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After years of speculation, Rahul Gandhi is set to don the hat of the Congress President this month. He filed his nomination papers today. Sonia Gandhi will pass on the mantle to her son soon after results of Gujarat and Himachal elections are announced. Opinion polls predict loss for the party in both states. Rahul occupies the chair at a time when party is facing an existential crisis losing state after state. It is now in power in only two big states – Punjab and Karnataka.
Many people argue that the current problems of Congress are a making of Rahul Gandhi and he is the only reason that voters do not wish to return to the Congress party. However, the fact is that the party had already lost most of its voter share under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi (8.6%), Narasimha Rao (10.7%), Sitaram Kesari (3%) and Sonia Gandhi (6.3%). So the leadership problem has been building over a 30 year period, right after Indira’s demise. Critics could argue Rahul has been in forefront of politics since 2004 and partly to blame for loss under Sonia’s tenure. Even then, Rahul can be held accountable for a max one-fifth of loss of vote share of party since 1989.
Vote Share of Parties in Lok Sabha Elections
The recent failures in the State elections and likely future setbacks make it extremely important for the Congress leadership to resort to an immediate surgery instead of relying on small doses of improvements. Rahul needs to focus on these five things in his new assignment to rejuvenate the Congress party.
1. Setting Its House in Order
This should be the topmost priority and also the one which is most tricky. A full reshape of the top body Congress Working Committee is the need of the hour. Out of its 40 odd members, only 3 are Lok Sabha MPs. Almost half of the members are loyalists of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and need to be shifted to a ‘margdarshak mandal’ of sorts. The average age of CWC members is 69, this is very high compared to BJP Parliamentary Board (57) and CPM Politburo (60). This when 65% of India’s population is less than 35 years of age. The party decision making body is clearly out of tune with this demographic change. It should also appoint one VP each for North, South, West, East and North East of India. The Scindias, Pilots, Gogois, Priyanka, Gowda could be considered for these positions.
2. Get back old friends in its fold
Congress has suffered many splits during its history, the prominent ones lately being Sharad Pawar (NCP), Mamata Banerjee (TMC) and Jagan Reddy (YSR Congress). This has weakened the party considerably in Maharashtra, Andhra and West Bengal. These three parties received 8.1% vote share in 2014 Lok Sabha elections and won 49 seats which is higher than Congress tally. Rahul needs to intensify efforts to bring them back in the fold. NCP and TMC are already part of talks with Congress to form an anti-BJP front at national level, the merged entity would be much stronger. Some egos need to be managed here.
Vote Share of Congress immediately after split
3. Revive Traditional Social Coalition
In 2014 election, Congress won just 12.1% of the upper caste and 14.7% of the upper OBC vote. It performed relatively well amongst Schedule Tribes where it won 28.3% of the vote and Muslims where it won 37.6% of the votes. However, these two groups make up for only 23% of population. This is the Congress party’s biggest predicament at this moment.
Caste Wise Vote Share of Parties in 2014 Lok Sabha
Source: “India’s Watershed Vote: Behind Modi’s Victory,” Journal of Democracy 25 (October 2014):
OBC politics has changed after ‘mandal’ and community votes for past two decades have been majorly with Janata Dal splinter groups. After Modi came to the forefront this vote bank has shifted loyalty in large numbers to BJP. BJP won 42.1% of lower OBC and 30.2% of upper OBC votes. There is a lot of competition in this space.
At this moment, the Congress party needs to revive its traditional voting block that combines Minorities, STs, SCs and Upper Castes. These groups together constitute about 50% of the voters. BSP’s weakening and recent incidents branding BJP as anti-Dalit gives a chance to the party to develop on this vote bank. It should actively canvass for removing reservations for upper OBCs and replacing it with reservations on the basis of economic status. It has to find chinks in the armour of BJP which is trying to project itself as inclusive Hindu party.
4. Build a New Voting Block
The party needs to find one or two large demographic voting blocks to gain vote share in the next few elections. It has to tap the disillusioned voters. Youth and farmers should be the focus here. Modi government has failed to create jobs as promised. Youth could lose patience with BJP for lack of jobs coupled with layoffs. Voters in age bracket of 18-25 accounted for 22%-25% of voters in 2014. While BJP received 34% support from youth in 2014, higher than its overall vote share of 31%, it recorded high popularity among educated youth (high school pass 35% and graduates 38%). All these sections of youth voted in large numbers for the party in 2009.
Voting Preference of Youth in 2014 Lok Sabha
Source: CSDS Reports
The ongoing farmer agitations across states also opens up avenues for the party. Over 3 lakh farmers from 180 groups across the country protested in Delhi on 20th November demanding better price for their produce and a complete loan waiver. With UP and Maharashtra announcing loan waivers, there is pressure on other BJP governments in MP, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan for similar action. Jaitley has clearly said such waivers will have to be borne by state finances, center won’t help. While Modi has promised doubling of farmers’ income by 2022, the lot is getting impatient. (God forbid) Any poor rainfall next year could be a game changer for 2019 and swell support for the party from this vote block. Their support is significant as almost half of our population is engaged in agriculture.
5. Put up a Shadow Cabinet
Congress has a rich history of governance. It has many subject matter experts. It needs to soon put in place a shadow cabinet. They need to take on policies and programs of BJP. Good work should be applauded. This will not only help people understand the shortcomings of BJP policies but also put Congress philosophy / perspective in public on topics of national importance. Offering an alternate narrative which is not just Anti-Government but also pro-People would be very helpful.
To sum up, at the moment, the party’s outreach has been focussed on the identity issues and failures of the BJP rather than a more comprehensive solution. As we had articulated in 10 Reasons Why BJP’s Dream of Congress-Mukt Bharat Won’t Come True, Congress party is still the natural and only alternative to BJP nationally. If the party works on the above points, it can recover some of its lost mojo.
The article was first published here.