Finally, an introspection
If the Congress wants to end its increasing national irrelevance, urgent introspection and action is the need of the hour.
It has become business as usual for the media, political scientists, sociologists, leaders from the left to the right and the voters to talk about the Congress debacle. However, it is very rare to see Congress leaders discussing and debating the reasons for their party’s loss. However, a long-overdue official meeting of Congress Rajya Sabha members is a welcome development. The calls for introspection must lead to a finding of accountability for the worst consecutive electoral defeats of the grand old party. The process will be meaningless if the matter of the rejuvenation of the party at state levels is not focused on, as these victories herald the way forward for the Congress.
Nonetheless, it is a welcome sign that a few Congress leaders have begun to deliberate upon the reasons for the loss of the party in the 2014 elections. In the absence of a detailed and correct understanding for the reasons behind the electoral verdict of 2014, the Congress never had a chance to return to power in 2019. Therefore, Rajiv Satav’s remarks concerning the stalwart Rajya Sabha members who were esteemed ministers in the UPA-2 government must receive an appropriate response from the concerned leaders. Many contemporary Rajya Sabha members of the Congress were ministers in the UPA-2 government from the lower house of parliament. Their journey from the house of people to the Council of States is neither an elevation nor a generational shift within the party. However, the irony of the situation is best reflected in Rajiv Satav himself.
Satav is a young and dynamic leader who won his first ever contest for a Lok Sabha seat in 2014 when more seasoned and experienced ministers lost. In 2019, he opted not to contest in the Lok Sabha elections. Perhaps as a leader connected to the grassroots, he realized the futility of seeking a mandate for himself as nothing changed within the Maharashtra Congress after the defeats in the Lok Sabha and the state assembly elections of 2014. Of course, nothing changed at the state level because required changed had not taken place at the central level, despite Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as the party president in 2017. The move came too late, with too little manoeuvring space for Rahul Gandhi within and outside the Congress. It has now been 14 months since Prime Minister Narendra Modi conclusively won his second term to lead the country; the Congress top brass, however, still functions the same way as they did after their massive defeat in 2014. Nothing has changed for the Congress between 2014 and 2019, while the political trajectory of the country has shifted decisively from 2009 to 2014. The key questions regarding what worked for the Congress in 2009 and what went against it in 2014 need to be answered. There are three key contrasts in the scenario leading to the Congress winning 200 plus seats in 2009 and being reduced to 44 seats in 2014.
The first contrast is in the political dynamics between the Congress and the Left Front. The Congress-Left coordination and conflict dominated most of the policy discourse prior to 2009, which left the BJP groping in the dark for most of that time. The political intercourse between the Congress and the Left resulted in rights-based policies and prevented the BJP from blowing their pseudo-nationalist and religiously chauvinist trumpet. Even after the most dastardly terrorist attack of 26/11 in 2008, when the Congress was in power, the BJP was not able to stir up communal hatred and ultra-nationalist frenzy. The disengagement between the Congress and Left parties once again opened up the political space for the BJP in the post-2009 scenario. The inability of the Left parties to keep occupying the political sphere, not only in Bengal but across the country, resulted in the weakening of the progressive-secular bulwark against Hindutva and pseudo-nationalism. The tactics employed by the Congress to sideline the Left on the issue of the civil nuclear deal did not work in their favour after the UPA’s historic re-election in 2009. This demolition of the Left boomeranged on the Congress in 2014. Even now, as the Left keeps debating its prospective relations with the Congress, the latter has no remorse; nor do they have a forward-looking strategy on engagement with the Left.
The second contrast is with regard to UPA-1’s pro-activeness on the issues which, otherwise, could be used by the BJP for the consolidation and expansion of its core vote bank. The Sachar Committee report, OBC reservation in higher education, de-saffronization of text books, roundtable conferences in Kashmir, and, most importantly, going after the saffron terror network, were some of the key political initiatives of UPA-1. Its inability to carry forward a similar agenda in its second term resulted in the heavy dilution of the social consolidation that was built behind the Congress between 2004 and 2009. In a way, the emergence of the Modi phenomenon after 2009 was a counter attack by the social elite against the social consolidation of backwards, minorities and poor sections of the community. The UPA-II government failed to understand the severity of this attack and did nothing to sharpen its socio-political strategy. The social consolidation behind the Congress went into disarray under the concerted campaign of Modi’s Gujarat model, Modi as OBC and Modi as a poor tea-seller. To be honest, the Congress is yet to recover from the trauma.
The third contrast is the projection of the Prime Ministerial candidate. Even though the Congress never declared its Prime Ministerial candidate in the run up to the elections, the public is not naïve. In 2009, Dr. Manmohan Singh was in full control and there was no parallel projection of anyone else. Even then, the other hopefuls within the Congress such as Pranab Mukherjee, A K Anthony, P Chidambaram, Sushil Kumar Shinde, Digvijay Singh, and Mallikarjun Kharge, along with several Chief Ministers, gave the party their all in order for the Congress to retain power. A sense of entitlement and opportunity was a major driving force for most of these leaders in 2009. Their collective efforts created history as Dr. Manmohan Singh became the first Prime Minister after Nehru to gain a second term after the completion of a full term. Indian voters happily approved the equation of Sonia Gandhi being in charge of the party and Manmohan Singh being in charge of the government. The Congress failed to realize the significance of the voters’ approval. Disrespecting the mandate, the post-2009 Congress began the projection of Rahul Gandhi as the future Prime Minister. A special position of Vice-President of Congress party was created to elevate Rahul Gandhi’s stature. It became blatantly clear that the leader of the party and its government in the future would be Rahul Gandhi. The voters were not only disenchanted but felt cheated. The leaders, from whom Rajiv Satav is now demanding accountability, lost their drive, and the Congress lost the plot.
The Congress may not agree with this analysis but it should consider it, and more importantly, act upon it. Otherwise, the Congress will not be able to end its increasing national irrelevance, despite the Modi government’s disastrous economic performance.