For decades after formal independence in 1947, Congress completely dominated the Indian political stage at the national and state levels. Until it was ousted in 1996, the party had held office continuously at the national level with the exception of two terms collectively expanding over three years. Today, the party is a shadow of its former self. Its claims to stand for the interests of the masses are in tatters and its bases of support are rapidly dwindling.
The Indian National Congress is a “sinking ship”; many of us have heard that by now. Yet it’s a bit astonishing to think how far the political party has fallen. After all, until recently the history of Congress ran almost in parallel with the history of modern India itself, to an extent where the line between these histories seemed blurred. Leaders of Congress were the leaders of India and a large part of the Indian Freedom Movement owed its existence to this “grand old party,” which was not just a political party, but an umbrella organization where different schools of thought used to co-exist together.
From Gandhi to Jinnah, from Nehru to Bose, from Tilak to Gokhale, Congress itself contained people poles apart from each other ideologically. And yet it not only remained as one party, but went on to define the political system itself in India, leading Dr. Rajani Kothari to coin the term “Congress System.” The organizational structure of Congress was so deep-rooted and entrenched that it reached to the grassroots level, to the last man, as a part of Gandhian idealism.
But Congress couldn’t uphold these ideals of working on the ground for as long as the people of India hoped it would. Much of Congress’ dominance at the centre as well as the state level was due to the fact that people voted in the name of Congress, which had won freedom for the country. People felt almost indebted to the party and continued to bring them back to power in the hope that Swarajya (self-rule) would actually be realized on the ground and the days of Ram Rajya (the idyllic rule of Rama), which Gandhi used to mention in his
speeches and writings, would come. People waited for years, but neither Swarajya nor Ram Rajya came about. Instead, the people realized, nepotism and corruption were increasing day by day in the political system. It was not Ram Rajya, but the Raaj of one family the Gandhi family. The family alone accounts for three prime ministers, who ruled the country for around 37 years, while another 10 years of governance in the 21st century was also largely led by the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty.
Despite the challenges, Indira Gandhi, who was mockingly referred to as “Goongi Gudiya,” emerged as a strong and decisive leader, under whose leadership India won a decisive war against Pakistan in 1971. The war resulted in Congress reclaiming its place as the most dominant player in the Indian political system, so much so that its power became increasingly unchecked. In a democracy, a government with unchecked power is quite problematic.
India belatedly learned this lesson. At midnight on June 26, 1975, an emergency was proclaimed in the country by her government, thereby suspending all democratic rights of the people and concentrating all the power in the hands of Indira Gandhi. This was done to subvert the decision given against Indira Gandhi by the Allahabad High Court Bench in the case of fraudulent electoral practices in the 1971 elections. The emergency was the darkest period in India’s independent history. The government had become authoritarian; the opposition was decimated as most political opponents were put behind bars; the press was under extreme censorship.
The 21-month emergency proved to be costly for Congress. In the 1977 elections, for the first time, a non-Congress government was formed at the centre. Though, the new government, led by Morarji Desai, couldn’t stay in power for the full five years, the period was definitely a paradigm shift in Indian politics. Both people and political par- ties started believing that there could be an alternative to the Congress. However, it took another two decades after the Janata government for a non-Congress party (this time the BJP) to come to power and stay for a full five-year term.
In 2004, Congress made a come- back again in quite an astonishing fashion by defeating the incumbent BJP in power. Congress would spend the next decade fully in control of India’s central government. This decade, especially the second half, was marred by corruption. Telecom, railways, coal, land, sports, and various other ministries saw their names tarred under charges of corruption. Popular resentment against the regime grew prevalent among the public due to the increasing corruption within the government and the party’s inability to take any affirmative action against it. Then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was largely seen as a weak leader, who couldn’t take tough action against corrupt members within his party and government.
As a result, the party lost pathetically in the 2014 general elections, where it won only 44 seats in the Lok Sabha out of the 543 up for grabs — an all-time low. Since then, the party still hasn’t settled into a new role. It has been losing election after election across many states in India. The most notable recent loss came from Uttar Pradesh, the most populated state in India, where the party got just seven seats in an assembly of 403 seats.
Most political observers are of the opinion that Congress lacks a genuine mass leader, of which it used to have in dozens in its glory days. The vice president of the party, Rahul Gandhi, has been somewhat seen as a reluctant politician due to his lack of leadership skills and his inability to win elections. To sum up, the Congress has lost its sheen and doesn’t look to be in a position to even pose a challenge to the current BJP regime in the 2019 general elections. If they manage to do so, the party would be pulling a rabbit out of a hat!
