For the second time in a row after 2014, the Indian National Congress has suffered humiliating defeat at the hands of the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) in the Parliamentary elections 2019. These losses have been so grave that the grand old party which has a long glorious history of freedom struggle against the British colonizers to its credit and has a record of ruling the nation for the most years following the independence, could not garner minimum parliamentary seats required for obtaining recognition as opposition party in the Parliament (Lok Sabha). The party is now facing survival crisis and needs to urgently introspect and reflect on what has gone wrong with it leading to such a humiliating defeat. A healthy democracy needs good governance and a viable opposition as an alternative for the electorate, and the Congress is the only other national party with countrywide presence that can meet this criteria and aspirations of people.
Current Nemesis of Congress
Barring the exception of 1977 General Elections following the emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the Congress ruled India with massive mandate of the electorate for almost four decades very often with two-third majority in the Lok Sabha. However, an important reason for the undisputed rein and leadership of the Congress was the fact that virtually there was no serious opposition outside and within the party except the Communist and Socialist parties offering some resistance in certain pockets here and there. Following the murder of Indira Gandhi at the hands of her Sikh security guards in 1984, the countrywide sympathy wave earned a record 404 parliamentary seats for her son and successor Rajiv Gandhi but, ironically, after his name figured in much talked about Bofors Scam during his regime, the Congress was reduced to less than 200 seats in the following General Elections in 1989 and had to be contended with the role of main opposition.
The Congress could never repeat its 1984 performance or achieve even absolute majority in the following Lok Sabha elections although it had opportunity to rule the country for three full terms during 1991-95, 2004-09 and 2009-2014 with the support of Left and/or Socialist parties and played a role of king maker for about another five years. The five year term under the former Prime Minister Narsimha Rao (1991-95) was very significant as it ushered in an era of economic reforms based on the principles of liberalization, privatization and globalization yet it is a sad saga because perhaps the best ever prime minister of the Congress lineage did not receive his due place and recognition in his own party because many leaders loyal to Nehru-Gandhi clan felt he deviated from the Nehruvian socialism.
During the previous two terms (2004-2014) under former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a trusted lieutenant and close confidant of Nehru-Gandhi family, the Congress led UPA government took several initiatives and decisions for integrated and inclusive growth and development. Some of the major schemes and programmes were National Food Security Mission (NFSM), Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MGNREGA), Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY), Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY), Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY), Swabhiman Yojana, Swavalamban Yojana, National Urban Livelihood Mission (NULM), etc. Unfortunately, most schemes started with good intention suffered with poor planning and implementation, and consequent failure. There has been a general perception that the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was merely a titular head while real power was exercised by the dynastic family through proxy. Consequently, the period (particularly UPA-II) is remembered more for large scale corruption and scams than good governance.
The Congress fought 2014 General Elections under the leadership of Gandhi family hinting Rahul Gandhi as the prospective successor at a time when the BJP fielded Narendra Modi as Prime Ministerial candidate and overall image of the Congress had already taken a beating and was at its lowest ebb marred with scandals and scams. Consequently, the party had an all-time low tally of 44 out of 543 Lok Sabha seats. During the current General Election, the party President Rahul Gandhi tried to take Prime Minister Modi head on personifying him as a corrupt politician in league with large corporate houses, citing BJP to the evil-incarnate Kauravas and Congress as Pandavas fighting for truth repeatedly raising the issue of corruption in Rafale Agreement with France. Points raised by him were without concrete substance and matching evidence and the party could improve its tally merely to 52 MPs.
Factors Contributing to Congress Eclipse
The downfall of the oldest and largest national party has not been sudden; instead, clear signals and possible nemesis started showing up during late eighties when the role of the party was openly debated for the corruption in Defence deals and the top leadership was implicated in Bofors Scam. In the ensuing year, although the Congress formed three governments for full five years terms with the support of allies in the communist and socialist parties but it never achieved even a simple majority of its own. After every election, some sane voices spoke of the need of serious introspection and corrective measures but the party leadership and sycophants seldom gave any serious indication for the same through their action and deeds.
During the recent General Elections, the majority of seats won by the Congress are from Tamilnadu, Kerala and Punjab states while in the remaining states and union territories the party has merely registered 1-2 victories and blank in several states. Reasons for such dismal performance of Congress are many such as gradual disillusionment of people with dynastic politics and nepotism, lackluster top leadership, undue priority and emphasis to negative campaign, appeasement and faking religious feelings, undue emphasis on non-issues, ambiguous stand on nationalism fearing loss of mandate from minorities, lack of proper vision and mission for development and failure to forge alliance and get along with the prospective allies. Some of these issues are briefly analyzed in the following paragraphs.
