Bihar, bypolls: What ails the Congress today?

The National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) victory after what many believed was a spirited campaign by the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Tejashwi Yadav has once again reignited the debate on the ability, or the lack of it, of the Congress in stopping the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) juggernaut. While the Congress’s performance isn’t entirely to blame for the NDA’s victory in Bihar, the party performed poorly in other bypolls as well, winning only 12 of the 55 assembly constituencies (ACs) it contested out of the 59 ACs that went to the polls across 11 states. What ails the Congress party today?

1) Rahul’s aggression doesn’t inspire confidence anymore…

On July 21, 2018, the Opposition brought a no-confidence motion against the Narendra Modi government. There was never any doubt about the government’s survival. The strategy was meant to score a political point. Rahul Gandhi, the then Congress president gave what many believed was a combative speech. He was seen as the natural leader of the Opposition. The Congress’s fortunes peaked by the end of 2018. It wrested Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh from the BJP, and looked all set to make impressive gains in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections compared to its 2014 performance. This was not to be. The Congress performed as poorly in 2019 as it had in 2014. Gandhi himself lost the Amethi Lok Sabha seat, considered a Congress bastion. The continuous dip in his electoral performance in Amethi, from 2009 to 2019, raises question about his popular appeal.

2) The Congress national leadership is falling short…

One of the most counter-intuitive results of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections was the sharp drop in the Congress’s performance in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh. The 2018 assembly election results, when extrapolated into Lok Sabha seats, would have meant 12 seats in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and 10 seats in Chhattisgarh for the party. In the 2019 elections, the Congress could win only two Lok Sabha seats in Chhattisgarh and one in Madhya Pradesh. It failed to win even one seat in Rajasthan. A pre-2019 results analysis by Gilles Verniers of Ashoka University found that in 80% of the cases, the party that won the state election went on to win the state in the following general elections. In other words, the Congress went against the trend by performing badly in these three states. To be sure, the BJP has enjoyed an additional vote share in national elections in both 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections. This is widely attributed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity. There is a yearning within the Congress, and the entire Opposition, for a leader who can match Modi’s appeal. This is the root of the despondency in the opposition ranks. The Congress leadership has failed to live up to this challenge.

3) Central and state units appear out of sync…

At a time when the entire Opposition, including the Congress, is finding it difficult to match Modi’s national appeal, the party’s national leadership could have adopted a more participative style of functioning to attack the government, both within and outside Parliament. This is being rendered difficult because of a growing asymmetry in the Congress’s support base and national leadership. In the 2019 elections, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra contributed almost half (44.5%) of the Congress’s total votes. The share of these states in the party’s total Lok Sabha MPs was just 5.8%. The 2019 scenario looks drastically different from 1984, when there was an almost perfect correlation between share of states in the Congress’s votes and seats. If big support bases of the party do not find a reflection of their concerns in the national strategy, unrest and despondency are bound to grow.

4) Shrinking footprint limiting the ability to accommodate personal ambitions…

Organisational leadership of a party is not just about leading interparty competition. It also involves the delicate task of managing intraparty conflicts, factionalism, and personal ambition of leaders. The Congress is facing a huge crisis on this front. In Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, the party lost state governments due to internal issues. In Rajasthan, a similar crisis erupted, but has been averted for the time being. The roots of these ruptures are the same — growing differences between leaders. The all-India leadership of the party is in no position to resolve these, as it has little to offer (such as, say, a governorship, a central portfolio or even a Rajya Sabha seat). A good way to look at this is to track the decline in the number of Rajya Sabha MPs the Congress has sent to the Upper House in each decade.


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