It’s time for change in the Congress Party

In order to be a serious challenger to the BJP, the Congress Party needs to free itself from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

Tributes paid to the former Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi in New Delhi
There is nothing that prevents the Congress president and her son from identifying powerful state-level leaders and providing them with greater autonomy, writes Mukhopadhyay [EPA]

The recent breathtaking victoryof the Hindu nationalistic Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh has been commented on widely and even has drawn international attention because fiery Hindu priest Yogi Adityanath was appointed chief minister. This, however, prevented adequate examination of other critical fallouts of BJP’s electoral success.

Foremost among these is the political future of the Congress Party, formed 132 years ago with a record of governing India for 54 of the 70 years since India’s independence. Its impressive history, however, has offered little solace since May 2014 when the party plummeted to its worst ever parliamentary performance. 

Thereafter, the party was haunted by just one question: Is it in terminal decline? This poser acquired greater forcefulness after the UP result because it won just seven seats out of the 403 on offer. It also secured barely 6 percent of popular vote, down from almost 40 percent that it polled in the past.

UP is no ordinary state and is a gateway to political power.

Eight of India’s 13 prime ministers were from UP, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi who represents UP and not his home state, Gujarat. What’s more, with 80 members in the 543-seat Lok Sabha (the lower house of the parliament), the state’s presence is numerically overbearing.

This, perhaps, was why the rout in UP eclipsed the Congress Party’s victory in the border state of Punjab, where it returned to office after a decade. Indeed, the defeat in UP stunned the Congress leaders into comatose shock and they provided BJP with the opportunity to form governments in the smaller states of Goa and Manipur by quickly wooing coalition partners and inducing splits in the Congress.

The culture of sycophancy

The Congress has not weakened overnight. The decline of the party has been in process for almost three decades, though it was in power for half of these years.

However, the realisation that it is beyond the capacity of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to resurrect the party is a new phenomenon. With party president Sonia Gandhi’s health impeding her from leading the party, son Rahul Gandhi’s failure to make a mark either as a charismatic leader or an astute tactician after 13 years in politics and daughter Priyanka Vadra’s presumptive ability demonstrated as overhyped, the Congress Party faces an unprecedented crisis.

Congress leaders of standing have not openly demanded change in leadership because the culture of sycophancy has deep roots. Though India is among the largest democracies, most political parties are not democratically managed. Congress leaders are silent, because strategy to revive the party eludes them.

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After being shepherded by the Gandhi-Nehru family for half a century – apart from five years in 1991-96 when Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao led the party – Congress leaders do not have the confidence to contemplate an alternate leadership. Consequently, disintegration of the party remains a distinct possibility.

Falling between stools

The Congress’ predicament mainly lies in its past – after its origins as an annual jamboree of the enlightened, the organisation shaped into an all-embracing anti-colonial movement. Jawaharlal Nehru’s interim government in the run-up to independence underscored the party’s umbrella nature. The ministry included leaders of diverse political orientations, from western-educated and egalitarian-minded social elite to conservative Hindus, nationalist Muslims and leaders emphasising growth opportunities for the Lower castes and Untouchables. 

Democratising the Congress and holding fair organisational elections from district level and upwards are crucial to revitalising the party.


However, after 1989 – when Rajiv Gandhi was upended by a united opposition – politics started to be shaped mainly by religion and caste identities and not other issues. After regional, religious and caste identities became the principal basis of individual identities, elections became more competitive as new political parties spawned unceasingly. During this time, the Congress remained an umbrella-type party accommodating economic views ranging from left-of-centre to the far-right and from Nehruvian secularism to soft Hindutva. Consequently it kept falling between stools.

The BJP’s rise as an unabashed Hindu nationalistic party since the 1980s roughly corresponded with the Congress abandoning its principled standpoint on secularism. Consequently, the Congress was relegated in several states as either the BJP’s “B” Team or an appendage of a strong anti-BJP front – as in UP where it joined a regional player, Samajwadi Party, as a junior partner.

Once Congress ceded its vanguard position, there was little to halt its slide down. Significantly, after 1989, the Congress never secured more than 30 percent of the popular vote in national elections, even when it governed India in 2004-2014.

Lack of commitment

Rahul Gandhi’s refusal to recognise that politics required total commitment – he often took ill-timed holidays– also had negative effect. He even departed for the US immediately after the UP election results and before governments were formed in other states, to join his mother who was undergoing treatment. In contrast, BJP leaders were pictured as relentless warriors – Amit Shah toured Gujarat, his and Modi’s home state, which faces local elections later this year, while victory celebrations were still under way.

The Congress in its present form certainly cannot put defeats since 2014 behind it and resurface as the BJP’s principal challenger. To retain its place as one of the two national parties with pan-Indian footprint, it must reposition itself as a coalition of strong regional units and as vanguard of the principles that the BJP assailed in recent years. In its heyday after independence, the Congress was both.

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Nehru was the undisputed jewel in the party’s crown but stalwarts headed state units and crossed swords with him if the need arose. In contrast, the present Congress leadership, including Rahul Gandhi, talk down to state leaders and run the party as a proprietary. This rankles with satraps because in Sonia Gandhi’s absence, Rahul has no ability to attract votes. The Congress victory in Punjab was owing to its charismatic leader, Amarinder Singh. Likewise, the party ended in the top of the heap in Goa and Manipur because of its local leaders’ popularity.

The way forward

There is nothing that prevents the Congress president and her son from identifying powerful state-level leaders and providing them with greater autonomy, so they see a future for themselves in the party. Forming a presidium of such leaders for collective decision – with the “family” as titular head – is a viable objective.

Democratising the Congress and holding fair organisational elections from district level and upwards are crucial to revitalising the party. Alongside these efforts, the Congress must be proactively secular once again.

In 2014, the BJP polled 38.5 percent of the popular vote along with allies and in UP this time it polled 41 percent. This demonstrates that despite its surge, the BJP is still not backed by more than 50 percent of Indians. This is the section that the Congress must target. For this, its opposition to BJP must be unequivocal and posture towards other anti-BJP parties should be accommodative.

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Between now and 2019, when the next parliamentary polls are due, the BJP and Congress are locked in mainly bipolar contests in states due for elections. The process of relinquishing controls to regional chieftains must be initiated right away if the party is to re-emerge. Only then can the narrative of Indian elections stop being pre-ordained in BJP’s favour.

The Congress flag which fluttered in India for long, now hangs limply. For it to fly high once again, the party requires new wind. This will not come from the ailing limbs of Sonia Gandhi or the perennial apprentice that Rahul is. The Congress must be freed and allowed to find its own leadership eventually, or else no national challenger to the BJP and Modi shall remain. Necessity is the mother of invention, and experience the mother of reinvention. It is time for Congress leaders to give serious thought to the party’s future.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist with a special interest in Hindu nationalistic politics. He is the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.