How to Rejuvenate the Indian National Congress

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How to Rejuvenate the Indian National Congress

Any pan-India challenge to the BJP’s political hegemony in national elections cannot be envisioned without the Congress. And thus, the party’s revival is critical.

How to Rejuvenate the Indian National Congress

Congress party president Mallikarjun Kharge, center, flanked by senior party leaders Sonia Gandhi, left, and Rahul Gandhi attend a press conference at their party headquarters in New Delhi, India, Thursday, March 21, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

The 2024 election bugle sounded in India with the announcement of dates for polls in the country’s 28 states and eight federal territories. The announcement, alongside the completion of Rahul Gandhi’s Bharatiya Jodo Nyay Yatra (BJNY) — “Unite India Justice March” — has once again brought to the fore discussion of the electoral prospects of India’s “grand old party.” 

One of the dominant developments in India’s political arena in the last decade has been the precipitous decline of the Indian National Congress (INC, or Congress). A lot has been written about the reasons behind the party’s sharp political decline and there has been significant discussion over the years of how Congress could improve its lackluster electoral performance especially in 2014 and 2019.

The principal accusation against the Congress and its leadership had been that they are reluctant and unwilling to make major structural changes — a major facet being an apparent reluctance to invest in leadership beyond the Gandhi family. Second, Rahul Gandhi’s role in politics had been analyzed with visible dismay over his inconsistent presence within the political fray and ostensibly inadequate efforts to turn the tide in his party’s favor. Third, many have noted that the Congress has presided over a gradually declining organizational machinery with no energetic and systematic efforts to rejuvenate it. Furthermore, the party leadership has made no attempts to stem incessant factional fights in many of its state units.

Are the Attempts at Course Corrections Enough?

In the last two years, however, Congress has taken some visible steps to address these concerns. 

For the first time in over two decades, in 2022 the Gandhi family relinquished the position of party president, and veteran Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge, a Dalit, was elected as the party chief. Even though it is widely believed that his loyalty toward the Gandhi family won him the position, his anointment to the post and ability to lead the party, is not to be dismissed. The Gandhis have continued to support Kharge in running the party and under his leadership, the party won state polls in Karnataka and Telangana in 2023. 

Second, Rahul Gandhi undertook the Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY —  ”Unite India March”) from September 2022 to January 2023. It was the party’s biggest mass mobilizational and outreach exercise in recent years and helped to salvage Gandhi’s popularity to some extent. Gandhi has also been, in recent months, more engaged in party activities from attending the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) meetings, leading the BJY, and campaigning for the party in all major elections. 

Third, while Gandhi’s BJY was largely perceived as a major boost to the party’s organizational architecture, Kharge, with support from the Gandhis, was able to stem factional fights in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh before the state assembly elections held in December. 

However, despite some of these initiatives, the Congress’ prospects dimmed in the last round of assembly elections in the three heartland states, with Telangana being the party’s only bright spot. And the popularity of Narendra Modi is largely untarnished, despite 10 years of incumbency. Besides, the INDIA coalition has shown limited promise. Meanwhile, Gandhi’s second edition of the BJY, the BJNY, was not able to galvanize as much public attention as was hoped. The Congress’ electoral prospects for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections don’t quite inspire unbridled optimism.

Why Congress Matters

Presently, the Congress is in power in only three states on its own. But despite the Congress’ gloomy prospects, its rejuvenation remains crucial for India’s political opposition at the national level. Although a number of strong regional parties have posited formidable challenges to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a slew of state elections since 2014, no opposition party other than the Congress has the national support base and organizational prowess to seriously challenge the BJP at the national level. 

Regional players like the Trinamool Congress ( TMC) have tried to expand their footprint beyond West Bengal, but with little success. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), has only been able to stretch its political dominance beyond New Delhi to Punjab, which was previously a Congress-ruled state. 

Realistically, any pan-India challenge to the BJP’s political hegemony in national elections cannot be envisioned without the Congress, despite its precipitous decline in recent years. Thus, a discussion on its political revival is befitting as India’s democracy gears up for a massive electoral contest in the coming weeks. 

Although the Congress’s political erosion became unavoidably obvious after 2014, the party’s support base has been on a gradual decline since the late 1980s and its organizational structures witnessed clear strain following the acute centralization of party functions since the Indira Gandhi era, after the party split of 1969. As the party’s decay has been long ongoing, any attempt to chart a course for rejuvenation and recovery cannot be orchestrated or implemented overnight. It will take concerted and consistent multi-pronged strategies for the grand old party to script its revival. To start, the Congress needs to take a two-pronged approach by distinguishing between short-term and long-term measures. 

