The protracted crisis in the Congress party spells a major challenge for the oppositional space in the Indian political landscape. For a vibrant and resilient multi-party democracy like India, the presence of a credible and effective opposition is extremely crucial. An alert and efficient political opposition in a democracy serves two vital functions. First, the opposition needs to highlight the shortcomings in the governmental policies of the party in power in order to ensure democratic accountability. Second, the opposition party also needs to develop and project itself as a competent political alternative before the electorate to ensure a competitive electoral contest in a healthy democratic spirit.
India’s political landscape is witnessing an evolving situation in which the national ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has emerged as the dominant political force since 2014. On the other hand, the only truly national opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC), has faced massive electoral setbacks in two consecutive national elections, held in 2014 and 2019. At the state level many powerful regional parties as well as some regional Congress leaders continue to stall the political consolidation of the BJP in the regional elections. But the regional political satraps lack the political clout to electorally challenge the ruling party at the pan-India level.
It is undeniable that despite its rapid decline, only the Congress party has a political and social base all over India that could be consolidated as a powerful oppositional force at the national level, and as a suitable political alternative to the BJP. However, the Congress party has been besieged by three major challenges for a long time: the leadership conundrum, organizational weakness, and ideational bankruptcy. After analyzing these factors — which are severely jeopardizing the political prospects of the grand old party of India — I will delve into how intra-party trust building, measured decentralization of the party structure, and collective leadership led by a popular political personality with a clear vision can pave the way for the Congress’ revival.
First, the question of top leadership in the party remains unresolved even six years after its defeat in national elections. Sonia Gandhi, who resigned from the post of party president in 2017 after leading the Congress for 19 years at a stretch, was again reinstated in an interim capacity last year. Her return to the helm of the party came following the resignation of her son, Rahul Gandhi, from the top post after taking responsibility for the party’s devastating electoral outcome in the 2019 general elections. Mrs. Gandhi was brought back to lead the party despite her reluctance and Rahul Gandhi’s insistence that the party find a president outside their family.
Moreover, the political crisis of the party continued to deepen in the last year as it lost power in the states of Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh partly due to their inability to stall defections. The party also narrowly escaped a major crisis recently as a factional feud between party leaders Ashok Ghelot and Sachin Pilot exacerbated with possible threat of destabilizing the Congress government in Rajasthan.
Recently, a letter from some prominent leaders who demanded a complete overhaul of the Congress for its rejuvenation catapulted into a sudden crisis in the party. However, despite all these challenges looming large, a major decision regarding the topmost leadership remains to be taken. As of now, Sonia Gandhi will continue to act as the interim president until a full-time president is elected. Rahul Gandhi is unsure about returning to the top post and dominant sections of the party leadership find it unacceptable to consider anyone from outside the Gandhi family to lead the party. So, the issue of leadership of the national opposition party in India is far from settled. Such an ambiguity prevents a semblance of stability in the party leadership.
Apart from the leadership challenge, the erosion of the party’s organizational apparatus in many states has led to rapid shrinking of its electoral base. The party witnessed major losses in its support base in states like Delhi, Bihar, and Maharashtra. The Congress’ hold over the northeastern states has also loosened drastically over the recent years as BJP gained a political foothold in the region. Such an inability to mobilize the electorate stems from Congress’ declining organizational capacity to connect with the masses at the grassroots level.
Once effective and potential Congress organizational wings like Seva Dal (the youth wing of the party) — which still has impressive membership — and the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) are not being optimally used to galvanize the electorate. A consolidated effort to revamp its organizational structures with the aid of an energetic battery of party workers and local leaders is needed to connect with the masses. Otherwise, it will be difficult for the Congress to politically counter the highly effective organizational structure of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and other Sangh Parivar affiliates which provide valuable support to the BJP at the grassroot level to help expand its political footprints.
Beyond these issues, the Congress needs to realize the paramount importance of a clear political idea or vision for creating a narrative that appeals to the electorate. The political emergence of the BJP from 2014 was based on its combined narrative of Hindutva along with the promise of strong leadership and effective welfarism. But the Congress has been unable to devise an equally appealing narrative that can offer an alternative in the Indian political discourse. Despite its attempts to build a political narrative against the ruling BJP, the Congress didn’t prove to be electorally appealing largely because of its ambiguous and inconsistent formulation and inadequate communication to the lowest rungs of the society. Lack of a clear political blueprint of the Congress — which is substantively different from the BJP — has been one of the major impediments for the party in projecting itself as a credible political alternative at the national level.
The Way Forward
In order to confront the above-mentioned challenges head on, the Congress must attempt to take urgent stock of the ensuing crisis, which is hurting the prospects of the party.
First, efforts should be made by the party leadership to create internal trust-building mechanisms at every level of the party. As Congress has remained out of power in New Delhi and in many states for some time now, keeping the flock together at the national, regional, and local level remains a major challenge. Mutual suspicion brewing among the leaders within the party clearly manifested itself in the factional tussles of the regional leadership in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and other states. The recent short-lived feud between the group of leaders who advocated a structural transformation of the party and the other members also reveals the simmering trust deficit within. Only a tolerant and accommodating approach toward diverse viewpoints of all leaders and resolution of misunderstandings through negotiation will strengthen the party from within.
Second, the decentralization of the party and the strengthening of the regional units and local leadership is extremely crucial for refurbishing the mass connect of the Congress party. A robust group of mass-based popular regional leaders with adept organizational skills and mobilization capacity is a major step toward creating a strong collective leadership of the party. That will reinvigorate the party organization and convey the vision of the Congress across the country. But the central leadership of the party should also be mindful of the fact that the major faction in the regional party units shouldn’t try to dominate the minority factions within the party, as happened in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Rather, in states where the party is in power, it must try to chart a model of effective and coordinated governance based on development and welfare that can serve as a political template for the party to garner wider acceptability and reliability among the electorate.
However, strong regional leadership and effective organizational structure cannot alone script the political resurrection of the Congress at the national level. A reliable and electorally-popular central leadership is also essential to frame the vision for the political resurrection of the Congress at the national level. Personality-based political appeal is an integral part of India’s democratic history; a popular face with a coherent and distinctive political message of better governance and long term development must lead the party. In order to settle the leadership question amicably, free and fair organizational elections for the leadership position of the party at various levels will be a welcome gesture amidst the crisis. As the ruling BJP is led by the charismatic and popular leader Narendra Modi, an opposition leader with promising vision and popular appeal will be pivotal for the revival of the Congress party.
A strong and effective opposition is a major hallmark of a vibrant democracy. The revival of the Congress party to credibly fill in the position of the national opposition party is necessary for the endurance of a competitive democracy in India.
Ambar Kumar Ghosh is a researcher at the Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata, India and a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India.