The recent crisis in Rajasthan, Sachin Pilot’s exit and Ashok Gehlot’s efforts to hold on to the seat has raised a lot more questions on what remains of India’s grand old party than ever before. A lack of central leadership has led to a weaker hold on regional counterparts and the party organisation is in disarray as a result of that. Now, what we are left with is just one simple question — is there any hope for India’s ‘umbrella party’ the Congress?
The Congress party currently faces “disintegration and eventual demise” given the loss of political and electoral “competitiveness”, which has only reduced it to a shadow of the pan-national “umbrella party” that it once was, according to a study published in an international journal. The study suggests that a political recovery for the Congress is “extremely difficult”, if not impossible, given the party’s erosion, as reflected in electoral statistics down the years, point out scholars Adnan Farooqui and E Sridharan of the Jamia Millia Islamia and the University of Pennsylvania’s Centre for Advanced Study of India, in their paper ‘Can Umbrella Parties Survive? The Decline of the Indian National Congress’. The paper has been published in the latest volume of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics. “To sum up, if the Congress cannot rebuild an encompassing coalition, as it arguably did in 2009, and recover as an umbrella party, there are two other possibilities – its disintegration and eventual demise by further splits and loss of the social base, or its revival but as a broad, left-of-centre coalition of the disadvantaged, not an umbrella party, facing a broad, BJP-led, right-of-centre coalition. However, in the latter scenario, it would not be an umbrella party but a centre-left party, and the social cleavages theory of party systems would have won out,” the study concludes.
“If your leader cannot get you power, it’s natural for politicians to seek it elsewhere,” says Tom Vadakkan, an AICC insider and family loyalist who switched to the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2019. Congress currently seems to have neither a narrative they own in order to counter the dominant BJP discourse prevalent in the country nor the organisational power to take on the might of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Home Minister Amit Shah duo. We again come back and so the same questions to ourselves — is there any hope left for the umbrella party? Congress is definitely on a terminal decline, it’s a definite path but an extremely slow path. The actual process might take decades and new forces might slowly begin to replace India’s grand old party. But this slow process is very likely to keep the BJP in power for a very long time, quite similar to when the Congress enjoyed single-party rule until 1989.
While the leadership at the top has been murky, the organisational structure has also begun losing its base. After entering into the scene, Rahul Gandhi ha not been of much help and Sonia Gandhi apparently took her time over taking decisions. “She takes a long time in taking decisions because she prefers to arrive at a consensus,” said former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi. What some have been questioning is whether Congress would ever be able to look beyond the Gandhis? When other younger leaders could have swept in and taken charge of the party but Congress put faith in Sonia Gandhi again. And that’s where the problem stems from say a few experts. And that is where things get back to square one. The Gandhis no matter how hard it remains to be the last option for the umbrella party.
However, given the problems in the party or even the inability to attract voters, no matter what the issues are the party members still have the undying belief that the Gandhis can save it all from ruin themselves. “Unlike most other Congress leaders who have a regional identity, the Gandhis belong to, and connect with, all of India,” says Rajya Sabha MP and AICC in-charge Rajeev Satav. “They are the common thread that connects every Congress worker from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. They did not achieve this overnight. From Kashmir, where the Nehru-Gandhis have their roots, to Allahabad in the heart of India, Chikkamagluru in Karnataka to Wayanad in Kerala, the Gandhis have a piece of every part of India in them.”
Another school of thought point to the fact that the party had been led by stalwarts but that did not prove to be fruitful in the end. It was Sonia who could stabilise the party when she came and took charge in 1998 and brought the Congress back to power eight years later. What Rajya Sabha MP Digvijaya Singh feels is that there is no duality in leadership in the Congress. “The CWC appointed her president, not interim president. The decision has to be ratified by an AICC session. Unfortunately, because of COVID-19, that session has got delayed. Once we convene the session, the decision will be ratified,” he says.
The situation seems to be grim and the Congress really needs to up its game, quite soon. Even as an opposition they need to stand up to the ruling party while sticking to their ideals. In such a situation, as Shashi Tharoor feels, the party needs to stay invested in its core ideals. “The ideology of an inclusive and progressive party, liberal and centrist in its orientation, committed to social justice and individual freedoms, patriotic in its determination to protect national security and promote human security, still has great appeal if it is projected properly,” he says. This idea is echoed by a few other leaders who feel the same way and want the party to revive in this time of crisis. “For the Congress, this is the time to stick to its ideology all the more strongly. Only then can the party fight the BJP, which is determined to destroy parliamentary democracy in the country,” says Ahmed Patel, Congress treasurer and CWC member.
Congress also needs to figure out who would be suitable to stand against Modi or the BJP in the upcoming future. They need to keep their options open, it can be someone who’s already in politics but also might be someone new. The opposition needs to figure out — and soon enough!
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