Immediate Messaging versus Grand Vision

As a national party, over the years Congress has failed to iterate a grand vision or compelling political narrative to galvanize the imagination of the voters.

Congress’s pitch for serving the lower sections (i.e. the common man) through a wide array of social security architecture manifested in the slogan “Congress ka Haath, Aam Admi ke Saath” (“Congress stands with the common man”) during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) era from 2004 to 2014. That was arguably its last national narrative that got electoral traction. 

Over the last decade, slogans like “suit-boot ki sarkar” or “chowkidar chor hai” that tried to paint the Modi-led BJP as working in cahoots with crony capitalism, didn’t cut it with most voters. The Congress appears to be bereft of a concrete electoral strategy as the central plank for this election campaign as well. BJY helped to enthuse party cadres but its message to voters appeared ambivalent. The message of spreading love and societal harmony, manifested in the slogan, “Mohabbat ki dukan” (literally, shop of love) though well-meaning, lacked the substance, political clarity and sharpness that a coherent political message should have. Rahul Gandhi’s constant harping on a caste census to further empower the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) also seems to have not reached enough people as the most recent state election results indicated. 

The Congress needs to either devise a cohesive and attractive narrative offering an assuring alternative model of politics to what is being practiced by the BJP. Further, the Congress has to craft a more appealing governance model that can resonate with traditional support bases. 

In the longer term, Congress needs to come out with an overarching political narrative to which modern aspirational India can easily relate. For instance, the Modi-led BJP has over the years broadly crafted a political narrative featuring three major planks: Hindutva and a wider pitch for cultural revivalism; nationalistic pride and development, which includes technology-driven innovation; and significant infrastructure and social welfare through Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT). Congress will have to burn the midnight oil to find a compelling counter to such a set of broad-based catch-all political narratives.

Looking Beyond the Dynasty?

On the issue of party leadership, the Congress seems to have faltered the most — both at the national and the state level. Although the electoral achievements of the party under the Gandhis in the last decade have been visibly disappointing, Rahul Gandhi remains the most acceptable face within the party. This is largely because of the Congress’ long legacy of drawing its leaders from the Gandhi family, but also partly because of the absence of any other leader, who has widespread support among the party rank and file that would project them into national leadership. 

Therefore, strengthening the leadership’s image along with its messaging and marshaling its organizational strength to buttress its electoral prospects under Rahul Gandhi remains the only possibility for the Congress in the upcoming election to put up a more promising fight. 

Gandhi’s Nyay Yatra, while it helped to enthuse cadres, should have been reconsidered as it took up crucial time, with the leadership traveling states where its allies are already in power, whereas Congress’s main challenge is to perform against the BJP in the heartland states. It is in Congress’s interest to acknowledge the need to look for fresh and young leadership beyond the Gandhi family over the long-run to ensure that the party is able to reimagine itself in this new and different era of politics. Also, at the state level, old-timers are waning and many young leaders have deserted the party. A robust new second-rung of mass-based leadership is imperative for the Congress’s long-term vision, and the party must start searching for these future leaders. After all, strong control over state politics is the key to regaining national dominance. 

Organization Building or Alliance Building?

A fundamental dilemma for the Congress remains whether it should give space to strong regional parties in states where they are dominant. The problem is that giving way to sub-regional parties further shrinks Congress’s own organizational apparatus and demotivates its cadres in those states. The situation becomes more vexing when the party is pitched against its own potential allies in states like Bengal, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala. 

However, as the party has been relegated to a marginal force in these states, tactical alliances to prevent a splitting of votes that benefits the BJP should be the primary focus for this election. While the larger idea of the INDIA coalition is on highly slippery ground, in states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, where the Congress has shown the acumen to give headway to strong regional parties, the potential for a successful alliance remains a possibility. But, in the long run, Congress should start building focused and dedicated efforts to revamp its own organizational strength, especially in the heartland states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Moreover, contrary to the expectations under the Kharge presidency, Congress is yet to undertake a bold organizational revamp as long-standing Gandhi family loyalists hold firm despite their poor track record. 

There are no permanent winners or losers in democratic electoral politics. History has been witness to innumerable instances of political stalwarts and forces that ostensibly looked invincible facing humbling defeats; political novices have swept elections, too. So, despite the immediate gloom, the Congress, as a viable national political alternative, has a responsibility to resurrect itself. That said, cutting through its lackadaisical approach to challenge the status quo, fighting delusional hubris, and acknowledging the need for real change would go a long way toward fomenting that revival. It remains critical that India’s national political space has a functioning and impactful opposition force.