Decline of Congress

Decline of Congress

On a low: Never before has Congress faced possibility of such a sharp fall for which reasons are many

Decline of Congress

Congress strategists in the party’s so-called war room in the national capital were beginning to dream big soon after the announcement of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections – a dream to restore the party to its ruling party status on its own strength in five years’ time – to be precise, in the 2014 parliamentary elections. It originated from the fact that the party’s strength jumped to 205 seats, from the 145 it had won in the 2004 polls– an impressive increase of 60 seats. 

Staunch supporters of the party’s rising star Rahul Gandhi were convinced that the Congress will cross the simple majority mark of 273 seats in the Lok Sabha on its own in 2014 and that will be the moment for the young leader to take over the prime ministerial position from Manmohan Singh.

There is still about 5 months’ time available before facing the 2014 Lok Sabha (LS) elections. But the 2009 dream has already become a nightmare for the party leadership. The last Sunday’s Assembly election results from Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Chhattisgarh have sealed the party’s fate for 2014. 

The party leadership perhaps got carried away by its impressive show in the last LS elections. Otherwise, it is difficult to explain how from a position of strength four and half years ago, the party should find itself in such a vulnerable position and without allies, as it is now. It has lost Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, DMK in Tamil Nadu, Telangana Rashtra Samiti and MIM in Andhra Pradesh, and has forgotten its old and trusted allies in Bihar – Rashtriya Janata Dal and Lok Janshakti Party in Bihar. With friends like Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party (both in UP), does one need any enemy? The party and the United Progressive Alliance that it leads at the Centre finds themselves weakened and isolated, as a result. 

Forget attracting votes, the party will find it difficult to even woo the allies, given its bruised image. A number of scams – Commonwealth Games, 2G spectrum allocation, coal block allocation, to name a few – have battered the credibility of the party and the UPA coalition.

 Persisting low growth, high inflation, particularly skyrocketing food prices, and a weak rupee have hit the standing of the government even though it is led by economist Manmohan Singh. So much so, Singh has become a political liability, which even many Congress leaders concede.

Realistically for the Congress, any hope of improving upon its performance in 2009 has to be based on a positive image of the party, credibility of its government and strong allies. The party did well in 2009 on the strength of having led a “sober” government, a good record of economic performance, and the support of powerful allies and friends. 

The problem with the party has been that it had falsely convinced itself that the 2009 election performance was due to its leadership – Sonia Gandhi’s leadership of the party, Manmohan Singh’s leadership of the government, and the youthful appeal of Rahul Gandhi. There is no doubt that Sonia helped reunify a party which was falling apart after its electoral defeat in the 1996 elections. But since then, particularly after 2004 when Rahul made his entry to the party as Sonia’s heir-apparent, the entire focus of the party has been on them. 

The party’s revival required a lot of work on the ground. Lost in the belief of their leaders’ exaggerated abilities, the party has paid little attention to understanding the political and electoral realities which have vastly changed since the days India Gandhi led it for years, or Rajiv Gandhi led it to its best-ever electoral performance in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections – winning 49.1 per cent of the votes polled. 

But for the election held in 1977 following Emergency, the Congress had always won over 40 per cent of the popular votes and commanded a comfortable majority in LS until the 1989 elections. It had no real challenge from any national parties – indeed there were hardly any genuine national parties until then. Neither were there any strong regional parties, except in Tamil Nadu where the party lost to the DMK in 1967 and it is yet to regain that lost ground in the southern state. There were odd challenges from the so-called united opposition, particularly in 1967, but the party withstood the challenge. 

The reason why it could withstand stray challenges was because there was no threat to the party’s social base across the country. While its leadership came from the upper castes – Brahmins, Rajputs and Bania  - the party received its support from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Muslims, besides the upper castes. Traditionally, intermediary castes too provided some support to the party. These intermediary castes, mainly the OBCs, started moving away from the party in northern states such as UP, Bihar and Haryana in the mid-1960s when Charan Singh started mobilising them against the Congress. 

But the real challenge to the party’s traditional support base came in the second half of the 1980s during the Rajiv Gandhi period when the temple locks were opened in Ayodhya and later his government laid shilanyas for constructing a Ram temple. The BJP grabbed the opportunity to lay claim to the upper caste vote base of the Congress and never looked back. Around the same time, V P Singh brought up the Mandal card. It provided a rallying point to mobilise OBCs as a distinct political force. Though V P Singh did not benefit from it directly, there emerged Mulayam Singh Yadav and Kalyan Singh in UP and Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar in Bihar. The Congress has never regained – it never even looks like ever regaining – lost base in these two large states. The minority Muslims lost faith in the Congress and gravitated towards these new political forces. As if this was not enough, Kanshi Ram-Mayawati combine took away the Dalit base, the BJP its tribal base in the tribal belt of central India. The party, thus, lost its social base almost completely in these states. 

Worse, in the process of this political transition, new political forces with strong regional appeals too emerged in state after state – which eroded the party’s base further – Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh, Asom Gana Parishad in Assam, Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra, Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, JD(S) in Karnataka, Telangana Rashtra Samiti and the latest being the YSR Congress (both in Andhra). 

As a result of the loss of its assured social base, the Congress’ vote share dropped from the comfortable 40 per cent mark (which it enjoyed until the 1984 elections), and subsequently to below the danger mark of 30 per cent in the successive elections since 1998. You do not win a majority with less than 30 per cent votes, and you cannot hope to garner above 30 per cent vote share without a strong social base, given the fact that social factors strongly influence electoral behaviour of our voters. 

With no reliable social base to bank on in today’s highly competitive electoral scene, its image having taken a beating, and with no ally to really count on at this stage, the Congress faces a nightmare of an election, come 2014.      

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