The timing could not have been worse. With barely a fortnight to go before the launch of the Congress’s ambitious 3,500-kilometre Bharat Jodo Yatra from Kanyakumari on September 7, party veteran Ghulam Nabi Azad dropped a bombshell on August 26, announcing his exit from all posts of the party. This included relinquishing his four-decade-old primary membership, which was, in one sense, the unkindest cut. In a five-page letter addressed to Sonia Gandhi, the former Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, former Lok Sabha MP and former Chief Minister of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir State, explained his reasons for leaving the party he was associated with for so long.
There was a hint of what was coming when on August 21 he quit the chairmanship of two party committees on Jammu and Kashmir. Ghulam Nabi Azad had been general secretary in the AICC since the mid 1980s and was a member of the Congress Working Committee and the party’s parliamentary board.
In his letter to Sonia Gandhi, Azad wrote of his deep loyalty to the party from his student days and expressed disaffection with the current leadership, namely former party president Rahul Gandhi. He detailed all the posts he had held since the mid 1970s, saying he joined the party at a time when to be associated with the party drew stigma. He was referring to the Emergency without actually stating it. He wrote he had the “honour of serving as a Union Minister” in the governments of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh.
He pointed out that Sonia Gandhi as party president was able to steer two successful terms in government for the UPA because she “heeded the wise counsel of senior leaders, besides trusting their judgment and delegating powers to them”. He accused Rahul Gandhi of being responsible for demolishing the party’s consultative mechanism after he was appointed vice president in 2013. He castigated Rahul Gandhi for tearing up a government ordinance in full public view, describing it as “childish behaviour”, which, he said, contributed to the defeat of the UPA government in 2014. The UPA government, he said, was then already under an offensive from right-wing forces and unscrupulous corporate interests.
Attributing the Congress’s defeat in 2014 to Rahul Gandhi’s tearing up of an ordinance is a bit of an exaggeration. In that election, the BJP’s vote share was actually 31 per cent. Yet the “first past the post” system saw it through with more than half the seats in the Lok Sabha. The party’s “acche din” slogan resonated with two sections–those who had been left behind in aspirational India and the corporate class which expected largesse from a more benevolent government. The UPA had got re-elected in 2009 not because ordinances were not torn but because its 2004-2009 tenure brought about progressive reforms in the form of employment guarantees and food security. But after 2009, it was the old Congress back in form, driven by a neoliberal agenda and fiscal conservatism. It failed to see the impact on the ground, a vacuum which the BJP exploited.
Azad’s letter is not entirely respectful even to Sonia Gandhi, who, he says, took over as Congress president after “dethroning” Sitaram Kesri. His main grouse seems to be with the leadership of Rahul Gandhi. There is also perhaps resentment at the way he was sidelined in the Bharat Jodo Yatra initiative.
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The questions he raises over the Congress’s laggardly implementation of organisational reforms are understandable. Nothing much happened despite brainstorming sessions (the Chintan Shivirs at Panchmarhi in 1998, Shimla in 2003 and the latest in Jaipur in 2013). Azad said that as chair of the group on organisational affairs, he proposed a detailed action plan, approved by the CWC, which never took off.
Not just organisational issues
The challenges before the Congress now go beyond organisational issues. The disconnect with the people that has crept in, which the BJP capitalises on with its rhetoric of “sab ka saath, sab ka vikas”, is sought to be rectified through campaigns like the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Despite its limitations, it is not altogether a bad idea. To what extent an engagement with civil society groups with their limited organisational and mass base will help in this process is quite another thing. Not all of them want to be identified directly with the Congress though their members share individual equations with individual leaders. But all of this will not necessarily make for a successful campaign. Can the Congress dissociate itself completely from the factors that scripted its defeat in more than one election?
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Manickam Tagore, Lok Sabha MP from Virudhunagar, Tamil Nadu, who is vocal about his views regarding party deserters, told Frontline that the party wanted to go to the people through the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Its aim was to “unite for India”. He was confident that there was no danger of the Congress coming apart, despite the spate of resignations. He believed the recent resignations would affect only the newspaper-reading political class. Rahul Gandhi strongly felt that party workers should go out to the people and the yatra was being held in that spirit. Manickam Tagore said Rahul Gandhi’s engagement with members of civil society, including those who have been critical of the Congress, was a meaningful one.
