Reviving the Indian National Congress

The worst nightmares of the Nehru-Gandhi family have come true. The Congress has plummeted to a sub-50 tally in the Lok Sabha. What a spectacular fall it has been from the hefty tally of 206 seats it cobbled up but 5 years ago! State after state, the electorate has lashed out at the Grand Old Party (GOP), disgusted with the flab it has acquired in the past decade. It is unimaginable to think of the present day INC to be the same party which has dominated India since Independence.
The aura of the Gandhis seems to have stopped working
But what of the future? If the whitewash it was handed out is any indication, the GOP seems to be on a week wicket even its erstwhile strongholds. The states of Maharashtra, Haryana, Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir all go to vote in the latter half of 2014. In all these places the UPA was routed. In Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttarakhand the incumbent governments have a wafer-thin majority. If their governments fall, the INC can be surmised to get decimated here as well.

In the worst case, by 2015 the party will be ruling only in the North-East, Kerala, Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh. The party is already defunct in Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Seemandhra, Gujarat and Jharkhand. While this may point to a total demolition of the Congress in the coming years, it also offers a glimmer of hope for the beleaguered party. 

It’s for the first time in history that the Congress will truly become an Opposition party. This means that all its leaders and satraps have a golden opportunity – to revamp the party and rebuild it from the grassroots. It must reconnect with the masses and attempt to reinvent itself. 

Political analysts, opposition leaders and the media may well want the Gandhis to resign from their leadership posts. While it may eventually happen, it will be a cosmetic change. The fact is that there is no single Congress leader who can replace the Gandhis. You take the Sonia and Rahul out of the GOP and all you are left with is a bunch of 29 confused, fractious regional parties with no common ideology.

Only the dynasts can rein in the state-level Congress leaders and make a cohesive unit out of them. Barring a few notable exceptions like Seemandhra, the anti-Gandhi sentiment is not running very high in rural India. It is more about disgust with the Government, the tainted ministers and, very unfortunately, Mr. Manmohan Singh. 

Rahul must comprehend the significance of state-level organization. A voter in West Bengal sees 7 Race Course Road through the pigeonhole of the Writers Building. The Gandhis must allow regional satraps to rise and set state-level Congress units in order. 

The Congress even today, is not completely devoid of popular faces. For e.g., in the Central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, two Congressmen withstood the lotus onslaught – Kamal Nath in Chhindwara and Jyotiraditya Scindia in Guna. One is an old warhorse, the other a fresh face who can infuse young blood into the party. 

In Punjab it has Mr. Amarinder Singh who handed defeat to BJP stalwart Arun Jaitley in the Akali stronghold of Amritsar despite intense campaigning by the Badals. It’s sitting CMs in Karnataka and Kerala have performed exceedingly well when juxtaposed to other sitting Congress CMs. They can still keep the INC establishment strong, although they need the high command to crack the whip on factionalism in their states.

West Bengal is a land of opportunities for the party – the ruling TMC does not have much to its credit, the BJP has no strong election machinery and the Left has been rendered irrelevant. The Lok Sabha Elections saw the GOP emerge as the second largest party in terms of seats. In Rajasthan, the young Sachin Pilot has already begun work to revive the demoralized cadre base.

In states like Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Himachal Pradesh, Assam, Goa and Haryana it has faced electoral reverses but retains the potential to fight back in the future. The Congress state unit in each of these states is ridden with infighting which is a disease which needs to be cured if the party must survive.

The real crisis faced by the party is in states like Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. The Gujarati love affair with the saffron party is unlikely to end soon. The Tamilians have all but relegated the INC to the ‘dustbin of history.’ The story is similar in the rest of these places. There are no easy solutions here. The party must cultivate new leaders, who have the mass appeal and craftiness to win such states. The Gandhis could still try their luck in resuscitating their party in Uttar Pradesh.

The party must also give up its habit of indulging in destructive alliances with regional parties in expectation of reaping the short-term benefits it provides. The INC lost significance in states like Tamil Nadu by allying with the Dravidian parties and all but giving up the Assembly to its alliance partners in order to win a plurality of the Lok Sabha constituencies. The party's emphasis on the Lok Sabha must be done away with and stress should be laid on the Vidhan Sabhas.

Do not write obituaries for the party as of yet. To be cliche – politics is the art of the possible. A Congress re-emergence is still, as much as many would dislike it, possible.

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