Rahul Gandhi transform into a ‘shadow leader’ interrogating the BJP government on various issues concerning the economy through podcasts and media. The momentum towards a populist Congress was stalled when a disgruntled Sachin Pilot, the Deputy CM of Rajasthan, was expelled from the party. The defection of elected Congress leaders at the state level has pointed towards the foundational crisis in Congress. The existence of multiple power centres within the organisation and the emergence of diverse camps brought Congress again to a standstill.
The structural crisis in the Congress was further precipitated when 23 Congress leaders expressed their anguish in a letter to the interim party president, Sonia Gandhi. The disenchantment of Congress workers and disillusionment of the electorate with the party was the larger context for the discontent. The appeal for revitalising the Congress was premised on the need to democratise the participatory spaces within the organisation. The ambivalence over Congress leadership and lack of direction thereof has been a persistent concern among senior leaders. The erosion of the support base has also been because of unequal opportunities for the cadres to rise in ranks within the party.
The call was to rethink the strategy to revamp the organisational structure of the party by allowing it to be more representative and inclusive of diversity. The episodic leadership of Rahul Gandhi with his isolated ivory tower style of functioning has generated distrust among party workers and calls for him to take the party along with himself. Forging an alliance among secular egalitarian forces of opposition may be a long-term goal for the Congress for electoral victory against BJP in 2024. Regional pulls and pressures as also communal, caste and ethnic conflicts will be important determinants of any processes of political alignments. In such a context, the core question for Congress remains whether the obsession with dynasty rule will lead to its downfall. Can a non-dynast loyalist lead the Congress to rise like a phoenix? That’s for time to say if Congress successfully churns the issues at stake and reinvents itself, drawing from its long experience of governance.
When Rahul Gandhi was elected unopposed as the 49th party president, his competence as a political leader was always under the scanner. (Photo: Reuters)
The dilution of Congress’s political identity has definitely created more space for other political parties to rise. At the national level, the political vacuum left by the Congress has led to the effective strengthening of Hindu nationalist forces and the political ascendancy of the BJP.
The Delhi assembly election in February 2020 also demonstrates the gross failure of the Congress in strategising for the electoral dividend. The electoral contest in Delhi has been three-pronged between AAP, BJP and the Congress. In 2015 assembly elections, AAP won with a landslide victory sweeping 67 out of 70 assembly seats. And in 2020 elections AAP won 62 out of 67 seats. In both these elections, the Congress got no seats. In fact, there has been a visible shift of votes of the traditional constituency of the Congress to AAP largely because of the apathy of the Congress towards its electorate. The electoral catastrophe of the Congress has catalysed into an electoral gain for the AAP which has exceptionally focused on good governance and alternative politics, resting on zero tolerance for corruption, innovative education models and robust health system.
The forthcoming MCD elections in Delhi in 2022 will be in the first opportunity for the Congress to prove its mettle. The command of the Congress over the electoral domain will depend on its percipience to reorganise and mobilise the electorate uninterruptedly for the next year and a half. AAP has already set the ground for unceasing contestation with the BJP, which has been in power for one and a half decades. AAP seems to be the forerunner in consistent public engagement with the formidable problems of MCD. BJP has engaged sporadically in reference to AAP’s discontent with MCD functioning. Significantly, Congress has been in peaceful hibernation instead of seizing the day to reinvent itself. To rise like a phoenix, the party has to win the faith of the masses once again.