Izay Ayesha comments upon a party in distress
India has been so badly battered by xenophobic nationalism that its founding political party is now experiencing its longest period of rejection and is desperately trying to climb back the greasy pole of power. Indian National Congress Party may be blamed for many acts of omission and commission but throughout its heyday, it tried to keep a balance between the myriad communities inhabiting the vast territories of India with a view to gel it into a country living according to secularist principles.
It succeeded to quite an extent though many fringe groups broke from it and gradually formed a platform that adopted nationalistic policies as its mainstay and slowly crawled into political power displacing Congress. For a political party that for most of its more than century-long history dominated the Indian political landscape, the Congress is desperately trying to reinvent itself ahead of the next general election in 2024. Political experts maintain that the Congress’s decline has to be seen in the context of the rise of majoritarianism as well as internal factors related to the party.
Indian National Congress which was formed in 1885 ruled India for 60 years after the country achieved independence in 1947 but has fallen on such bad times that it is now in power in only two of India’s 31 states and federal territories, the states of Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan where the party has majority support. In Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Jharkhand, it shares power with regional alliance partners. BJP won an absolute majority both in the 2014 and 2019 general elections and the Congress party, on the other hand, reached a historic low of 44 seats in India’s parliament, the Lok Sabha, in 2014, and that only increased to 52 in 2019.
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It has also lost 39 out of 49 state elections since 2014. In the past, even when Congress was out of power, it at least remained the fulcrum of opposition parties, however, for the first time the party has been stripped of even this role and is losing its pole position.
As is the custom in South Asia, major political parties are dominated by family-name brands and Indian Congress was no exception as its brand was Nehru-Gandhi. However, it now appears that for the first time the party leadership may pass over to the non-family position. The two contending Congress parliamentarians in this respect are the veteran Mallikarjun Kharge and the relatively more youthful diplomat-turned-politician Shashi Tharoor who will contest the party presidential election on 17 October 2022.
This would be quite a change in the fortunes of the Congress Party as this may prove a singular portent for the culture of political parties of the subcontinent as there is already plenty of clamor about it, particularly in Pakistan. In an effort to rejuvenate India’s founding political party, the son and grandson of former prime minister, Rahul Gandhi, is leading a nationwide march in which he and his march would cover 2,218 miles across Indian cities, towns, and villages and would last five months.
The march is called Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India March) and is highlighting issues such as inflation, unemployment, and communal polarization. It has so far crossed the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka and is proceeding towards the north attracting mostly partisan crowds. It is the Congress party’s largest public campaign in years and comes ahead of an election for the party’s new president. It is pointed out that the march is intended to stir up party workers throughout the country and make them part of this revival process.
It is widely commented that the Congress’s decline has to be seen in the context of the rise of majoritarianism as well as internal factors related to the party. They ascribe the crisis in the Congress may owe more to the party’s failure to effectively counter Hindu nationalism and the shrinking of the centrist space because of religious and caste polarisation than to an individual or organizational failures.
Many analysts opine that the decline is also linked to larger political change in India whereby Hindu nationalism has become a major challenge to the pluralist idea of India that Congress espoused and promoted it. Time has proved that the mixing of religiosity and politics does not guarantee electoral dividends for the Congress and what is needed is an alternative unifying vision to divisive politics that could only come through building an ideological opposition to the BJP through mass contact campaigns and battles to protect citizens’ constitutional rights.
This campaign is very difficult as at the moment it appears that the BJP juggernaut cannot be stopped without restoring the Congress party’s own capacity to win a substantive number of seats. Keeping in view this fact the BJP downplayed the march and termed it directionless and dismissed it by stating that its purpose is to attack the far-right, nationalist paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) movement to which the BJP traces its roots. Given that Modi heads the most powerful government in decades mounting a credible challenge to it in 2024 will not be easy. The Weekender