The oldest party in India is suffering. The consecutive losses in the two national elections have jolted the Congress hard. Effectively, the party will be out of the power for ten straight years, which never happened in the past (previously, it was not out of power for more than eight years, between 1996-2004).
Not just in the national elections, but the party has also lost ground in many states in recent times and. It is currently in power only in five of the 31 legislative assemblies.
Apart from the electoral losses, the party is struggling with a leadership crisis after Rahul Gandhi’s resignation as president. After many weeks of his resignation, the party hasn’t found a replacement but chose Sonia Gandhi as the interim president. This clearly indicates that the Congress has weakened itself organisationally.
Most analysts have argued that the leadership vacuum at the top is the core cause of the crisis. But it is not the party’s dependence on the Gandhi family at the top, but the cadre or the party worker at the bottom which is in deep crisis for the party.
The electoral outcome of the 2019 general election leaves no room to deny that the performance of the Congress was lousy. But the question, is why?
The ‘Congress system’
The answer lies in the collapse of the so-called “Congress system” developed by the party leaders in the early period of post-independent India. It proved to be and very fruitful. Renowned political scientist Rajni Kothari, who coined this term, argued that the survival and the dominance of the Congress in the early years was based on the “accommodation and co-optation of the local elites.” This meant that the Congress was a political force not only due to the legacy of the national movement, but also because of the strength of its local level party organisation. This helped it remain close to society, mirroring its divisions and interest groups.
These intense local interest groups, led by individuals, promoted a leader-client relationship. In this process, a system of patronage was worked out in the country side. Traditional institutions of kin and caste were gradually involved and drawn, and a structure of pressure and compromises was developed.
Essentially, the Congress historically built a patronage system based on pure transactional leader-client relationship, moving away from new ideas and movements on the ground. Due to the leader-client link, a leader at the local level earned clients based on providing benefits of welfare schemes empowering only the client and the local leaders. This arrangement assured the leader a chunk of support at the constituency level, which, coupled with party support, led them to victory.
Under frontal assault from the BJP, this model has failed to motivate and attract cadres. The party’s crisis deepened, as it was able to retain their client due to the local, constituency leaders, but could not attract more cadres to conduct ground-level campaigns. Another challenge of this leader-client relationship is that once the leader shifted the party, their client also shifted.
Observations from Maharashtra
In my recent field visits in western Maharashtra, I found this to be true. Many parts of this area are experiencing rural distress and farmers’ unrest. Despite this, the Congress-NCP alliance could not perform well in the Lok Sabha elections. One strong reason was simply that at the local level, many of their leaders have defected to the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance over the past few years.
Take the example of Chara Chhawani (cattle camp) in Maan-Khataon taluka of Satara district. One local (involved in farming) said that though he had supported the NCP in the past, he had voted for the NDA alliance candidate in the general election. The reason, according to the respondent, was that the local elite Ranjit Singh Deshmukh changing his allegiance. A sugar cooperative leader associated with the NCP for a long time, Deshmukh joined the Shiv Sena just before the general elections. This region of Western Maharashtra is the hub of sugar cooperative politics, and most local elites are associated with them.
The Congress’s stalwart leader and first chief minister of the state, Yashwantrao Bhaurao (Y.B.) Chavan, had initiated the sugar cooperative movement in this zone. Hence, the Congress cultivated the benefits until the NCP got a hold, thanks to Sharad Pawar. However, the trends have again changed in recent times. Many local political elites in the sugar cooperative sector have been joining the BJP and Sena. Therefore the established clients of these leaders have shifted so.
What is significant here is that the system built by the Congress has been co-opted by the BJP. The additional weight of its ideological and the popularity of leaders like Narendra Modi has given the saffron party a lead over its rivals.
Lack of new ideas
In Maharashtra, the worry for the Congress is that not only has their system been co-opted by the rival camp, but there is a lack of new ideas and movements. This makes it difficult for the party to attract new cadre, leaving it with the best case scenario of retaining its base. Such a prospect will leave it in a difficult position to win any election.
Maharashtra is just one example. The Congress is suffering from similar issues in many states. With Sonia Gandhi at its helm, the party has temporarily solved the leadership issue. However, it will have to find new way to solve the larger issues to not just motivate their existing cadres, but also attract new ones.
Ashish Ranjan is an independent researcher. He has previously worked with Lokniti-CSDS, Centre for Policy Research, Ashoka University and India Today. He tweets @kranjanashish.