Dynasty and Nepotism Rejected:
The current parliamentary elections are in a view unique and significant because the electorate has explicitly and convincingly rejected the concept of the dynastic rule and nepotism in politics. The trend was set up by the grand old party of this country decades back, and dynasty and nepotism is deeply rooted and flourishing in the Congress and many other parties particularly following the socialistic idealism. Evidently, the Congress President Rahul Gandhi was defeated by the BJP woman nominee in his family bastion Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. Apparently, he had premonition for this nemesis much before election, hence he had simultaneously opted for another safe constituency Wayanad in Kerala to reach Parliament. A majority of the Congress and other opposition leaders too met similar fate at the ballot box along with their wards and family members.
It remains, however, yet to be seen if the oldest national party, and for that matter other opposition parties too, are ready to take any lesson from their fiasco with the Indian electorate during these elections. With the ignominious defeat of the Congress in two consecutive parliamentary elections in 2014 and 2019, the mandate of the electorate is clear that the majority people are now sick of the dynastic rule and do not favour promotion of wards and family members at the cost of merit in politics. Notwithstanding, sycophants in the oldest party do not appear to be ready yet for the change of guards based on parameters like seniority, ability, political maturity, consistency, wisdom and knowledge of the potential leaders.
The Congress is the only other political party with a potential to provide suitable alternative governance at the national level. However, even after the formal coronation as the head of the party in 2018, the Congress President Gandhi scion has constantly disappointed Indian masses by his erratic behaviour and ad hoc speeches lacking proper vision and mission. In fact, more than a mature and visionary politician, he is perceived as a cheap comedian and entertainer due to his frequent slips and questionable data by a large section of the Indian electorate. Leaders of the most of other regional parties have shown willingness to work with the Congress but refused to accept his leadership on merit and seniority on many occasions.
It is not surprising that the Gandhi scion was found criticizing his own party men for inadequate publicity and support to narratives put forth by him during the election campaign. This clearly shows that many of his own party men were uncomfortable and unconvinced with his constant and ever changing rhetoric on the charges of corruption against Prime Minister Modi and issues like Goods & Services Tax (GST) and demonetization etc. His "Chowkidar Chor Hai" jibe against Prime Minister Modi backfired when he was forced to tender unconditional apology before the Supreme Court and counter-productive to the prospects of the Congress in the Parliamentary elections.
Policy of Appeasement Backfired:
Ever since independence, the Congress and its top leadership pursued the policy of appeasement to minorities, more particularly Muslims, by granting more social, religious and economic freedom compared to the majority Hindus. Under Nehru's premiership, the Personal Laws of the Hindus were framed and Hindu Code bill passed by the Parliament but he consciously avoided taking similar initiative for the Muslim community, as if only Hindu community needed social reforms. Under his regime, the legislation was made for the administration and acquiring the immovable properties of the Hindu temples and Mutts but the minorities' religious places were kept out of these laws. Similarly, Haj subsidy and funding of Madrassas too was started by the Congress at the initiative of Pandit Nehru. The respective Congress governments and leadership continued with wooing up minorities with such concessions in the name of secularism so much so that the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on record to say that the Muslims minority have the first and foremost right on the national resources.
Ironically, despite the professed ideology of an equal treatment to all religions without endorsing or giving any preferential treatment to any community by the state, the Congress brand of secularism constantly failed to follow it in the letter and spirit under the long years of its regime since independence. It's difficult to understand Congress's concept of secularism and the party's reluctance to appreciate religious sensitivities of the majority Hindus while going out of way to facilitate the minority communities. Consequently, the Party has often been accused of appeasement to the minority (Muslim) community by allowing them Sharia based personal law and giving a preferential treatment in many matters as electoral strategy keeping an eye on their vote bank. This irrational practice has continued till date with a lopsided narrative that those who only talk about the rights and welfare of minorities are real secularists. If a well-meaning person or group stresses for equal rights and similar treatment by the state to all communities including the majority Hindus, such person or group is outrightly called communal by the said secularists.
For several decades, Indian politics was dominated by one political party successfully staying in power by playing cast and communal cards. The BJP is the only political party that openly opposed the appeasement of minorities and, in turn, was branded as communal party by opponents. In the recent years, many educated and aware people have increasingly realized the designs of such parties and other pseudo-secularists and feel that every religious community should be treated at par by the government and Hindus alone should not be ignored or taken for granted. The Indian electorate has made it clear through its mandate during the recent elections and it will be a serious mistake and miscalculation if the Congress and other parties do not take lesson which is loud and clear. They must realize that the policy of appeasement has already polarized the Indian masses and if not stopped now, it will cause serious threat to unity and integrity of the nation.