Worryingly, the demise of Congress means the demise of a balanced political system in India. Congress and the BJP, the two most dominant powers, used to balance off each other in Indian politics. With this balance lost, the earlier Congress System is being replaced by a newly emergent “BJP System.”
In the upcoming elections, Congress is not expected to make any significant gains, despite growing hostility to the NDA government’s program of economic restructuring, which has led to a widening gulf between rich and poor. The failed demonetization decision of Modi government and poor GST implementation has dented the economic growth in India. The 2% GDP is wiped out due to faulty economic policies of the government. Despite this economic debacle, according to the London- based Economist magazine, even Congress party strategists say the maximum it can achieve is around 90-105 [seats] in 2019. The party could, however, do considerably worse. It is likely to be routed in state elections this year in Himanchal Pradesh, Gujrat & Karnataka, last few Congress ruled states except Gujrat.
Now, however, Congress is desperate for partners and in last election has accepted a subordinate status in several key states. In its alliance with the Rastriya Janatha Dal (RJD) in Bihar, Congress had to be satisfied with just four of the state’s 40 seats in the national parliament far less than the 14 it had demanded. Congress has also forged alliances in Andhra Pradesh, Maharasthra and Tamil Nadu. But in the most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, Congress is on ventilator seeking external life support from either Bahujan Samaj Party or Samajwadi Party to survive. Currently, Congress only holds two of the state’s 80 seats. In West Bengal, Mamta has virtually hijacked the original Congress party leaving nothing for the grand old party. Today Congress will be approaching General Elections 2019 without any presence in U.P. ( 80 seats ) Bihar ( 40 seats ), West Bengal ( 42 seats) T.N. ( 39 seats ) & A.P. ( 27 seats ), surely with almost 50% unrepresented seats, Congress can’t do miracle in rest of the seats to win with a conversion ration of 100%.
Nothing underscores the party’s bankruptcy more than its dependence on the Nehru- Gandhi dynasty. Not only has Sonja Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, been pressed into leading the party, but her two children have also been enlisted in the campaign.
Her son Rahul is standing as the Congress candidate in the Uttar Pradesh seat of Amethi since 2004, in an effort to lift the party’s standing in that state. His sister Priyanka is also campaigning prominently in the seat.
The party’s tenuous links to the leaders of the anti-colonial movement Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru are all that remain of its claims to represent the interests of the working masses of India. Congress was always a party of the Indian bourgeoisie, which ensured that the vast movement against the British rule never threatened private property and became the means for securing its own privileged position. At the same time, through its leadership of the anti-colonial opposition, Congress established deep local roots and a reputation as a party of progressive change that enabled it to dominate the political stage after the end of the British rule
Congress’s ability to maintain its increasingly tarnished image was a product of the peculiar global economic and political conditions that followed World War II. Successive Indian governments were able to maintain a highly regulated national economy, based on import substitution, and make limited concessions to workers and the oppressed masses. In the context of the Cold War, Congress leaders were able to balance between Washington and Moscow, and with the assistance of the Stalinist bureaucrats, posture as anti-imperialists. India was one of the leaders of the so- called non-aligned movement.
However, in the 1980s and 1990s, the processes of globalization undermined all forms of national economic regulation the sharpest expression being the collapse of the Soviet Union. The impact was no less profound in India where, in the early 1990s, the Congress government of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao initiated the first stage of market reforms and opened up the country’s huge reserves of cheap labor to foreign investors. While a layer of business and the middle class benefited, the economic restructuring resulted in savage attacks on the living standards of the working class and op- pressed masses. The mounting resentment was the main reason for the party’s defeat in the 1996 elections.
No alternative to the BJP: While it capitalized on the disaffection with Congress, the BJP has implemented the same programme of restructuring since 1998. Foreign investors have exploited India’s supplies of low-cost, educated, English-speaking labor to create a range of computing, research and office services, and produce a spurt of growth that has benefited layers of the Indian middle class. The BJP election campaign in 2004 has centered on a government-funded “India Shining”media blitz designed to portray the party as bringing India economic growth and international recognition.
The slick media campaign glosses over the fact that the government’s economic policies have led to a widening of the deep social divide between the rich and the vast majority of the population who remain mired in poverty. In seeking to attack the BJP’s record, Congress faces a fundamental problem: its policies are no different from those of the government. As a result, its campaign is fraught with contradictions: Congress attempts to convince big business of its ability to continue the open market agenda, while trying to dupe the masses with empty promises to improve their living standards.
– By Prakhar Prakash Misra (Political Editor, Opinion Express)