Rahul Gandhi as target
That something like Azad’s exit would happen was expected. It was meant to sabotage the Bharat Jodo Yatra, said the Virudhunagar MP, hinting that the BJP had a hand in it. “We felt that something or the other would be triggered prior to the yatra to attack Rahul Gandhi,” he said. On the whole he was dismissive about the deserters, saying they would go wherever “sarkari bungalows” were given. About organisational elections and the criticism against the manner in which they were being held, he said Rahul Gandhi had a democratic style of functioning and was not averse to reforms. He also said there was nothing unusual about the manner in which organisational elections were taking place. The critics, he said, were part of the consensus model of nominating delegates to the electoral college. For them to turn around and question the whole exercise was not right.
- Senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad quit the Congress recently.
- The Gandhis are not willing to take leadership.
- Ashok Gehlot is believed to be the front runner for the post of party president.
Other sources in the party said that Azad held important positions in seven of the nine years that Azad says he was not comfortable.
The Congress has been going downhill ever since Rahul Gandhi stepped down as president following the debacle in the 2019 general election. Azad’s letter talks about how the AICC leadership has been “perpetrating a giant fraud on the party to perpetuate its hold on the ruins of what was once a national movement that fought for and attained the independence of India”. The fraud claim can be disputed, but not the steady decline. Yet, to be fair, the Congress has been at its combative best, offline and online, in recent times and has matched the BJP’s propaganda machinery word to word.
BJP’s favourite bugbear
Indeed, despite its touted irrelevance, it continues to be the favourite bugbear for the BJP. Targeting the Gandhis and the “Lutyens culture” and ridiculing Rahul Gandhi has become routine for the BJP’s electoral managers. Notwithstanding its talk of a “Congress Mukt Bharat”, the BJP still needs the Congress to justify its own existence. Developments like Azad’s exit and the group of 23 Congress leaders who in Azad’s words wrote to Sonia Gandhi complaining about the “abysmal drift” in the party, helps the BJP in part.
Despite its shrill attack on the Congress, the BJP was unable to win Punjab and Delhi. To boot, it has an uneasy alliance with its coalition partners in some States. The recent falling-out with the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar is a case in point.
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Still, the Congress is undeniably a pale shadow of what it was. It has shrunk considerably, having lost 39 out of 49 Assembly elections between 2014 and 2022, not to speak of the crushing defeats in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections. At present, it rules in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and is a junior coalition partner in two other States.
Ashok Gehlot is front runner
Organisational elections to the party are to be held on October 17 and the process of nominations will begin on September 24. The Gandhis have made it more than clear that they are not interested in steering the party. Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has emerged as the front runner for the post of party president and he might have to face an election if there are other contenders. But Gehlot may not be a willing candidate as he would have to forego his ambitions or those nursed for his son in Rajasthan, which goes to the polls next year. And if Gehlot, or anyone else in the saddle, is unable to deliver in electoral terms, he would face the criticism now directed at the Gandhis.
Azad has rued that his mock funeral was taken out on the directions of a “coterie”. Ironically, he himself was part of this coterie from the 1970s. That was the decade when the Congress decline started. This long-standing malaise cannot be rolled back just by holding organisational elections or changing the face of the leadership. Like Azad, many believe that “the chosen one would be nothing more than a puppet on a string”.
The only silver lining in the cloud cast by Azad’s exit is that not too many senior Congress leaders have followed suit, preferring to air their criticisms anonymously. The claim that “more resignations” would follow did not materialise, except in the PCC unit of Jammu and Kashmir. Most of the G 23 members are still with the party. Former Union Minister Anand Sharma resigned from the chairmanship of the party’s steering committee on Himachal Pradesh because he felt “insulted and excluded” but said he would continue to be a Congressman. At present some party leaders have asked for the electoral rolls to be made public, a clamour that will not die down easily.
