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What does the Congress lack? While working with the party in Uttar Pradesh in 2019 and 20, I came across many people; avowed supporters of the Congress, eager to work for the party.
Having worked with other parties since, one can attest to the broad support that the Congress still enjoys across the country. It doesn’t lack for resources. It is comfortably second to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in that respect and far ahead of smaller state parties. The amount of money that the party clearly invested into its Uttar Pradesh campaign, where it never had any hope of success, shows that it is nowhere near penury.
It does not lack voters either. It still has a national voter base of about 20%. The deceptively low vote share in states like Uttar Pradesh and Delhi is a function of the ideological Congress voters voting strategically for the party best placed to defeat the BJP. To put it briefly, the news of the Congress’ death has been greatly exaggerated.
That the Congress is still around, despite years of almost continuous defeats, is a testament to the enduring strength of its ideology. Even if the organised Indian National Congress were to end, the Congress as an ideology and political space would necessarily continue; it has too many adherents.
The crisis faced by the Congress, in terms of repeated election defeats, is a crisis of the current leadership of the party, not of the party’s ideology, contrary to the BJP’s repeated claims. While the BJP’s onslaught would have likely felled even a more efficiently run Congress, a better run Congress would have likely had more seats and a realistic chance of regaining power.
The despondency amongst the ‘Congressis’ (to use the delightful Hindi colloquialism) is not because of the election results, but because there is no clarity on the way forward. It’s like being caught in a traffic jam behind a sleeping driver.
The Congress leadership does not know what to do with the resources, the manpower and the vote base the party has. Leadership here refers not only to the Gandhis, but others at responsible positions within the party. The real failure of the Gandhis has not been that they have been unable to secure the success that the party desperately requires; they are still the most popular Congress leaders. Their real failure is that the party organisation is staffed with salaried employees pretending to be leaders or with leaders who have no drive to win elections.
The Congress leadership has forgotten that it is a political party which has the primary purpose of securing power to implement its stated programs. A political party cannot be a club of people whose contribution to the political discourse is a daily tweet and the occasional Op-Ed. A leader who does not wish to lead is not a leader. There have been towering persons like Mahatma Gandhi who did not desire power, but were consummate leaders nonetheless with their convictions, ideals and political goals. Mahatma Gandhi would not have sat idle while the Congress receded.
The original ‘big tent’ party of the country has let its tent shrink over the years. Its leadership positions are now populated by people who have a certain homogeneity in terms of their social positioning. The disconnect with the masses stems from here. For sure, leaders like Navin Patnaik have shown that an elite background and a clipped accent are no disqualification to a genuine connect with the people. The problem is that the Gandhis have outsourced the functioning of the party to a number of advisers who have no desire to establish this connect.
Most Delhi-based leaders of the party are more concerned with their social capital vis-à-vis the Gandhis rather than their political capital with the electorate. It’s like a company run by people unconcerned with profit, but desperate to impress the Board of Directors. It is a system destined to fail.
When Narendra Modi asks ad nauseum about what happened in the last 70 years, he ignores the fact that but for a Congress-led India, a person from a humble background such as his could not have aspired to the highest office in the land; but for the Congress, the ‘chaiwala’ could not have become the Prime Minister.
To communicate this to the people, however, requires humility and sensitivity. It requires somebody who understands the aspirational character of the Indian voter. Most of all, it requires somebody who wants to engage with the voter. Apart from a handful of leaders, there is nobody in the Congress who even wants to contest elections, let alone win them. There are very few interested in building the organisation. The expectation that the party machinery will keep producing victories for the privileged few is no longer true.
This is not to sing a dirge for the Congress. As I said, it has the resources, the manpower and the voters. If worse comes to worst, the Congress will die only to be replaced by another party which will have its ideology and outlook. The historical legacy of the party is secure as along as the Republic of India thrives; politics has no permanent endings.
The Congress needs an immediate overhaul. The Gandhis can either initiate the overhaul or be swept aside by it. Not to doubt their dedication to the party, but electoral politics is unforgiving; performances are harshly judged. The Indian National Congress needs an immediate overhaul to have a future, the Congress and the ‘Congressis’ face no such dire need. The ideology and its followers are going to be just fine, regardless.
Sarim Naved is a Delhi-based lawyer.