Whither The Congress?

Politics in India is undergoing a manthan (churning). The Congress is poised to capitalise on this.

Politics in India is undergoing a manthan (churning). The Congress is poised to capitalise on this.


There is a particularly virulent wild shrub in Maharashtra, which magically crops up everywhere. No matter how many times it’s weeded out or how many chemicals are sprayed on it, it keeps surviving, growing stronger each time it re-emerges. Almost no one knows it by its official name (Parthenium). But mention “Congress gawat” (Congress grass), and every child will be able to pinpoint this plant with unerring accuracy. Someone once told me that the plant was so called for two reasons- a) it’s white flowers, that looked like the white Nehru caps that Congresspersons wore when they visited villages and b) because of how stubbornly pervasive it was.

This folklore about the Congress Party best describes what was famously characterised as the “Congress System”. For years after independence, the Congress Party was able to sustain and capitalise on the set of functional networks of numerous socio-economic groups it had established during the freedom struggle. These were mediated, and managed by a managerial set of politicians at the panchayat, block, district, state and national levels. Internal party elections played a crucial role in managing and more importantly, accommodating dissent within this System. This plurality made the party infinitely more representative, and the legitimacy of the party was premised on the consensus thus built.

Today the Congress seems like a pale shadow of what it once was. Apart from suffering staggering electoral losses in two consecutive general elections (which seemed unimaginable just a decade ago), it has been organisationally and normatively floundering for a while. Keeping aside the few islands of initiative, it’s almost as if the party organisation has lost its hunger to do anything politically and socially meaningful. Some have argued that the Congress is hurtling towards political obsolescence, or that it is no longer good at politics. Most of these analyses and the prescriptions they offer only address the symbolic, either in suggesting that the party professionalise its election machinery/strategy or effect an organisational revamp. These don’t really proffer solutions to the systemic issues plaguing the party.

Why the Congress?
To many, this question is superfluous. Motivated by partisan blinkers or half truths, they have either wished for the Congress’ demise, or are hoping for an alternative (most notably the Aam Aadmi Party or the Swaraj Party). There is little anyone can say to those who fall in the first category. But those who are pinning their hopes on the latter need to consider the sheer scale of politics in India- there are 4126 assembly, and 543 parliamentary seats across India that go to direct elections. In addition, there are about 205 municipal corporations, 630 Zilla panchayats, 6614 Block Panchayats and 2,53,163 Gram Panchayats in India, each with a varying number of elected seats. All of them require at least one viable candidate, backed by a core team of anything between 20 to 200 people (depending on the size of the constituency). This team needs to be campaigning for at least six months before the election and consistently involved in social/constructive/advocacy work at other times. That requires resources and ideological commitment.

As things stand today (and foreseeably for the next decade or so) there are only two parties in India that have that kind of presence today- the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC). Given what’s happened in the last six years, and what’s happening still, we all have to make a strategic choice- are we prepared to patiently wait for a party to build itself up, while regressive forces continue to dismantle the constitutional idea of India, and our fellow Indians are targeted on the basis of their religion, caste, gender and ideological orientation? Or do we pin our hopes on what’s available? If it’s the latter, then understanding what went wrong with the Congress is essential, because only then can we start to rebuild the party to take on those forces that threaten to destroy everything India stands for.

What went wrong with the Congress

Loyalty over Winnability
The seeds of the Congress Party’s problems were sown decades ago. Firstly, the Congress System (which was also a patronage network) started collapsing in the 1970s, when loyalty to the leadership was accorded primacy over winnability and ideological commitment. This was partly done to ensure consonance with the party’s macro vision and partly to cement the leadership’s control over the principal levers of the party. However, in making this trade off, the party leadership was forced to deliver victories based on their personal popularity. That necessitated a resource intensive machinery centred around one leader, which invariably led to centralisation of decision making and functioning. The fallout of this centralisation is a whole host of rootless leaders, who were entirely dependent on the charisma and popularity of the national leadership. This collapsed when there was no national leader with a pan India appeal (the decade of the 1990s), or when the leadership was caricatured by the opposition and faced with an insurgency untethered from propriety.

