India: A Wake-Up Call for the Congress

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India: A Wake-Up Call for the Congress

Following electoral disaster, the Grand Old Party needs to reconsider its message and its leadership.

India: A Wake-Up Call for the Congress
Credit: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

The 2014 general elections in India will be remembered mainly for bring to power a controversial right-wing nationalist in the form of Narendra Modi. The Saffron wave swept all before it, and rewrote India’s political landscape in a way not seen since 1984 when Rajiv Gandhi swept to power following his mother’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards.

These elections will also be remembered for the hammering the incumbent Congress party received at the polls. While the party has of course had reversals before, never in its 125 year history has the party of Nehru and Gandhi suffered such a thrashing. The BJP got as many seats in India’s largest state Uttar Pradesh as the Congress did nationally. The evidence would seem to be strong that the Indian National Congress needs some major internal restructuring. Is the party listening? Apparently not.

On Monday, the Congress high command – otherwise known as the Congress Working Committee –refused to accept the resignations of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, who led this electoral campaign. In fact, they pledged undying faith in the leadership. It would seem the Congress party would be rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.

There were the usual promises of retrospection, listening to the people, and moving forward. However, the depth of this electoral bloodbath demands more than these platitudes; in winning not even 10 percent of the seats in the Lok Sabha, the Congress cannot be the leader of the opposition in parliament. As the only Party other than the BJP with a pan-India reach, this could spell disaster for the country. The party’s high command, including the Gandhis, are being willfully obstinate. What they seem not to understand is that the people of India did not just reject the failures of the UPA regime for the past decade, or the hollow promises to expand an already unaffordable welfare program. They rejected the Congress itself.

In the eyes of many, the Congress Party of the recent era has stood for nothing but sycophantic devotion to the Nehru-Gandhi family. Many party members will claim that the party has hitched its wagon to the wrong Gandhi. They will tell you that, if Priyanka Gandhi rather than her brother Rahul was the face of the campaign, things would have gone much better. But a combination of Rahul, Sonia and Priyanka would not have saved the INC in this election. The problem is the dynasty itself.

As long as a member of the Gandhi family heads the Congress Party, it is difficult to see how its prospects could improve. The image of the Congress as little more than a forum for sycophants clasping to obsolete policies will only persist. Elitist comments from senior party figures like Mani Shankar Aiyar, who dismissed Narendra Modi as a tea seller, have backfired spectacularly. Modi’s team exploited his humble beginnings, and used the narrative of a common man against the royal dynasty. This added immensely to his appeal among voters. The contrast with the Congress is stark; as long as the Gandhis cling to power, it will not be able to present itself as the party of new ideas and fresh leadership.

There have already been rumblings of dissent from within the Congress. Milind Deora, one of its younger members, had many heads nodding in agreement when he said that Rahul Gandhi’s advisors did not have their ears to the ground. He criticized the leadership in Delhi, accusing them of lacking experience in electoral politics. It is hard to argue with him. The powerful Congress Working Committee consists mainly of senior party officials who belong to the upper house of parliament and therefore do not have to fight electoral battles. It is damning when nine-time MP Kamal Nath – one of the few Congress members to hold on to his seat in this election – cannot get into the main decision-making body of the party. There can be no doubt that greater internal party democracy would breathe life into a fossilized organizational structure.

The Congress also suffered greatly from its lack of communication. The government of Manmohan Singh failed to mount a solid defense when it was battered by the courts, the CAG, the opposition, and popular street protests. It could not effectively project its own achievements and, very often, state governments run by regional parties walked away with the credit for the UPA’s schemes. The top-down approach has failed.

The Congress has traditionally favored relatively weak leaders, who do not pose a threat to the Gandhi family dominance. It needs now to conduct an urgent search for talent from the states. The BJP benefited greatly from putting its trust in its local leaders. Chief ministers like Shivraj Singh Chauhan in Madhya Pradesh and Modi himself in Gujarat were allowed to experiment with their own policies. This delivered tangible results in the recent elections. If the Congress is hoping to fire up enthusiasm for its brand before the next elections five years from now, it could do worse than placing its trust in its State leadership.

The Congress party needs a new message as desperately as it needs new faces. The grand rhetorical allegiance to the Nehruvian model of socialism looks tired. The people of India, both rural and urban, agreed with the BJP’s argument that economic growth and tangible development will do more to improve their lives than ever more public spending. Yet there remains ample scope for a refurbished, modern center-left economics. For all the criticism it has received, the fact remains that poverty declined at a faster rate under the Congress government that it did under the previous BJP regime. Serious doubts still linger about Modi’s authoritarian approach to policymaking and the alleged favoritism he showed big business in Gujarat. There are valid criticisms that for all the development in Gujarat, many segments of the state’s population have missed out. The Hindu nationalist impulses of the BJP, largely suppressed during the election campaign, have not disappeared entirely.

All hope is not yet lost for the Congress. Despite the BJP’s resounding victory in terms of lower house seats, six out of 10 Indians voted for parties (mostly regional) opposed to a Modi-led government. The Congress still has more representatives in the Rajya Sabha (upper house) and more seats in local state assemblies. It is still the only party with the charisma and history to confront the BJP and form a coherent opposition in parliament.

The Grand Old Party of Indian Politics may yet recover from this devastating defeat, but simply shifting blame away from the Gandhi family will not do. There needs to be wholesale reform in the party’s internal functioning and in its ideology. The sooner this happens, the better for the Congress and ultimately the better for Indian democracy.

Gautham Ashok is a postgraduate student of International Affairs at the Jindal School of International Affairs in India.