Ever since the exit polls predictions about a crumbling Opposition and the possible decimation of the Congress party began to be discussed, Swaraj India president and long-time political analyst, Yogendra Yadav, stirred up a controversy talking of how the Congress must die.
The debate raged further after the confirmation of the exit polls through the electoral results that proved nothing short of a debacle for the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Yadav asserted that the Congress, as well as the Opposition forces, failed to protect the ‘Idea of India’ from the electoral authoritarianism of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He also called Congress the single largest obstacle to resisting the BJP’s majoritarian project through the building of an alternative to it. The question to be contemplated is whether the Opposition failed to appear as a strong alternative or whether the voters were steadfast in their choices.
Some people have attributed this landslide victory of the BJP to chauvinism and growing intolerance. Another section of intellectuals is ascribing the fiasco to Congress’ inability to take on the BJP. The abject hopelessness of liberals is understandable but the question is how fair are they in the chastisement of an Opposition party, especially the Congress, to this extent.
Poll analysts were befuddled over trends during elections but they were hopeful about the fair performance of Mahagathbandhan in Uttar Pradesh and the perpetuation of Lalu’s charisma by his son and an overall resurrection of Congress under new leadership.
Essentially, the faith in the electoral arithmetic of alliances seems to have been brutally crushed in this battle against the chemistry of emotive nationalism, ideological hegemony and personal charisma. While some still believe a different outcome may have been possible if there was a higher index of Opposition unity, the message from the voters against an opportunist, the anti-Modi electoral pact is very clear. The best example of the same came from Karnataka where the arithmetic of the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) alliance was counter-productive because various practical realities of party organisation and social coalitions were disregarded.
The true believers in the foundational principles of our Republic must take this moment to look within and acknowledge the limitations of the chastisement of the political Opposition which faced the most well-oiled political machinery under a remarkably uneven electoral scenario. While the criticism that the Opposition failed to offer a real and trust-worthy alternative is fair, introspection must go deeper than that.
First of all, as the analysts Suhas Palshikar and Apoorvanand have argued earlier, it is rather imprudent to write off a party that has ensured a firm grip over its traditional vote of over twenty percent (over 12.13 crore voters) firmly despite monumental organisational failures and ideological incoherence. It must be acknowledged that the Congress party is aligned with the principles which shapes India as a democratic country whatever its other shortcomings may be.
Congress needs to go back to where it successfully championed the vision of modern India based on progressive values and didn’t let the country succumb to communalism. The party needs rejuvenation in its methods of approaching the common man and addressing the concerns which reflect the hearts and souls of people standing at the bottom rung of the ladder of society.
There has been some serious attempt as the party launched a full-fledged campaign by addressing the grassroot issues and concerns of a large section of the Indian populace. The party included in its manifesto agrarian distress, poor implementation of GST, the revival of MSME and the issue of jobs and education. The party attempted to launch a campaign solely dedicated to genuine issues while maintaining a principled stand to abstain from capitalising on hyper-nationalism and warmongering. Rahul Gandhi also attempted a unique communication strategy that signified the spirit of engagement, dialogue and team-work like informal dinner interactions with stakeholders. However, the failure to bring home the alternative vision of governance led to sub-optimal electoral outcomes.
The allegations against the Congress party for letting go the election without putting enough effort and assessing the gravity of the situation needs to be dissected. The election was a perfect political ambush deftly deployed by BJP. First, it diverted the minds of the voter from genuine issues to issues like the Pulwama attacks and airstrikes by capitalising on patriotic sentiments strategically ignited by the ruling party. If it is the Congress and the Opposition’s fault that they could not come up with an appropriate response, it was also the general voter who failed to decipher the hidden intention of BJP and could not figure out the ambush.
There was a failure in the conveyance of the idea that the democratic structure, constitutional values and secularism are under severe attack in this country, which can be attributed to the fact that majority of people don’t relate to these ideas directly. The voters get swayed by nationalistic sentiments because the threat to the national integrity of the country was rampantly capitalised upon. This got intensified after Pulwama.
The critics must emphasise on constructive recommendations like building a grassroots organisation that represents an alternative vision of India. The means and modes of communicating with the people and taking up their struggles need to be redefined even as the Congress and other dynastic parties need radical reforms to resurrect inner-party democracy and federalism, promote political talent and dismantle feudalistic organisation structures.
Cynical alliance-building simply based on opposition to one political personality should be prevented even as building alliances with people’s movements and struggles must be prioritised. The serious challenge of PM Modi’s personal charisma must be taken head-on by giving space to mass leaders who can offer a credible local alternative to his political hegemony.
(Prannv Dhawan and Bhaskar Kumar are students of NLSIU, Bangalore)