After the resounding defeat in the 2019 parliamentary elections, the Congress Party should have remained united. It should have sent out the message that even with as few as 52 members in the Lok Sabha, it would play the role of a constructive Opposition. Instead, the party fell into complete disarray.
A brave statement by party president Rahul Gandhi on its continued commitment to fight to save the democratic principles of the Constitution notwithstanding, the narrative has changed completely since the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting. The meeting has been followed by a series of resignations by various Congress leaders, starting with Rahul Gandhi.
The Congress lost the 2014 parliamentary elections, too, but that defeat was not as demoralising for the leaders. For one thing, that defeat did not come as a surprise for many; it was just waiting to happen. For another, there remained the dream of a Congress comeback in due course of time. This was mainly because many believed that if the BJP can emerge so strong from only two Lok Sabha seats in 1984, why can’t the Congress pull off a similar resurgence? After all, the Congress’ 44 seats in 2014 were still better than the BJP’s two in 1984.
And snatching power from the BJP in three states — Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh — during the Assembly polls in 2018 did generate hopes. But that was not to be. Though the Congress improved its tally from 44 to 52 in the 2019 general election, it was a crushing defeat. It has shattered the self-belief of party leaders vis-a-vis a possible revival. Many of them are now raising a question mark on how and when the fortunes of the party might change.
The leaders of the Congress Party are not entirely incorrect in expressing these concerns. During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress failed to add even one per cent to its 19.6 per cent vote share in 2014. While the vote share of the Congress declined by about nine percent over the last decade, from 28.5 per cent in 2009 to 19.6 per cent in 2019, the BJP added roughly 20 per cent to its 18.8 per cent vote share in 2009 during the same period, polling 37.8 per cent ballots during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Also, the Congress has vacated space of the dominant Opposition in many states, like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and so on, which send a large number of representatives to the Parliament. In Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, it has managed to remain the main Opposition, but the gap in the vote share between the Congress and the BJP is as wide as 15-20 per cent.
It is not just the Lok Sabha elections. The Congress’ vote share has declined steadily over the last six decades. During all the Assembly elections held during the period 1951-61, the Congress polled 44.7 per cent votes on an average, which declined to 31.3 per cent during the 1997-2006 decade. This fell further to 28.1 per cent during 2007-18. The performance of the Congress in two successive Lok Sabha elections and various Assembly elections over the last 20 years or so is thus not very promising.
The spate of resignations has only added to the current state of confusion and despair in the Congress. It has reinforced the emerging view that a revival of the party may not be easy in the near future. A large number of top-ranked leaders resigned or offered to resign from their respective positions — among them, Milind Deora as the Mumbai Congress chief, Kamal Nath as the Madhya Pradesh Congress president, Jyotiraditya Scindia as the party general secretary in charge of western Uttar Pradesh, Raj Babbar as the Uttar Pradesh Congress chief and Harish Rawat as the general secretary in charge of Assam. The developments in Karnataka only add to this crisis. Many of the Congress MLAs have revolted against the party which is keeping the Karnataka government in a limbo. The party is in great danger even in Goa.
All this has compounded the disappointment not only among party leaders and loyalists, but also among those who voted for the party in the recent elections. Meanwhile, three states — Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand — go to polls very soon, followed by Delhi. There are reasons for leaders to be worried; at a time when the Congress Party should have been working out a strategy on how to fight against a less combative BJP post the general election, it is finding it extremely difficult to put its own affairs in order.
In the long run, political parties both win and lose elections. But what is more worrisome for the Congress is the current demoralised state it finds itself in.
The loss of hope and faith among its own leaders and among the masses is the malaise within the Congress Party. The crisis within the party and its inability to select a new president has only added to this trust deficit. And as if these were not enough, there is the divide between the old guard and the younger generation within its ranks. If the Congress leadership does not act now to help restore the confidence of the people in the party, revival will be a long road.
The writer is a professor and currently director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The views expressed are personal.