Sanjay Kumar | Congress’ unwillingness to change is its basic problem

The failure of talks between the Congress and PK, not just once but twice, has also damaged the party’s image

Questions are being asked after the collapse of the talks between the Congress Party and election strategist Prashant Kishor (popularly known as PK) on what may be the way forward for the Grand Old Party’s revival. Frankly, with or without PK, the Congress’ revival won’t be easy. I am not saying it won’t be possible, but two things are certain. First, it will be next to impossible for the Congress to regain a dominant position in Indian politics. Second, the journey for its revival will be long and arduous, and its fortunes are unlikely to change significantly before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. The problems are deep-rooted, and no quick-fix solution will help. The party needs a complete overhaul, with multiple changes in leadership, organisational structure, membership and mobilisation strategy.

PK is no magician, and he can’t create an illusion for people to vote for the Congress, he is only a poll strategist who can at best help the party with one or two aspects. He can help to strategise the party’s campaign, on which he has a proven track record. Such strategies may help to get some additional votes. But what Congress needs is just some additional votes, it requires a massive shift of votes in its favour to make difference in 2024, which seems difficult. The failure of talks between the Congress and PK, not just once but twice, has also damaged the party’s image. It signalled the leadership was clueless about how to revive the party after massive and successive defeats, for why else would they hold discussions with PK? What is damaging the party even more is the widespread public perception that Congress leaders, and particularly the Gandhis, don’t want to give up their powers and unwilling to change.

The party has been in bad shape since 2014, but things have got much worse after its defeat in the 2019 general election. Its inability to win a single Assembly election since the 2019 debacle has demoralised not just senior leaders but also the rank and file. The problem is far more serious than one may believe. Not only has the party not won any Assembly poll since 2019, its vote share has declined into single digits in some states. The elections in the coming years also don’t hold out much hope.

Look at the Congress’ dismal performance in the last three years, since it lost the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Of the 17 Assembly elections held since then, the Congress hasn’t been able to win a single one on its own. It can have the solace of being a part of coalition governments in three states --Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand -- but except in Maharashtra, the Congress is a very small partner in the collation governments in Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu, led by the JMM and DMK respectively. The Congress has only 18 seats in the Tamil Nadu Assembly and just 16 seats in Jharkhand.

The story of the Congress poor showing in Assembly elections in the last four years goes beyond the number of seats won. Not only has the party lost elections in many states, it has lost badly in some cases, pushed to the third or fourth positions, or even beyond that. Of the 17 states which went to the polls in the last four years, the Congress’ vote share was less than five per cent in five states, and in another five it remained between five per cent and 16 per cent. Only in the remaining seven states did it get a reasonable vote share of around 25-30 per cent, though it failed to win any election. The Congress’ vote share declined in 12 of these 17 states -- Haryana, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Bihar and Kerala being the only exceptions.

Not only have the past four years been difficult for the Congress, the coming years also don’t indicate any change for the better. Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh will go to the polls by the end of 2022. Both states have traditionally witnessed a bipolar contest, and the BJP being in power in both states, the Congress should have a 50 per cent chance of winning the election. But the arithmetic doesn’t seem to be working in such a simple way. The BJP has been in power in Gujarat for the last 27 years, and the Congress has lost six elections in a row at the BJP’s hands. By any standard, 27 years of one-party rule should have led to significant anti-incumbency against the ruling party, but that doesn’t seem to be visible, at least till now. Not only has the Congress not won an election in Gujarat since 1995, it has trailed behind the BJP by a margin of more than 9-10 per cent votes. In my view, there is hardly any hope for the Congress in Gujarat in the coming election. What may hit the Congress even harder will be the presence of the Aam Aadmi Party, which swept the recent Assembly elections in Punjab, besides being in power in Delhi. In both states, it is the Congress which has been at the receiving end. In Himachal Pradesh, the Congress has won byelections to three Assembly and one Lok Sabha seat, which raised hopes for the party in the state. But one shouldn’t forget that the mood of voters can be different in a byelection and a general election. In byelections, voters don’t vote to elect a government, they merely vote to elect their representative, and might express their anger against a ruling party, but in general elections they vote to elect a government, and exercise their voting choices carefully. Just before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP lost some key byelections, but won the 2019 Lok Sabha election with a much bigger majority. Also, one should not forget that the Congress trailed behind the BJP by almost eight per cent votes and the BJP won more than double the number of seats won by the Congress (BJP 44 seats; Congress 21 seats). It may not be easy for the Congress to cover so much ground with which it can defeat the BJP.

People talk of various remedies to help revive the Congress -- change of leadership, organisation building, membership drive, etc. I think no single remedy will work. The disease is much more serious than it looks from the outside, and it must be attended to by several specialists, not just one, in order to have a reasonable chance to cure it.

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