The Congress party which was on a high in last December after winning three major heartland states has plunged into a crisis again after the 23rd of May results. Suddenly nothing is going right for the Congress at the national level or in key states. Just eight additional seats as compared to 2014 is certainly not an improvement which the party can tom-tom about. The party is going about looking for scapegoats to blame the 2019 Lok Sabha debacle on.
The prospects in key states like Maharashtra and Haryana where the party was a major force up to 2013, look bleak in the run up to the assembly elections. The Congress has been reduced to a number four party in Maharashtra and could just win one seat in the Lok Sabha polls. Considering that they had a small base of two seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Congress still managed to suffer a 50% reduction in seats. The solitary seat of Chandrapur was won by an ex Shiv Sena MLA who joined the party just prior to the polls. The Chandrapur MP Balu Dhanorkar is a liquor baron and probably won due to the anger against prohibition in the district. Top Congress leadership at the centre and state hardly played any role in this win. Two former chief ministers Ashok Chavan and Sushil Kumar Shinde lost the elections, such was the pathetic condition of the Congress. Haryana was much worse with the Congress drawing a blank and even managing to lose Rohtak.
If the reports about the con played by data analytics department head Pravin Chakravarty on the top Congress leadership are true, then it is comical and tragic at the same time. Rahul Gandhi was living in a make-believe world where he was reasonably confident of being the Prime Minister, though the exit polls showed a completely different picture. So where did the Congress go wrong. Will ten years out of power damage the Congress party critically? Many questions have arisen out of the Lok Sabha result. The year which started on a very optimistic note for the Congress seems to have gone horribly wrong and more horrors are expected in the next six months.
The following seem to be the five major reasons for the debacle of the Congress,
- Out of step with new age politics of performance: The Congress is still stuck in the mandal era politics of caste mobilisation and religious appeasement. Congress relies upon a loyal vote bank more than administrative performance to win elections. More recent example is the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh which promised a farm loan waiver to be implemented immediately after coming to power. The promise has not been fulfilled yet. Power cuts are back in MP after a long time. Congress never focusses on basic governance. It seems it has not yet learnt from the success of Modi in delivering basic services and welfare schemes. Congress instead relies on the 15-20% muslim votebank in various states as their mainstay. Then they look to complement it with the biggest Hindu caste in various states. It could be the Marathas in Maharashtra, Jats in Haryana or the Gujjars in Rajasthan. Congress still attracts a decent number of dalit voters. But when it comes to looking after their voters, Congress has always fallen short. In fact the Congress seems to believe that keeping the voters poor helps in milking them multiple times. Modi govt has done more for Dalits (along with other Hindu castes and other religions) through schemes like Ujjwala, MUDRA and Saubhagya (electricity connection in any willing household) etc. Congress is yet to realise that we are in the post mandal era and voters of various social groups want delivery of services more than token representation of ministers from their caste or region.
- Preference to seniority and dynasty over talent: Congress has always shown preference for seniority and dynast over talent. Recent example was the selection of Ashok Gehlot as CM of Rajasthan and Kamal Nath as CM of Madhya Pradesh, over Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia respectively. This is not to say that Pilot and Scindia are not dynasts, but they are much younger than Gehlot and Nath and could have attracted voters with new ideas. Instead oldies like Gehlot and Kamal Nath who financed the assembly / Lok sabha election campaign were selected as the chief ministers. Same familiar and worn out faces who have been around for decades and have failed in providing governance have been persisted with by the party. In contrast Narendra Modi has selected new and younger leaders like Devendra Fadnavis, Yogi Adityanath, Manohar Lal Khattar, Sarbananda Sonowal, Jairam Thakur and Biplab Kumar Deb as chief ministers and central ministers like Piyush Goyal, Dharmendra Pradhan, Kiren Rijiju and Nirmala Sitharaman etc. The episode than best epitomizes the Congress fallacy is ex Assam CM favouring his son as his successor, over his long-term deputy Himanta Biswa Sarma. Later Rahul Gandhi insulted him by playing with his pet dog while Himanta was putting forth his views. An insulted Himanta vowed to decimate Congress in the North East and accomplished the task in a short duration. Ignoring talent does not pay be it a business organisation or a political party.