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Recent years have witnessed the Congress losing leaders like Jaiveer Shergill, Jitin Prasada, Sunil Jakhar, Ashwani Kumar, R.P.N Singh, Hardik Patel, Amarinder Singh, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Ripun Bora, Himanta Biswa Sarma and Luizinho Faleiro. Yet the party has not split. Some of the deserters like Sunil Jakhar, R.P.N. Singh, Hardik Patel, Jitin Prasada and Scindia joined the BJP, two joined the TMC, while the rest have remained “unattached” to any party. It is speculated that Azad himself might either float his own outfit, support the BJP in an alliance or even join the BJP. His muted criticism of the BJP has been noticed. But to be fair to him, as long as he was a Member of Parliament from the Congress he was very combative inside and outside Parliament.
Deeper roots of crisis
Notwithstanding all the talk about the lack of leadership in the Congress, the roots of its crisis go deep and far back into the past. While the Congress had an unbroken record of winning all national elections until 1977, it never commanded the support of the majority of the population even in that period (see Table). Its vote share was well under half of those who actually voted. In other words, the Congress as a ruling party was not able to extend its social base beyond what its role in the freedom struggle had originally created. Its hold on power was thus always tenuous and was weakened over time. The imposition of the Emergency in 1975-77 and the electoral reverses it suffered subsequently were only the first signs of the citadel being breached.
Since 1980, the Congress may have managed to take power at the Centre on five different occasions, but these victories always depended on contingent factors or on the formation of coalitions and not the restoration of its support base. The 1980 victory came in the background of the collapse of the Janata Party, while Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the anti-Sikh riots were the dominant factor in 1984, when the Congress achieved its biggest ever victory. While Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991 helped the Congress to form a minority government in the 1991-96 period, it did not prevent its vote share from declining even further in comparison to 1989, when it lost the general election.
Forces of change in the 1990s
The Narasimha Rao government played an important part in accelerating the Congress’s decline. Apart from Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations by the previous V.P. Singh government and the Ram Janmabhoomi temple movement had been prominent issues in the 1991 election, reflecting the shifts taking place in Indian politics. The earlier opening of the locks of the temple and the subsequent destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 showed up the Congress weakness in taking on the forces of communalism in Indian politics. The most notable feature of Narasimha Rao’s tenure was, however, the initiation of economic reforms, led by Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister. Liberalisation went on to generate a highly polarising growth process over the next three decades. It created conditions for an explosion of corruption and elevated the role of money power in politics.
The consequence of all these political tendencies that the Congress played a part in unleashing was a massive drop in its popular support, reflected in another sharp decline in its vote base in the 1996 election. The party never quite recovered after that. In 2004, the Congress-led UPA came to power, benefiting from the discontent with the economic realities created by liberalisation and the rejection of the A.B. Vajpayee government’s “India Shining” slogan.
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However, the Congress vote share in 2004 and in 2009 was no higher than what it was in the second half of the 1990s. Another massive drop in popular support took place in 2014. The 10 years of the UPA did not see any fundamental shift in the trajectory of the Indian economy or any rollback of the reform process. Yet, UPA-I was able to project a greater pro-poor image because the boom experienced by the Indian economy in the 2003-2008 period, during which inequality actually rose sharply, had a positive effect on government revenues. This and the fiscal stimulus after the 2008 global financial crisis may have helped to see it through the 2009 elections.
The situation was different by 2014. Economic growth had slowed down considerably since the beginning of the decade, even as the government made the shift towards withdrawing the fiscal stimulus. The BJP benefited from the widespread dissatisfaction that this created, not only among the poor and the disadvantaged but also among those sections that had benefited from economic reforms. Modi has not changed course as far as economic reforms are concerned, and his government has not been able to change the economic realities that produced dissatisfaction against the Congress. Instead, it has relied on another glue to paper over the underlying divisions in its own support base – one that is divisive and polarising in its own way.
The Congress does not appear to offer any viable alternative. Its record stands in the way, as does its unwillingness to change and offer something new. History is increasingly a liability rather than an asset for the grand old party.