Nationalism Vs Hyper Nationalism:
A section of Muslim population in India including clergy and politicians has strong reservations about certain symbols of nationalism. For illustration, many Muslims do not like to recite National Anthem and National Song or bow before the National Flag and Bharat Mata (Mother Land). They argue that their religion forbids Muslims to pray or bow before any entity other than Allah (God). Accordingly, some leaders and supporters of the Congress and some other parties also avoid public recitation and following of the national symbols. On the other hand, the BJP, other minorities and common Indians have no qualms about the national symbols and, in fact, many of them feel pride and patriotic in reciting and bowing before them.
During the Doklam Crisis in mid-2017, when Indian troops were pitted against the Peoples' Liberation Army with a war hysteria being created by the official Chinese media, the Congress leader Rahul Gandhi opted for a secret visit to the Chinese ambassador in Delhi. The Chinese embassy removed footage of the news item from its website after the news created a flutter in the Indian media and political circles. The Congress President (then vice-President) justified the visit as his right of appraisal but received a lot of flak and criticism for visiting Chinese embassy without informing or seeking first-hand information on Indian perspective on the subject. Similarly, senior leaders of the Congress are known for having independent dialogue with Pakistani officials and media and even seeking their help to oust Modi government in the past. The party is also known to justify anti-national activities of certain students in the Central universities in Delhi and Hyderabad, and alleged urban naxals in the name of the freedom of speech and expression in the recent past.
Thus during the last five years of Modi regime, the country experienced two different narratives and debate on nationalism. While the BJP constantly stressed on the patriotism, national pride and honour with its firm commitment and resolve to defend it, the Congress called it hyper nationalism and harmful for the interests of minorities in India, mainly Muslims. Even during the recent face-off with Pakistan following the air strike by the Indian Air Force on the biggest terrorist camp at Balakot, the Congress and some other opposition parties constantly raised questions and doubts on the action of the government and Air Force which in a way helped the enemy's cause. Quite obviously, these things have not gone too well with the Indian populace and it is not surprising that they punished the grand old party at the ballot box.
Negative Campaign and Undue Emphasis on Non-issues:
Throughout the campaign, in fact right from months before the actual electioneering, the Congress focused on the negative campaign giving unwarranted priority and emphasis to insignificant issues and non-issues. The most glaring examples are raising corruption in Rafale deal, opposing implementation of GST and scandalizing Demonetization. In the context of the Rafale deal, the Congress President Rahul Gandhi gave a slogan 'Chowkidar Chor Hai' taking a personal dig at Prime Minister Modi. He not only repeatedly charged Modi in the Parliament and public during the last two years with his alleged involvement in corruption by agreeing to buy the fighter aircraft from France at unduly jacked prices and crony capitalism by favouring a corporate house in offset obligations but also frequently changed his narratives on procedure, prices and total amount without any evidence to substantiate his allegations. Then he and party continued his rhetoric on the subject and even after a clean chit from the Supreme Court and the audit report of CAG placed before the Parliament.
As a matter of fact, GST was the original idea of the UPA regime but the relevant Bill was passed in the parliament during the NDA rule with the assistance and cooperation of the Congress yet the party disowned the tax reform and preferred to use it as a tool of alleged misrule of the NDA. Similarly, the overall success and achievements of Demonetization may be debatable but even an illiterate average Indian knows that this was an initiative of Prime Minister Modi targeted at the black money and corruption in the system. The consecutive Congress governments were largely responsible for the staggering amount of non-performing assets (NPAs) in the public sector banks and rise of economic offenders like Vijay Malya and Neerav Modi but the party constantly tried to project as if these economic evils were the product of the incumbent Modi government. Quite obviously, false and/or faulty narratives have not gone well with the electorate of the country.
Unrealistic Development Agenda:
The Congress while releasing its manifesto focused on wishful commitments, doles and freebies to attract the Indian electorate while simultaneously criticizing various NDA schemes and programmes with a promise to revisit and reverse it. They came out with two most fascinating schemes of outright payment of Rs 72,000 per annum in the bank accounts of poor families and waiver of loans of all farmers across the country subject to certain conditions. The Congress President publicly announced that these schemes were significant game changer for complete removal of poverty from the country. According to Congress manifesto, the Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY) was their flagship scheme benefiting approximately five crore families annually leading to the removal of poverty from India by the year 2030.