- Inability to look beyond the Nehru Gandhis: The Congress has become a Nehru-Gandhi incorporated in the last few decades. Leader outside the family cannot be visualized as leading the party. It is possible that a dummy leader like AK Antony or Ashok Gehlot might be selected to be the party president in place of Rahul Gandhi. But in such an arrangement, it would be the family running the party. Most of the leaders in the Congress know that the rot starts at the top, but no one has the guts not the inclination to blame Rahul Gandhi for the same. Hence the attempts to blame the state chief ministers or data analytics head Pravin Chakravarty or social media head Divya Spandana. In Congress it has become a race to appear dumber than Rahul Gandhi, lest looking intelligent is taken as a slight. A capable man like Pranab Mukherjee was never trusted by Sonia Gandhi. Nor do Rahul or Priyanka look inclined to put a strong-willed leader at the helm. The Congress workers and leaders too don’t seem to be looking beyond Priyanka Gandhi, in case Rahul Gandhi is to be replaced (that is too strong a word for the Congress. Rahul might be made President Emeritus for life and phased out in to retirement).
- Arrogance towards allies and party workers: Priyanka Gandhi recently blamed the party karyakartas for the failure in Uttar Pradesh. Even a five-year old kid would have told that the only possible result for Congress in Uttar Pradesh was a disaster. Priyanka Gandhi was touted by the Congress ecosystem as the ultimate saviour of the party and as the mirror image of Indira Gandhi. Indira was arrogant and treated party workers with disdain, but then she had the aura of having won the 1971 war and having owned her place at the top after fighting with the syndicate. Priyanka and Rahul have got their positions on a platter and their only qualification has that been of a “lucky sperm”. Arrogance does not take a leader much ahead in politics unless you have a remarkable track record in governance. The Gandhi siblings have no achievement. This arrogance was the reason that the success in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhatisgarh was taken as a sign of anti-incumbency having set against the union government. Rahul Gandhi expected the BJP to roll over and die in the Lok Sabha election. Contrast this arrogance of the siblings with the BJP President Amit Shah who sent out personalised letters to key party workers (not necessarily big leaders) thanking them for their efforts during the Lok Sabha campaign and requesting their co-operation for the journey ahead. Modi and Shah have never rested on past laurels and they have already started work on upcoming assembly elections of the next 2-3 years.
- Missing connect with the youth: 65% of the Indian population is below 35 years of age. This would translate to about 50% of the voters being below the age of 35. This underlines the importance of youth voters in India. Rahul Gandhi being a youth leader (though he is 49 years old) was expected by the Congress party and friendly ecosystem to have a good connect with the youth and sweep them off their feet with his humility. But ironically the person who won over the youth was the 67-year-old Narendra Modi. Lack of jobs is the biggest problem for the youth and Rahul tried to attack the Modi government on that issue. But like always he could not stick to that issue and got pulled in the national security theme raised by Modi. Rahul focussed more on the Rafale non corruption case and forgot everyday issues. The young voters acknowledged the lack of jobs as a serious issue but they trusted Modi more to solve the issue. Rahul Gandhi and the Congress party simply lacked the credibility with the voters to make an impact. Modi displayed the long-term vision that attracts young voters. But it ideas like “Swach Bharat”, “Make in India” or the vision of Modi linked to the 75th year of Indian Independence, the youth connected with this long term vision. The lesson for the Congress is that only negative things do not resonate with the youth.
Time will tell whether the Congress will take any lessons out of this Lok Sabha 2019 debacle. Right now it does not seem that they are doing any course correction. The same old game of trying to put the failure at the doorstep of some random leader rather than the Gandhis, is being played. Though we must give one year to see any change in the approach of the Congress. Remember that parties don’t disappear overnight and they can come back from the dead. Prominent example is the BJP in 2009 which was expected to fade away but instead returned to capture power in 2014.
For now it seems that the Congress has started disintegrating in their remaining strongholds like Maharashtra, Karnataka, Haryana and the North East states. Congress leadership should act now before it is too late and remember that even Kerala and Tamil Nadu are not safe from the BJP onslaught of 2024.