With the recent setback in the National Herald case , social media is once again abuzz with speculation on whether Bharat will become Congress mukt or not. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had coined the term “Congress mukt Bharat” in his speeches in the run up to the Lok Sabha polls. At the time perhaps even his staunchest of supporters would not have taken the likelihood of this happening seriously.
But the series of losses suffered by the Congress in state elections (notwithstanding its Bihar performance) clearly show that the Congress is facing its biggest crisis ever, an existential crisis. The crisis exacerbated by National Herald case is much bigger crisis than what Congress had seen in the past and had managed to successfully handle in the past, like
- 1957 when a first non-Congress government was formed in the state of Kerala,
- 1967 when non-Congress state governments were formed in more than half of Indian states
- 1975 when Allahabad High Court declared Indira Gandhi’s election to Lok Sabha from Rae Bareli as null and void leading to declaration of Emergency
- 1977 when JP Narayan inspired Janata Party formed the first non-Congress government at the center
- 1984 when Indira Gandhi was assassinated
- 1991 when Rajiv Gandhi was killed by LTTE leaving Congress orphaned
- 1999 when Pawar and Mamata two regional satraps left Congress to form their own party
A comeback of sorts in Bihar where Congress appears to have got back a section of upper caste, dalit and Muslim votes (its traditional vote bank) may have spurred false hopes of a revival. This emboldened the Congress to dictate terms in Parliament and lay down conditions for passage of GST bill in Rajya Sabha where the government lacks a majority and needs support of regional parties that have made common cause with the Congress. PM Modi it seemed had reconciled himself to this when he called Sonia and Manmohan Singh for chai pe charcha to build bridges ahead of the Parliament’s Winter Session .
However, the High Court’s order rejecting Sonia-Rahul plea for exemption from personal appearance in lower court with respect to a case of National Herald instituted by Subramanian Swami has emboldened the government to take Congress head on and not succumb to its blackmail. Congress on the other hand has started to play victim politics alleging political vendetta. Any adverse ruling in this case can have serious implications for the party, though it could take years before finally the case is settled in courts.
How and why this crisis is the biggest ever for Congress?
Five factors point to this:
1. Poor performance in Lok Sabha and State Elections
The results of 2014 in which Congress was reduced to a mere 44 seats and the following state elections in which it lost governments in Maharashtra, Haryana, J&K, Jharkhand, drawing a blank in Delhi add credence to this theory. It currently has 25% of total MPs and MLAs in the country, amongst the lowest in history of the grand old party.
Current Performance in Lok Sabha and States (No. of seats)
2. Leadership Crisis
Congress is facing a severe leadership issue. Sonia has grown old and her health condition is down. She wants to pass on the mantle to her son Rahul, who despite all efforts in the past decade, seems uninterested and incapable of leading the party. His my way or highway attitude has put him at loggerheads with seniors in the party and Sonia has had to intervene. The old club wants Sonia to make her daughter Priyanka the heir to the throne which she has resisted. Living in India for the past 3 decades seems to have made her love for beta vs the beti clearly apparent. So Congress is in a mess and if doesn’t sort this out Modi will have the TINA factor advantage with him in 2019.
Party’s obsession with Nehru-Gandhi name has also meant that it has not nurtured talent at regional levels. Today the party doesn’t have tall leaders in many key states of UP, Bihar, WB, Andhra, Maharashtra etc. In Indian federal structure where states send MPs to Lok Sabha, you need strong regional leaders to do well in states like BJP has in MP, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Gujarat etc.
3. Obstructionist & Negative Politics
The party has resorted to negative politics for the past 1.5 years of Modi rule. It has exploited NDA minority issue in Rajya Sabha to its advantage blocking crucial legislations like Land Bill and Insurance Bills forcing the government to take the Ordinance route. The latest addition to this is GST Bill. Congress the original creator of the concept is looking for excuses to somehow delay the bill from being passed citing how Modi delayed the bill for 3 years to non-incorporation of their basic 3 demands to now political vendetta in NH case.
The country is watching and this is certainly not helping Congress. “Hum to doobenge sanam, tumko bhi le doobenge” attitude won’t work and will hurt Congress.
4. Meritocracy vs Sycophancy
A look at the composition of its highest decision making body – Congress Working Committee (CWC) – reveals that the average age of 41 CWC members is 69 when 60% of Indian population is less than 35 years of age. It has only 3 Lok Sabha members and 18 Rajya Sabha members. It is full of people owing allegiance to Nehru-Gandhi family. Most of the members are so called “backroom politicians” with no mass base and who have never fought any Lok Sabha elections.
Young leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Murli Deora, Manish Tewari, Kapil Sibal etc. are not part of CWC. 61% of the members are above the retirement age of 60. Sycophancy and not meritocracy is the criteria for selection. Clear message for Congress is to get its house in order to include fresh blood and new ideas.
Chart: Composition of CWC – Age of Members
5. Struggling to create its old social coalition
A section of Congress traditional vote bank of upper castes, backwards, dalits and Muslims have deserted the party. While upper castes have moved to BJP, backwards have moved to the Janata Dal factions in various states (after it was credited with the Mandal movement). Dalits have moved to Mayawati’s BSP in some states. Its hard core vote bank of Muslims also backs regional players in states where Congress is weak. While so called minority appeasement politics has irked the Hindus, even section of Muslims complain that party has exploited the community.
Can Congress survive its biggest crisis ever?
The Grand Old party has survived many such crises and splits in the past and come out stronger each time. It has a rich heritage and still commands a vote base of 20%. Its spread is seen as truly national party and is perceived to be the only alternative to BJP at the center. However, the party seems to be lost with its current drift and it has no clear strategy to steer its future. The Leadership Crisis in the Congress has exacerbated the situation.
Unless it sees a positive and constructive role for itself in the Opposition it will struggle to remain relevant while its Leadership remains distracted with the National Herald affair in the Courts.
This article has also been published in Niticentral.