The election results for local bodies in Gujarat have come as a morale booster for the Congress. This is a state in which the party, after dominating it for over four decades, was lying in a comatose state. It had just no answer for the BJP and in the last decade or so, Narendra Modi had effectively finished it off as a serious player. If there was one state where the objective of Congress-mukti had been achieved, it was Gujarat.
But there are no full stops in politics. The grand old party has come back roaring in the district level bodies, clearly showing it not only has the support of the rural masses but, more important, its own party structures seem in good shape. Without good candidates and an organizational machinery that functions smoothly, no party can hope to win elections.
Coming on top of the party’s better than expected performance in Bihar, the Congress should be feeling somewhat buoyant. Add to that its success in getting the government to agree with its views on GST; the memories of the humiliating defeat in 2014 may now look like a distant nightmare.
That would be a mistake. The “green shoots of recovery”, to use the favourite word of Indian analysts who try and talk up the economy, are anything but. The two good back to back electoral performances can in no way be extrapolated to show that the party is on the road to recovery; if a general election is held today, the Congress cannot hope to do much better than what it did, even if some of the sheen has faded from the BJP.
Take the Gujarat results, for example. They clearly show that that the urban voter, at least in that state, is not enamoured of the Congress. Apart from Rajkot, where it was a neck and neck race with the BJP, the BJP won comprehensively. Across the country, the Congress has limited supported among urban voters. They backed Narendra Modi the last time, and there is a good chance they will do so again, unless another alternative emerges in the coming years.
Second, the Bihar victory came as part of a grand coalition in which the Congress was the junior partner. It played the catalyst’s role in bringing two arch enemies together – and more important, keeping them together – but did not lead the combine. Will it be ready to do so in other states, such as UP? That will require a big strategic shift in the Congress way of thinking; in the past the party has shown a remarkable ability to mould itself to circumstances—who would have thought it would successfully run coalitions at the centre—but to play second fiddle to say, Mayawati or Mamata Bannerjee will not be easy.
Most crucially, several factors contribute to electoral victories, including the voters’ disillusionment with the other party; what the Congress needs is a major structural overhaul. It has to revamp not just the party organization, but also to clearly lay out what its ideological positions are.
Rahul Gandhi has been attacking the Prime Minister and scoring a few points too, but jibes and mockery can only go so far. His speech in Bangalore won him the support of young Indians who saw him as willing to take criticism and full of interesting ideas. But that could be a flash in the pan—will these very youngsters vote for his party? Will they be convinced that what the Congress has to offer is any better than what the BJP promises? There is some disappointment with the performance of the NDA government at the centre, but that could easily change. The bigger question is—what does the Congress really stand for?
The Congress has not convincingly put forward its own programme on critical issues. It has to still to build on the big themes, such as secularism, tolerance and inclusiveness. It is not enough to invoke past leaders nor can it remain content in pointing out the BJP’s failures. Many Indians are aghast at the rise in communally-linked violence and the incendiary statements that Hindutva types have been making. Citizens – from artists to writers to film stars to students – have come forward and protested against the rising intolerance in the country. The Congress has added its voice, but it is a weak one; is it willing to come out and lead a campaign against this? Or will it remain mealy mouthed and soft-pedal on the issue?
By going back to its first principles, the Congress will be able to establish not just what it is but how it is different from the BJP. Only then will all those Indians who are worried about what is happening in India but who see no alternative look at the Congress seriously. Nitish Kumar did not fall into the trap of indulging in soft-Hindutva and Lalu Prasad took on the BJP for its attempts at polarisation. Occasionally, a statement comes from the Congress, but the organisation needs to make a robust commitment to secular values to really stand out.
Elections will come and go. In some of the forthcoming state level elections, the Congress stands a good chance of doing well. This will help in preparing for the 2019 elections. But building the party’s machine is one part of it; offering itself as an all round alternative is another. The BJP’s losses have not made much difference to Narendra Modi’s popularity and nor have Rahul Gandhi’s recent outreach turned him into a formidable rival. For the Congress, any chance of a good performance in 2019 is still a chimera, notwithstanding the victories in Bihar and Gujarat.
This piece originally appeared in The Asian Age.