Dependance on the State over the Congress Movement
Secondly, in focusing on legislative and juridical institutions as the principal means of actualising its welfare agenda post independence, the Congress Party implicitly accorded primacy to the State. Leveraging the government as the penultimate tool to drive all socio-economic change, the INC abandoned the alternative strategies for mobilisation, non-state social and cultural institutions, as well as contrarian ideas that it used to great effect during the freedom struggle. These either atrophied or were appropriated by other outfits. Meanwhile, access to/influence over the state machinery became more important than anything else, and the INC spawned a plethora of technocrats and managers at various levels. This was the root of INC’s second structural problem- what would the party do when it wasn’t in government? How could its karyakartas [party worker] fulfil the needs and aspirations of their followers and constituents without government support?

Becoming a party of governance, the INC began crystallising into a social democratic party (just like the traditional European parties). This process culminated with the INC forming the United Progressive Alliance government in 2004. It had a more or less fixed ideological stance (left of centre, liberal, secular, committed to parliamentary norms and a welfare state etc.). This gradual process of crystallisation inadvertently squeezed out alternative ideologies, and constricted avenues for them within the party. The once famous Congress umbrella was no longer large enough to accommodate different visions and interests. This created centrifugal tensions like never before.

It is this shrinking of ideational and ideological space that led to what has been characterised as the second democratic upsurge. No longer able to satisfy their interests within the Congress System, a number of interest groups (Other Backward Classes, upper castes, dominant sections of the Dalit communities, socialist forces, religious/spiritual forces etc.) either defected to other preexisting organisations, or formed new political parties.

Gandhian fronts, peoples’ movements, Civil Society Organisations, and spiritual/religious institutions were some organisations that mushroomed on one end of the spectrum. On the other scale of the spectrum, various Janta Dal fronts, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Nationalist Congress Party, and the Biju Janta Dal were some of the parties that mushroomed as the Congress turned insular. This created intense political competition which undermined the Congress’ hegemonic presence. While amplifying sectional interests, these parties also replicated the INC’s state-centred politics to better represent community interests.

However, post the 1991 reforms in India, the State’s ability to perform its welfare functions were dramatically undermined. These functions were increasingly outsourced or scaled back, while transnational conglomerates pressurised governments to reduce taxes and enhance corporate tax-breaks (thus leading to an outward flow of revenues, and reduced government revenues). These inter-linked processes significantly shrunk the State’s ability to effect radical socio-economic change, which in turn created resentment and anger against the parties of governance.

It is this dissatisfaction that was tapped into by some of those very forces that were squeezed out of the Congress tent, and which existed at the electoral and institutional margins. Joining hands with the extreme right in their effort to capture the State, these forces leveraged the same guerrilla strategies deployed during the freedom struggle to great effect. To cite a prominent example, the mass contact programme originally devised by Mahatma Gandhi, on which the Congress Movement thrived, served as a model for the panna-pramukh system deployed by the BJP in the 2014 elections. Similarly, quasi religious and community organisations were used liberally by the BJP in every election since 2014.

Did the Congress miss India’s social transformation?
The third, and perhaps most important reason for the Congress’ fading fortunes is external to itself. For decades after independence, the government’s (and indeed the Congress Party’s) focus was on removing poverty, especially rural poverty. This was essential given that India was reduced to one of the world’s poorest countries because of colonial exploitation. However, the welfare interventions by successive governments since 1947 meant that millions of Indians came out of poverty and could aspire for more. Many found a better life in India’s cities, which boasted of an entirely different set of norms and cultures. When these people returned to their villages and towns occasionally, they brought back the seeds of an aspirational revolution. This changed the character of India. It led to social mobility and a class transformation, which contributed to an aspirational bulge. This new class (the middle class) no longer saw the State as its mai-baap (be all, and end all). Prof. Yogendra Singh has demonstrated that this new class wanted the State to only support them by providing for basic public infrastructure, but “get out of the way”. That sentiment is what Prime Minister Modi tapped into when he argued for “minimum government, maximum governance”.

A large number of Indians continued to live in rural India and many remained poor. They coexisted alongside the new India (hence the famous Bharat-India distinction). But even for them, their self-image was no longer that of being weak or vulnerable. They were increasingly confident of their ability to pull themselves up out of poverty, and chagrined at their characterisation as being in need of a helping hand.

