In 476 AD one of history’s most legendary empires, the Roman Empire finally came crashing down after nearly 500-year run as the world’s greatest super power. In 2019, the ignominious decline of the 134-year old Congress runs on parallel lines. From leaders in jail for corruption directionless and dependant on its undaata it is staring at a lifeless and deathless life.
True, the Party which won India its freedom and ruled the country for nearly 60 years has weathered many a storm and come out trumps. But today, with Modi’s BJP becoming the central pole of politics the Congress holds out no hope as an alternative, instead it continues its fixation for the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty by anointed Sonia as interim President, nearly 20 months after she handed over the baton to son Rahul in December 2017.
Is the Party in death throes facing an existential deep crisis? What does it stand for as Sonia along-with her trusted old lieutenants tries to keep the sinking ship afloat? Can it be saved at this late stage given it is engulfed in a dust cloud of falling structural debris? What happens to it next? Is revival possible? And does it even matter?
Think, Karnataka and Goa seem to have opened the floodgates of MLAs deserting the Congress in Maharashtra, Haryana, Andhra and Delhi or defying its diktat in UP. Factional feuds has split the Party down the middle with leaders pulling in different directions in Maharashtra and Haryana which go to polls this month and have reared their ugly head in Bihar, Delhi and Jharkhand where elections are due next. Worse, it seems to have lost both its identity and function.
See how the Congress gave a walkover to Modi in celebrating 150 years of Gandhi’s birth anniversary. While the BJP made it an event to get across its political message of Swachh Bharat, the Party which the Mahatma once led as President showed total lack of political creativity and could only muster a speech by Sonia, tweet by Rahul and a padyatra by Priyanka.
Political circles are curious whether Sonia can repeat her past record and make the Congress an election-winning Party once again. Is she capable of countering the formidable challenge to the Modi-Shah duo across India?
Pertinently, her leadership was not accepted pan India as evident by the Congress’s performance after she took over in 1998. Certainly, she led the Party to power at the Centre in 2004 and 2009 and won many Assembly elections despite the then formidable Vajpayee-Advani challenge, but the Party’s vote share remained the same since 1999, around 28%. It now hovers at below 20% which signals the Congress is headed for a death spiral.
Yet Sonia’s leadership qualities has brought on board disparate regional political forces like DMK, NCP and RJD. Whereby she could make the Congress an umbrella organisation of diverse social groups, across castes, classes and religions.
“Undoubtedly, this is a difficult period for the Party and not the time for adventure as it is close to extinction and could probably die given its recent record. But it has nurtured elements of plural democracy which could outlive it,” asserted a senior leader. Adding, “There is a leadership vacuum of people who can make decisive, correct and timely decisions and execute them over a long period.
“Yet, it is hampered by the absence of strong ideology and solely reliant on the Family which binds it together. Compounding the problem it is dogged by paralysis over the last few years. Today, it is in difficult unchartered terrain, out of power for 10 years with an unbeatable BJP yapping at its heels.”
It urgently needs a structural response, reconstruct its organization, large interface and interaction to project an alternative ideological narrative to the BJP. For starters get rid of its ‘old guard’ who are gripped by the ‘Rajya Sabha syndrome’ and need to go as they neither have a mass base or public connect.
Alongside, it is needs money as a lack of funds is proving to be a major obstacle, hampering the Party’s ability to build a network of supporters, nurture new leaders and promote a populist electoral agenda to take on the Modi juggernaut.
Undeniably, Sonia realizes it’s an emergency as the Party is in Secular decline with a protracted inertia post its consecutive Lok Sabha defeats topped by a leadership crisis. In fact, Rahul’s resignation brought to the fore the ugly truth that the Party which has been in the iron-grip of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has no chairs left. This has exacerbated the sense of desolation within.
The ideological confusion in its ranks over crucial issues like abrogation of Article 370, resurgence of Hindutva politics, debate on nationalism, arrest of senior leaders over corruption and the new political narrative being spun by Modi-Shah is weighing the Party down and further weakening its position. Adding insult a host of its senior leaders supported the Government on Article 370. Another defeat in the Assembly polls would further test the Party as a viable alternative to BJP’s hegemony.
Further, it has no clear vision or rather a vision which seems to be disconnected from the twin objectives of fighting the BJP and reorganising the Party in a manner that can make it a fighting unit against an unstoppable opponent. Specially against the backdrop of the Congress’s shrinking vote nation-wide and the need to expand its organization and social base in States ruled by Opposition Parties.
Clearly, Sonia has her job cut out. She has to not only prep the Congress for the ensuing Assembly elections but also stem the growing disenchantment within. She needs to put to rest and not just paper over the schism between the Old Guard vs Young Turks which is deep and widens with every passing day.
Alongside, the Party should clearly spell out its ideological position on crucial issues instead of beating about the bush and go back to real bread-and-butter issues to connect with the masses. Though it is still early to say how it would achieve this, it goes without saying that the sense of despondency that had gripped the Congress after the Lok Sabha election has somewhat eased after Sonia’s arrival.
Her choices are limited as there is little space for maneuverability. Either the Party could “trudge along” with the old guard “buying peace with the BJP” or elect a strong leader who would lead it out of the morass. But in the absence of a political plan, this last road too seems to be one leading to a kind of deathless death for the Party.
Some still think that the Congress has an option that it hasn’t explored fully — that of bringing Priyanka Vadra to the fore. However, the 2019 election results prove that the Gandhis’ have lost their ability to draw peoples’ adulation. Either way it has to quickly get its act together or else will become as relevant as the Left is today.
Politics is a game of perception, Sonia has to use all her experience, sagacity and political connections to pull the Congress out of the quicksand it finds itself in. It remains to be seen how much she will be able to deliver. The earlier she starts the better as the Congress should not lead a lifeless and deathless life!