Congress has hit nadir; it needs a gargantuan reboot to take on BJP

The party has made losing a habit, and its survival is tied to a dynasty that has lost its sheen; to regain relevance, it needs to go for a shake-up and hit the streets

The Congress has never been as weak since Independence as under its current leadership of Priyanka, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.

How to revive a political party, to be specific, the Congress? If defeat is a one-off event, one would assume that the party would learn from it, eliminate some of its non performing candidates, replace them with fresh new faces, bring in new ideas, sew up new alliances and go back to the electorate.

But what if the party has been facing defeat after defeat with very little sign of revival, if it has made losing a habit? Maybe change the leader? But what if the party is tied to a dynasty and many of its leaders feel that they would get asphyxiated without dynasts? Worse, what if the dynast fails to lead, feels entitled and starts sulking?

Also read: The Udaipur match result: Gandhis 1, Congress 0

Instead of a political party, if one were to think of a family-owned business, what would the company do? Maybe change its product line, infuse some fresh funds, fire the management, bring in a new CEO and hope to win back consumers. In a worst-case scenario, the company could declare bankruptcy and close. It could also be bought over by a new entrepreneur.

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Numbers do matter

The Congress party, founded 137 years ago, is facing all the problems listed above and more. In a democracy, numbers do matter and the Congress has hit the bottom as far as parliamentary strength is concerned. It has only 53 MPs in the Lok Sabha, which is less than 10 per cent of the total seats. Of 29 states and seven Union Territories, it rules just two — Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh — and is in coalition in two other states. Of the 4,038 state assembly seats nationwide, it has roughly 690, or 17 per cent.

This is the fate of a party that has ruled India for 54 years since the Congress government led by Jawaharlal Nehru took over the reins from the British in 1947. The fortunes of the Congress have been on a slide since the mid-1980s, but the last eight years have been its worst nightmare.

Also read: Chintan Shivir: Sonia as tough on Modi govt as on Congress revival, but…

The Congress has been India’s ‘big tent’ party, accommodating all sections of society. Though Centrist, it had no problem involving ideologically differing leaders of various hues during the nationalist movement. Subsequently, the party has been splitting regularly with the official faction staying with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. This is because they are seen as ultimate vote catchers, the glue that holds the party and its leaders together.

Vote magnets no more

The glue is wearing off as the scions — Rahul and Priyanka — are unable to get votes. The party has never been as weak since Independence as under its fourth-generation leaders. Its traditional support base, a social coalition of Dalits, tribals, minorities, backwards and even some upper castes, has long withered away. The party’s nebulous stand on secularism, poor governance record and allegations of corruption have further alienated the masses.

A group of 23 Congress leaders has been complaining but it couldn’t gather enough courage to launch its own outfit or walk away with a large number of supporters. Besides the incompetence of the Gandhis, the grumblers know that right-wing ideologies are winning globally and India is no exception.

Bullet points: What the 6 Congress panels recommended at Chintan Shivir

The party is holding its organisational elections beginning August, but it is unlikely that the levers of power will shift away from the Gandhi family. Prashant Kishor perhaps would have fancied himself as the new turnaround CEO. But, being smart, he perhaps realised early that it won’t work in the Congress, and therefore the retreat.

Udaipur meet decisions

Since the party can’t do away with the Gandhi dynasty, it has agreed to do the next best thing, which is restricting second and third rung dynasts by ensuring that their relatives would not get an official post until they have spent five years in the party. Also, to reduce the friction between old guard and young leaders, they have decided on a 50 per cent quota for those below 50. Add some diversity slogan and the party thinks it has got a new recipe.

At the recent Udaipur Chintan Shivir summit, party president Sonia Gandhi made the right noises about the status of minorities and attacked the Modi regime for its majoritarian politics. The electorate would take her pronouncements with a truckload of salt, as the Congress is guilty of soft-pedalling the issue for long.

Her son almost had a foot-in-mouth attack when he questioned the competence of regional parties in fighting the BJP and its corrosive ideology. His argument was that the Congress was the only party at the national level which could take on the BJP. Yes and no, because it really depends on what strategy the party adopts at the regional level while dealing with the allies, but continues to project itself as the only alternative to the BJP at the national level.

This is a tricky issue as several regional leaders too have grown ambitious and are desirous of making a mark at the national level. The old Kamaraj slogan of regional parties ruling the states and facilitating a coalition at the Centre, leaving the leadership to a national party, is a difficult idea to sell now. This is because the Congress’s own record of respecting India’s federal structure has been poor.

Also, like a company, a party cannot be written off. A vibrant Opposition is a prerequisite in a democracy and, despite its weakness, the Congress still remains a party with pan-India presence.

A yatra could be the way forward

So, the party has decided to hit the streets for mass mobilisation — a tool used by most political parties, both at the national and regional level. Again, Rahul and Priyanka have a poor track record. Consistency may be the virtue of mules but politics isn’t a part-time affair. From Mahatma Gandhi to Lal Krishna Advani to Jagan Mohan Reddy, all have benefitted from mass roadshows. But it finally boils down to implementation.

As far as issues are concerned, there are plenty. It is for a politician to pick them up and communicate in a language that resonates with the masses. In the run-up to prime ministership in the late 1980s, VP Singh managed to create a fear psychosis among rural voters, suggesting that their soldier sons guarding the borders may have landed with a defective “Bofors gun”, thanks to a corrupt Rajiv Gandhi regime.

Rahul need not take such a devious route. There are several real issues that are pinching the common man — from unemployment to price rise to divisive majoritarian agenda. The pandemic and the Ukrainian war have shown that health and education are no longer esoteric middle-class obsessions— they can be issues of mass concern.

And finally, communication. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party have mastered the art and if Rahul and the Congress fancy themselves to be in the race, they have to work hard towards that. This means effective enmeshing of technology, ideas and the media. It shouldn’t stop with once-in-a-while tweets.

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