Millennium Post

Congress needs urgent makeover

The BJP is jubilant after its spectacular success in Maharashtra and Haryana Assembly polls this week. Coming as it does on the heels of the recent impressive Lok Sabha victory, the BJP can claim that the momentum as well as the Modi magic is intact. The Congress on the other hand is demoralised further after its humiliating defeat in both the states.  There is already discussion and debate about the future of the 128-year-old Congress party as it is shrinking. Well wishers feel that the Congress has to overcome the leadership crisis and come back with resurgence for after all, in politics, there are always ups and down.

Yet, it would be unwise to underestimate the seriousness of the political challenges that confront the Congress. After independence the Congress had tremendous good will. Moreover, the Congress was seen as an umbrella party, which had all shades of opinions, which were allowed to flourish. Above all, the Congress party was able to share power with the workers but today the power is concentrated in the hands of a few. A small coterie around 10 Janpath rules the party to the dismay of old timers.

Since independence, barring a few years, the Congress has been ruling at the centre and most of the states. It can no longer take this position for granted. Its appeal to the Dalits and the Muslims has been eroded by the rise of other political parties in both north and south India. Its standing as a national party has been challenged by the BJP. The NDA is ruling now in the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Haryana, Goa and Andhra Pradesh. But the Congress has a presence in every village even today. It has a pan national view and known for its secularism and unity and integrity of the country.  But the party is not able to encash these advantages.

It is clear that the party has lost connection with the common man and also its commitment to the people. It seems to be living in a make believe world where reality has no value. Secondly, those who join the party are mostly for their selfish reasons and for furthering their own future. One of the main reasons of the defeat is the weak organisation and leadership. On both fronts, it was completely outsmarted by BJP-RSS and Modi respectively. Thirdly, the regional and caste based parties have grown because the Congress was unable to meet the aspirations of the people. The Congress has no option now than to join them rather then going down further. The fourth is that the BJP has emerged as an alternative and  a dominant party in the country in the past six months.

Some Congress watchers feel where it had erred all along was in treating political power as the end rather than the means. The challenge for the party now is how to take the Congress closer to the people, how to remain relevant to a generation that is full of aspirations and to recast the party as a tool of social change rather than political power. For this the Congress leadership including its vice president Rahul Gandhi has to prove their commitment. Bringing Priyanka Gandhi is no answer.

The BJP has established dominance in its areas of strength, and a growing presence in areas where it has not existed so far. The Congress on its part is now without a strong base anywhere, having been wiped out in its earlier stronghold of Andhra Pradesh, routed in Maharashtra, sidelined in West Bengal, marginalised in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Delhi.

The Congress faces a structural dilemma on several fronts- organisational weakness, ideological stagnation and shrinking social support. At one time, it was a democratic party with a formidable organisation that ran an effective political machine, distributing patronage in exchange for electoral support. From the 1970s onwards, party in most States degenerated in a big way. From then on no attention was given to the reorganisation and regeneration of the Congress. Between 2004 and 2014, the Congress not only won two national elections and ruled for two full terms but also won 21 Assembly elections. But there is no evidence what so ever that the party was able to use its stint in power to energize the organisation.

The Grand Old Party now needs new ideas, a new idiom, and a new icon. First of all it needs to be re -invented suited to the needs of the voters.

The principal threat comes from lack of vision and the party’s inability to encourage young and popular leaders to rise from within. The second is the dynasty, which, at one level acts as a unifying force but also acts as a stumbling block. Time has come for the Congress to debate whether the dynasty has outlived its usefulness. The third is the fact that second rung leaders are not encouraged with the result those who can survive break away from the Congress to launch their own outfits like Mamata Banerjee, Sharad Pawar and others. The last is the emergence of the BJP as the dominant party providing a stable government and a stable leadership.

The biggest challenge for the Congress now is to save itself from extinction. There is nothing guaranteed about the Congress party’s revival, but judging by history, even its opponents would be foolish to write it off.  They had prophesized same after 1967, 1977, 1989, 1991, 1996, 1998 and 1999 elections. Each time the party bounced back. For the Congress to survive from its latest crushing defeat, it needs to do intense course correction and soul-searching exercise.  Indian democracy needs two strong national parties. That means both Congress and BJP have to survive electoral ups and downs.                              

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