The other fascinating plan was to make education free up to the secondary level in public school, increase the number of seats in lower and higher educational institutions. To achieve this, the party committed a staggering amount of 6% of GDP by a certain date. The party also committed heavily under the health sector with proposed spending of about 3% of GDP for the free health schemes. On their part, the NDA did not offer doles and freebies, instead committed for the inclusive growth and empowerment of citizens through the schemes and programmes already initiated during the current five-years regime and ensuing future. The outcome of the elections suggests that the majority electorate did not have faith in the Congress's fanciful schemes; instead, they relied more on inclusive growth and development agenda of the Modi regime.
Reviving Hindutva Plank:
The Congress, some other opposition parties, self-proclaimed secularists and liberals constantly indulge in the propaganda that Hindutva is a serious threat for the existence and survival of the secular and democratic India. They hold BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) responsible for promoting Hindutva and call them communal and threat for the nation. During the recent election campaign, the Congress and their sympathizers also used did this tried and tested tactics to lure minorities, mainly Muslims and Christians. Some Muslim clerics and Christian bishops had even appealed the respective minorities' groups explicitly to vote for the particular party or discreetly use their wisdom to choose suitable candidate in the respective constituencies. Reportedly, the voting patterns in certain minorities dominated parliamentary constituencies reflect the influence of religious agenda.
Political party also tried to take advantage of the on-going Ram Janm-bhoomi and Babari Masjid conflict pending in the Supreme Court. A famous lawyer and senior politician of the Congress party had even strongly argued earlier before the Supreme Court bench to postpone hearing of the case till the Parliamentary election is completed. The outcome of elections suggest that the propaganda against the Hindutva didn't reap any significant benefit, instead it only led to increased polarization among the communities as is vindicated by the voting pattern at large. It's unfortunate that the oldest national party and its leaders with narrow vision and selfish interests continue to indulge in divisive tactics harmful for the unity and integrity of the nation.
Failure to Forge Alliance with Potential Allies:
The Congress is the only national party with its presence and reach in almost every nook and corner countrywide. Being the largest party and only other viable alternative, it also has greater responsibility to take initiative with other regional and smaller parties to take them along for a larger role and power sharing for the nation building. After a brief bonhomie of sharing the stage with Congress at Bangalore and being part of a meeting of the opposition parties under the patronage of the UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, the most of opposition parties failed to arrive at any understanding at the national level. But the party completely failed in generating necessary mutual trust and confidence among potential allies like the Trinmool Congress (TMC), Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP), Samajwadi Party (SP) and Aam Admi Party (AAP).
While the BSP refused to ally with Congress in states like Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the traditional enemies BSP and SP instead preferred to come together rather than forging alliance with Congress in Uttar Pradesh. On their part, the TMC decided to go alone in Bengal without forging any alliance with Congress. Both the AAP and Congress appeared willing for sharing seats in Delhi but the negotiations dragged for too long and finally both parties failed to reach any understanding on seat-sharing formula blaming each other for the failure. In fact, majority of the potential allies were found reluctant to accept the Congress and its leader Rahul Gandhi as the senior partner in the race for power. If nothing, the Congress could have taken clues from the rival BJP how they compromised in seat sharing with bitter allies like Shiv Sena and Janta Dal (U) to retain them in the NDA fold but the party miserably failed in doing so only to fare badly in elections at the national level.
The consecutive humiliating defeat of the Congress in the parliamentary elections is a bad omen for the Indian democracy because the country also needs a strong opposition for a constructive and meaningful role as also an alternative to the ruling NDA dispensation. The outcome of the recent polls also suggest an eclipse, if not decisive ending, of the dynastic family that has dominated national politics and reined the country directly or by proxy for almost sixty years after the independence. What could be more humiliating blow when the undisputed leader and president of the Congress party suffers a loss in his own family bastion in north India and shifts down south to rely hugely on minority votes to ensure an entry to the Parliament. His reputation, though bruised badly, was saved largely on account of the existing Indian law under which a candidate can enter into the election fray from more than one parliamentary constituencies at the same time.
The Congress party, however, needs to do a serious introspection for their continued survival and relevance in the Indian politics. Today, besides many ideological and policy issues, the most crucial and serious challenge before the party is the leadership crisis. In two consecutive parliamentary elections, the Indian electorate has rejected the party leadership of the dynastic family inflicting worst ever losses. On both occasions, the party could not win even the minimum number of seats needed for formal recognition as the opposition party in the Parliament. There is no dearth of experienced and talented leaders in the Congress party with clean and efficient image. It is high time for the Congress to revive its internal democracy and select new team with a leader based on merit rather than lineage. It is also important that this transition is real and not merely symbolic for the party's revival and overall good of the party, as also good of the nation.