Atouch of stale familiarity attends to every recitation of the Congress story—the same litany of weaknesses is trotted out, the same problems are aired, and sundry experts engage in the same obituary writing. A quick scan of the cover stories india today itself has done over the years will reveal that the issues remain largely the same. The phrase “suspended animation” describes the state of the Congress most aptly—and it has been so for long.
And yet, each time the crisis seems more dire, and a sense of India’s Grand Old Party being on a historic, existential cusp prevails. The present moment feels especially dire. The party’s electoral desperation is getting starker across the landscape. It registered its lowest tallies ever in the last two Lok Sabha elections: 44 in 2014 and 52 in 2019; its national vote share, which registered its 50-year peak at 49.1 per cent in 1984, now swims in the shallows at 19 per cent. The party rules only two states solo. It has lost 37 of the 50 assembly elections held in the last eight years.
The immediate provocation for the current handwringing may have been the fleeting arrival of election strategist Prashant Kishor to the discussions. But everything that is on the table now falls in the twin categories of what former US secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, once called ‘known knowns’ and ‘known unknowns’. That’s why senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh is right when he says Kishor did not say anything the party did not already know. Sundry reports and volumes of data exist that have said the exact same things.
For example, Kishor, in his presentation, told party veterans that for the 2019 general election, the Congress fielded candidates who had lost two consecutive electoral contests earlier in as many as 170 constituencies! A senior leader like P. Chidambaram admits this data must have been available. “Had we put together that data and analysed it,” he says, “we would not have fielded those 170 candidates.” This is symptomatic of the party’s somnolent state.
The big elephant in the room which only few want to poke is the perennial question of leadership. Should there be a non-Gandhi at the helm? Should the party be vulnerable to the criticism widely levelled against it of having been turned into a family monopoly and make way for someone outside the Nehru-Indira-Rajiv lineage? Or should it hold firm and stay with the idea—which may not be entirely untrue either—that the Gandhi family has enduring value.
Meanwhile, the party is caught in a paradox. It has been literally leaderless for pretty much all of Narendra Modi’s second term, after Rahul Gandhi recused himself from the president’s post. But as insiders say, that space is now actually occupied by a complex troika—Rahul, his mother Sonia Gandhi and sister Priyanka, all three have a hand in key decisions, and often there are subtle differences in their approach. At any rate, in a democratic party, the leadership question cannot be adjudicated by someone who will be affected by that decision. The only way to do it without a conflict of interest is to throw it open to a truly collective choice—not stage-manage it with the geriatric party bureaucracy and effect a nominal change of guard, with a core loyalist being seated on the throne while the power centre remains where it is.
A deeper paralysis seems to affect the party’s mind on another core question: its very raison d’etre. Why does the Congress exist, what political language must it speak, what narrative should it present before the Indian voter? A lot of timid wavering has been on display on this front in recent years, as the party vacillates between its traditional political secularism and occasional dabbling in ‘soft Hindutva’. The fact is that a natural space exists on the Indian landscape for a centrist, secular party like the Congress. After all, in the 2019 general election, the BJP got 37.4 per cent of all votes—and the NDA cumulatively got nearly 45 per cent. But the balance 55 per cent did go somewhere else. This fact alone should spur the Congress into action if it seriously wants to get back into the electoral calculus.
It should be obvious to the leadership that it must focus on areas where it is strong and get into tactical partnerships elsewhere so as to present a common front against its biggest rival, the BJP. Yet the party persistently does the opposite thing. It happened in 2021, when the Congress’s internal survey—done by its own data analytics people—concluded it should form an alliance with the ruling TMC in Bengal, for which an offer existed on the table. But it went abegging. That a revitalisation on the ground can come about only by inducting fresh blood in a bottom-up organisational democracy again goes without saying. If a party makes a habit of not doing any of the things that common sense would dictate, holding a ‘Chintan Shivir’ in Udaipur is going to send no shivers up the BJP’s spine.
On the eve of this meeting, Executive Editor Kaushik Deka, who has been covering the Congress for nearly a decade, delves into all the challenges confronting the party at a time when it is poised to face 10 assembly polls in the next two years, before the general election in 2024. Says Deka: “The interdependence of the Gandhis and the Congress on each other for relevance has made it a party of status quoists. The Congress has perfected the art of not taking decisions, reducing the Grand Old Party to a rump. It must introduce some radical changes in the way it functions.”
The greatest advantage they still have is that they are the only truly national party besides the BJP, recognisable across the country. No serious opposition to the BJP can be mounted without the Congress. Dissident Congressman Manish Tewari put it well. “Every political party,” he says, “requires five fundamentals: ideology, narrative, organisation, resources and leadership. All these variables need to come together for electoral efficacy. All five are challenges for the Congress today.” Its principal rival, the BJP, has all these in full measure. If the Congress cannot come up with a plan to overcome these challenges after its brainfest in Udaipur, it will probably forfeit its last chance for a revival. Now or Never.