The Pulse

The Revival of the Indian National Congress: Looking Beyond Leadership

If Congress wishes resurrect its glory, it has to look beyond the question of leadership for rejuvenation.

By Ambar Kumar Ghosh and Avishek Jha for
The Revival of the Indian National Congress: Looking Beyond Leadership

Congress Party President Rahul Gandhi, second left, talks to his sister and party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as they leave after paying homage to their father and former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi on his death anniversary in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, May 21, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Manish Swarup

The abysmal performance of the Indian National Congress in the recently concluded national election has naturally raised serious questions regarding the political future of the grand old party in India. The most obvious contentious issue that is being widely and rigorously discussed is the capacity of the top leader of the party, Rahul Gandhi, to revive the political fortunes of the already beleaguered principal opposition party in India. It is undeniably true that the deep-rooted habitual sycophancy within the party regarding the unrestrained obsession with the Gandhis is appalling. Moreover, the unquestioning authority of the Gandhi family over the party machinery, despite leading the Congress to miserable electoral results in two successive national elections as well as innumerable state elections, thwarts the two most elementary prerequisites of a healthy party system, inner party democracy and electoral accountability.

But it will be an inexplicable exaggeration and unfair distortion of reality if the Congress party’s predicament is entirely attributed to the all-pervasive dominance and inefficiency of the Gandhis. It must be urgently realized that while it is indeed time to deliver an obituary for the age-old, once glorious but presently ill-famed dynastic leadership in Congress, the mere exit of the Gandhis won’t automatically spell the recovery of Congress. The predominant position of the Gandhi family, flanked and flattered by a coterie of electorally unconnected loyalists, is a mere symptom of a more deep-rooted structural, attitudinal, and ideological crisis that has slowly and eventually eroded the party beyond recognition in the last five decades.

Besides the leadership crisis, which is the most discussed shortcoming of the party, the precipitous decline of Congress should be explained in light of three more fundamental flaws that have facilitated the silent death of the party since the Indira Gandhi era. First, the complete lack of effort to nurture the grassroots level organizational structures of the party, which can help in mass mobilization. Second, the gradual shrinking of the social base of the party by alienating ambitious but fiery mass leaders in order to retain the supremacy of the central leadership of the party. Third, the complete lack of any consistent or coherent idea on which the party can build the narrative of its political identity to attract the people.

The Organizational Revamp

The Congress’ raison d’etre for a few years now seems to revolve only around the idea of installing a Gandhi as prime minister of the country, around whom fiefdoms of regional heavyweights thrive and exist. It is undeniably true that the unrestrained obsession with the Gandhis is the only glue holding the party together. However, the Indian electorate has come a long way since the times of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, with little appreciation for legacy, elitism, and entitlement. Under such circumstances, with the Gandhi brand under duress, the Congress’ ability to fight the structural and organizational behemoth of the RSS-BJP combine stands severely compromised because of its short-sighted negligence of growth and development on the organizational front.

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The well-oiled organizational prowess of the RSS and its affiliate groups at the micro-level contributes a great deal to the successful mass mobilization of voters by the ruling BJP. Once-effective Congress bodies — like Seva Dal, which is the seminal grassroots front organization; the Youth Congress, which still has a membership of over 20 million; and the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), which has the capacity to resonate widely — are now largely dysfunctional and highly ineffective. The grand old party, the pioneer of the largest mass mobilization in the history of India, lacks the wherewithal and seems rudderless to man its polling booths, guard its electoral citadels, mobilize resources across states, and carry the policy ideas and vision of the party to the citizens across India.

Art of Accommodation

Second, the party has long relinquished the Nehruvian “Congress system” of consensus and coalition-building for tactical electoral gains, resulting in a depleting core voter constituency. Gradually, the once diverse group of social and regional constituencies that used to find breathing space in the rank and file of the Congress found its way out to regional, linguistic, and caste-based parties. From losing Tamil Nadu to the Dravidian parties in the 1960s to losing the Hindi heartland to the caste-based parties and the BJP in the 1990s, the Congress has never been able to regain ground in these regions.

To add insult to injury, the irrational need to maintain unquestioning dominance over the party by the Gandhis restricted the rise of ambitious yet highly-skilled regional leaders, who were either cut down to size or shown the door. From the removal of strongmen like Devaraj Urs in Karnataka and Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra, to the more recent examples of Hemant Biswa Sharma in Assam and Y. S. Jaganmohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, the Congress has systematically alienated firebrand regional stalwarts simply to quell the unjustified insecurity of its central leadership. As a crude irony of destiny, the Congress paid a heavy price for its gross political miscalculation and has been rendered politically irrelevant in many states by the very leaders the party ignored. As opposed to the growth of strong regional leaders even within national parties like the BJP — Shivraj Singh Chauhan in Madhya Pradesh and Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh — the Congress’ aversion to the growth of mass leaders has rendered the party ineffective in key states.

A Convincing Narrative

Lastly, the party has completely failed to churn out a distinct identity based on a coherent ideology or messaging that can effectively capture the imagination of a wide swath of people. From the party’s espousal of “soft” Hindutva to counter BJP’s Hindu consolidation to the occasional avowal of secularism in order to keep the minorities in good humor, the party’s confused ideological narrative has further weakened its popular appeal. The Congress’ past insistence on socialistic leanings, secularism, and progressive policies has come to be replaced by an ideological void. Its emulation of the BJP and use of soft Hindutva or aligning with erstwhile political enemies just to defeat Narendra Modi and the BJP reduces its viability, uniqueness, and acceptability in the political market.

Above all, Congress must realize that as much as they would like to believe that the rise of BJP is merely a product of Hindu polarization and the Modi wave, the secret of its success goes much beyond that. It is the organizational discipline, accommodative attitude, and clearly articulated political narrative that helps the Hindutva-Modi combine win. If Congress wishes resurrect its glory, it has to look beyond the question of leadership for rejuvenation. In order to arrest its terminal decline, the Congress needs to revisit its foundational principles and its rich political history to connect with the electorate.

Ambar Kumar Ghosh is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata.

Avishek Jha is a 2018 Young India Fellow, and is currently a Programme Fellow with Academe India.