In the aftermath of a decisive loss in the Lok Sabha election, the Congress has work to do in the years ahead. After any organisation goes through a particularly tough period, changes usually start at the top. In this case, that’s Rahul Gandhi who succeeded as the party President after his mother Sonia Gandhi.
At the Congress Working Committee, his offer to resign as party chief was rejected by the members. In 2014, in the aftermath of the elections, Rahul Gandhi held himself responsible saying, “There’s a lot for us to think about, and, as vice president of the party, I hold myself responsible.” This is familiar territory for the party as Chanakya writes in the Hindustan Times –
Watching the drama unfold in the Congress. Does the grand old party really believe that one resignation of @RahulGandhi will change their fortunes dramatically? Surely not! The rise of Moditva can be challenged only by a new big idea not cosmetic changes. Will take time!
— Rajdeep Sardesai (@sardesairajdeep) May 26, 2019
Performance and Mistakes
With the party as a whole performing badly this time and not being able to stake claim of principal opposition, Rahul Gandhi himself lost in Amethi to BJP challenger Smriti Irani. The numbers aren’t a pretty picture for the party. In 2009, it won 206 seats on its own, five years later it collapsed to 44 and now it’s 52. Its national footprint has shrunk drastically.
There were 192 seats which saw a direct contest between the Congress and BJP and the latter won 176 of them. The overall vote share for the Congress this time around is 19.5%, almost the same as its 2014 performance. There were 16 states and Union Territories where the Congress failed to win a single seat, among them Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan and Gujarat.
The campaign revealed several fault lines in the electorate and was often ugly and turned violent on occasions. The Pulwama attacks and India’s response gave the Prime Minister the opportunity to portray himself as a leader who will not sit and watch silently. Nationalist fervor is his wheel house and the time was ripe. The Election Commission saw no wrong doing in him using the attacks in his political speeches as he drew a clear vision when it came to national security. Shishir Gupta, in a column for the Hindustan Times, writes on the mistake Congress made with regards to national security –
“One of the key political lessons from the 2019 general election is that parties should neither question military operations nor soft-peddle on national security. By questioning the 2016 surgical strikes and 2019 Balakot air strike, the Congress fell on the wrong side of the nationalism narrative sweeping the country.”
A silver lining perhaps is its performance in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Punjab. Particularly in the two southern states, Modi isn’t a popular figure and like regional ones. The AIADMK-BJP alliance was easily defeated by the DMK-Congress alliance. According to analysis from India Today, the two southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu viewed Gandhi more favorably than Modi.
The Congress perhaps could use that as a stepping off point going forward. Being politically absent in a state such as Odisha and West Bengal is political suicide at this point. Alliances help shore up the electorate and are better than not competing in a state at all. In Punjab, a border state, the Pulwama attacks didn’t seem to have an effect and anti-incumbency didn’t prove to be a factor. In this state, the people trusted Captain Amarinder Singh who countered Modi’s nationalist pitch. He weathered the storm regarding comments on the 1984 anti Sikh riots and has a track record of questioning Modi on his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.
For any organisation that’s looking to rebuild, a fundamental question to ask is what does it stand for? It’s a question that any challenger to an incumbent will get asked. It’s easy to frame it in terms of what the Congress is against, but answering what it’s for will prove to be a harder challenge. Countering with policy could be a way to go. However, this was fundamentally an ideological battle, and as Yamini Aiyar, President and Chief Executive of Centre for Policy Research, writes in the Hindustan Times, the party has to have an ideological counter –
“If the hegemony of the BJP is to be challenged, it cannot be done through old school caste arithmetic and alliance politics. A new framework will need to emerge. You cannot fight an ideological battle through policy. The real challenge for the Congress is its unwillingness to be courageous and articulate an ideological counterpoint to the BJP’s hegemony.”
The party in many ways has to do multiple thins at once. Among them is unity; a house divided seldom succeeds. The signature policy proposal it put forward, the minimum income guarantee scheme was discussed and debated about, but the environment was such that policy took a back seat. Perception and ideology are front and centre. Rebuilding is a marathon and the party will need to work on all fronts. Kalyani Shankar, in a column for The Statesman, writes on the path ahead for the party –
“The first priority for the Congress is to lift the sagging morale of workers. For this, it needs a bottom-up approach and leaders should reconnect with the masses. The immediate priority is to restructure and revitalise every state unit even up to the district level.”
One of the keys to success for the BJP is grassroots and state party units being in good shape. Infusing a sense of pride among them, as the BJP has done effectively will go a long way in helping the party to build from the ground up. Simultaneously present the party as a viable alternative with a clear ideological agenda and infuse that throughout the party apparatus. A good, secular and tolerant democracy requires a healthy opposition party. The onus is on the Congress to do the work to get to that place.