This fundamentally altered Indian politics. Partly because of its historical legacy, the Congress Party remained focused on alleviating poverty. However India changed under its nose. The rise of a large, ever expanding middle class meant that the appeal of the poverty alleviation paradigm was significantly lessened. Additionally, this class’s anxiety about its place in society (partly because of a fear of slipping back into a lower economic strata and partly because of its disconnect from its original roots) meant that it increasingly identified with the nation and nationalistic rituals. This is what the BJP tapped into.

Congress Revival Linked to BJP
The BJP has never been a rural, welfare driven party. Unlike the Congress (which remained focused on what is, and what will be), the BJP has only been interested in what was, and could have been. It seeks to recreate a (mythical) golden past which naturally drives it to espouse a nationalistic ideology. Even though it cynically leverages religion, caste and development in this quest, it cannot accommodate alternative visions of (and for) within itself. This limits its ability to govern India.

Secondly, obsessed with atavistic ideas of what Indian civilisation was, the BJP has become fixated on a specific set of religio-cultural values. That fixation also includes the misguided notion of a pure Indian civilisation which needs to be decontaminated of others. Their fundamentalist defence of this project is costing India dearly given it excludes millions of minorities (primarily Muslim and Christian), Dalits, women and ideological detractors from India’s promise. This is increasingly alienating large sections of society.

Thirdly, replicating the INC, the BJP has now increasingly started relying on the State to implement its agenda. In doing so, it has gradually begun to depend less on those non-state organisations that it previously relied on. Just to cite a few examples, the BJP’s over-reliance on the state publicity machinery, and its (mis)use of institutions like the office of the Governors, Election Commission, investigative agencies like the Enforcement Directorate, Central Bureau of Investigation, etc. to further itself is gradually distancing it from those institutions and tactics that originally gave it strength. Governance is weakening it organisationally, as it once did with the Congress.

Fourthly, the BJP’s over-dependence on the Prime Minister and consequently, on his publicity has meant that its politics has become resource intensive. It reportedly spent Rs. 27,000 crores on the 2019 election, making it the world’s most expensive election. This has forced it to turn to corporate interests for sponsorship in lieu of various concessions/commissions. This invariably comes at the cost of the environment, the vulnerable and the aam junta (ordinary citizenry). Consequently, corporations have become the penultimate end of BJP’s politics. This is alienating the BJP from its traditional base- the trading community, proponents of swadeshi, and owners of medium and small enterprises just to name a few.

Finally, as it has been argued, Prime Minister Modi has centralised power in the Prime Minister’s Office like never before. He has clipped every other political leader in the BJP, lest s/he overshadow him. Neither does he answer to the BJP’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It is also rumoured that along with his second in command, the BJP rank and file has been replaced with those who are personally loyal to PM Modi, rather than the RSS. If true, the BJP may soon find itself in the same quagmire that the Congress finds itself in now.

In weakening itself by relying on the State, in systematically undermining regional parties, in adamantly sticking to its atavistic views, in relying on corporate donations, and in alienating its core base, the BJP is ironically providing the Congress Party with a golden opportunity. To conclude with another botanical metaphor, the BJP is like the Coral creeper (Antigonon leptopus). Smothering every plant it grows on, it boasts of a) quaint, albeit odourless pink flowers (which bees avoid), b) propagating underground, it is insidiously invasive and c) its tendril like tuber-roots are notoriously difficult to remove. The only way to save any other plant/crop of value is to uproot it from its roots. Similarly, countless interest groups that left the Congress umbrella are now choking under the BJPs jackboots, desperately looking for an alternative.

The question is, will the Congress be able to capitalise on this great manthan (churning)? If it is to do so, the Congress must first forge an alliance of all those progressive forces who have stood up to safeguard the constitutional idea of India these past few years. It also needs to reengineer the public discourse constructively by winning the normative battle first, and then the electoral. And finally, its engagement with people cannot remain as instrumental as it once was, through the party machinery and solely for electoral purposes. It needs to therefore creatively redeploy those same tactics and stratagems it used to great effect during the freedom struggle. Given whatever has happened so far, and what could still happen, it is imperative that the Congress do this. The very soul of India hangs in the balance.

Pushparaj Deshpande is the Director of Samruddha Bharat Foundation & Editor of the Rethinking India series.