Can Congress set aside Ram mandir and reclaim its ground by reorganising, reuniting, and refocussing?

To mount a credible challenge, the party must reinvigorate its grassroots workers, forge strategic alliances, and focus on bread-and-butter issues.

Published : Jan 25, 2024 11:00 IST - 7 MINS READ

Rahul Gandhi with supporters during the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra in Mokokchung district, Nagaland, on January 18.  

Rahul Gandhi with supporters during the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra in Mokokchung district, Nagaland, on January 18.   | Photo Credit: PTI

The most significant issue for the Congress is not debating whether it should have attended the Ram mandir ceremony at Ayodhya but whether it can motivate its workers and tie up with its alliance partners. The party, therefore, needs to ignore the commentariat that has been saying that it has missed a great Hindu Renaissance moment. There has been an extraordinary amount of conjecture and criticism—spilling beyond the TV news channels morphing into devotional channels—that suggests that the Congress made a mistake. Middle-of-the-road opinion writers have stated emphatically that the party has been suicidal, stupid, and out of touch with the national mood and that Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge should not have declined the invitation to attend the January 22 ceremony.

It is hard to understand what the Congress could have gained from attending an event choreographed around Prime Minister Narendra Modi that eclipses even the other figures in his own party. And it is delusional to imagine that the Congress could have been anything but an extra in the triumphal BJP/RSS/VHP film. Moreover, when the event has been drummed up as the symbolic inauguration of a de facto Hindu Rashtra, can the Congress, which led the freedom movement and gave the country the ideals enshrined in the Indian Constitution, be part of a process that subverts those very ideals and values?

Also Read | India braces for a potent brew of majoritarianism and authoritarianism in 2024 

In terms of optics, the Ram temple ceremony does appear to present India as a theocratic nation whose leader has been engaged in an elaborate religious purification ceremony in the days preceding January 22 even as the public has been fed breathless details about rituals and idols and prayers and high priests. Could the descendants of Jawaharlal Nehru have been mute onlookers to a spectacle that glorifies the merging of religion with politics and undermines the foundational values of independent India?

Challenge for the opposition

There is no denying that the Ayodhya 2024 programme has been built up like a blockbuster: incessant media coverage of the temple town combined with the amplification of the Prime Minister as a dharma guru. This has merged with a huge outreach programme by RSS/VHP/Bajrang Dal cadres, who have gone door to door in many States, issuing invites and organising special pujas. There is a heightened religiosity in the air, and one can surmise that the Ram mandir has the potential to help the BJP cement its position in areas it already dominates. Let us not forget, however, that the BJP vote share in 2019, at 37.38 per cent, was seen as having peaked, so there is still logic and room for a robust fightback.

The challenge for the opposition now is to shift the discourse to bread-and-butter issues. It must fight on issues where it is on firm ground rather than on mythology and faith. It also needs to recalibrate the language around the caste census; leaders could focus on asking why the Modi regime does not want a count and yet avoid presenting the INDIA bloc as being OBC-centric. The Congress recently lost a chunk of tribal votes, a section it could focus on. Similarly, although the dominant castes are seen as supporting the BJP, many among them are actively seeking options.

In recent weeks, the Congress has been trying to accelerate the process of putting its house in order. To do so it has to first, metaphorically, build the house, and towards that end there is an unprecedented outreach to old Congress cadres, many forgotten for decades and not activated. The idea is to present this as an election of the ordinary worker.

Long-forgotten workers have got calls from the Congress war room in New Delhi asking if they are well and ready to pick up the reins again. They are then given three tasks: getting the voter lists in a village or mandal, organising an event with women voters, and observing local festivals and birth anniversaries of national icons. 

Highlights
  • Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra is a step in the right direction, as hitting the ground is often the only answer to an unequal playing field.
  • Economic issues such as unemployment and inflation loom on the horizon beyond the temple, so the challenge now is for the opposition to look like it can present a credible choice.
  • The Congress has identified 96 seats where it faces direct contests with the BJP and hopes to make a fight of it.

Use of technology

The thinking is that across the country, even in places where the Congress has faced electoral defeats, the party does have a vote share as well as workers or families committed to the party’s inclusive ideology. But since organisational structures of the party have collapsed, the current effort uses technology to bypass State committees in places where they are run as individual fiefdoms and not as healthy party units.

Direct links to the national war room via WhatsApp groups and video calls are being used to create this parallel structure. The outreach is to groups referred to as mandals, each of which has 10 to 15 voting booths under it. Once the thread is picked up, the feedback and activities are monitored.

The question now is whether this belated attempt to create a party structure will work. The task has been undertaken by former IAS officer Sashikanth Senthil, now the chairman of the central war room. A 2009 Karnataka cadre officer, he quit the service and joined the Congress in 2020. He appears to be ideologically driven, as opposed to election strategists who work for a fee.

“After all, it is one of the rules of electoral politics that voters do not like to waste their vote, so if the opposition is presented as defeated before the battle has even begun, it helps the incumbent.”

Such efforts can only work if the once defunct cadres are also galvanised by the narrative. Simultaneously, therefore, pitches are being heard from professional agencies, and the Congress campaign is likely to be finalised and rolled out in early February. Very much part of this process is Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra. It is a step (or many) in the right direction, as hitting the ground is often the only answer to an unequal playing field. Such an uneven field is true today in terms of how state agencies are put in pursuit of opposition figures, the BJP’s domination of political finance, the overall institutional decline, and the puppet media.

If leaders of other opposition parties join the journey, it can create a momentum and chemistry. The Congress had delayed seat-sharing talks due to the Assembly elections last year and then faced shocking defeats in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan. The party is now speedily addressing that issue through special panels: some alliances have already been birthed while others are likely to happen soon.

Everyday psych-ops

It is late but not over. Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to be walking the victory lap daily. So, the question is whether the BJP has peaked early or if this is part of psych-ops: beating the drums of victory every day. After all, it is one of the rules of electoral politics that voters do not like to waste their vote, so if the opposition is presented as defeated before the battle has even begun, it helps the incumbent.

Also Read | Congress’ waiting game over State elections threatens INDIA bloc’s chances in 2024

Yet, economic issues such as unemployment and inflation loom on the horizon beyond the temple, so the challenge now is for the opposition to look like it can present a credible choice. The Congress has indeed identified 96 seats where it faces direct contests with the BJP and hopes to make a fight of it. The seat-sharing arithmetic in States where regional players are strong is crucial to the eventual contest.

Meanwhile, there is also a realisation in the opposition camp that bringing the BJP’s numbers down to a figure that necessitates a coalition government would also be a relief of sorts. They are, after all, living in an age when the current government can force the mass expulsion of 146 opposition MPs in Parliament. But it is in the face of great tyrannies that mighty battles are waged. 

Saba Naqvi is Delhi-based journalist and author of four books, who writes on politics and identity issues.

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