Since 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Centre, the Indian National Congress has received body blow after body blow. It has lost vital States such as Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra and even backyard constituencies that the Gandhi family and other stalwarts have held over decades. At this point, the grand old party does not look grand, it just looks old.
The Congress has not just lost elections, both general and Assembly, it has more worryingly seen a steady drain of its members, some of whose parents and grandparents first joined the party. They have left to join other parties, form parties of their own, or to join the BJP, an ideological opponent of their parent organisation.
As the Congress spirals downwards, its energy sapped and the memories of its former glory steadily dimming, we track some of the regions where it once reigned supreme and find here indicators of how the party’s national loss of space has been due mostly to its own internal decay, inertia, and ineptitude.
Born in Bombay
The Congress party’s national decline probably began when it began to lose its grip on Maharashtra. This is a point of particular poignancy because the erstwhile Bombay city and Bombay state were the birthplace of the Congress. It was on December 28, 1885, that the Indian National Congress was founded at Mumbai’s Gokuldas Tejpal Sanskrit College with 72 delegates present at that historic meeting. It remained dominant there till as recently as 2014, its ruling streak continuing even after Maharashtra was carved out of Bombay state in 1960. Of the 20 Chief Ministers since, 13 have been from the Congress and two from its breakaway unit, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). The remaining five Chief Ministers have been from the Shiv Sena and the BJP.
The strength of the Congress was famously termed the ‘Congress system’ by the late political scientist Rajni Kothari. This essentially stood for an accommodative, inclusive approach that valued consensus. While this worked in the early decades of Independence, it could not compete with the other more divisive and sectarian philosophies that grew popular in the 1990s, ripping off even the cohesiveness required for electoral politics.
The gradual downfall of the Congress has been partially attributed to defections. These have lately increased but there were always defections, from the 1950s onwards. It peaked in 1967, with 438 Congress members quitting. The matter was serious enough for the party to form a panel, headed by then Home Minister Y.B. Chavan, which proposed the anti-defection law that saw light only in 1985.
The Emergency brought the next wave of disaffection, and when it was lifted in 1977 the Congress split up, with Indira Gandhi leading the dominant Congress (I).
Sharad Pawar was then a Maharashtra Congress leader, who stayed with the parent organisation. In the State elections that followed, neither faction got a majority. For a brief period, both factions ruled Maharashtra jointly, but in 1978 Pawar formed the Samantar (or parallel) Congress and with the backing of the Janata Party and the Peasants and Workers Party became Chief Minister. In 1980, Indira Gandhi returned to power at the Centre and dismissed his government, imposing President’s rule. Pawar lost the 1980 and the 1985 Assembly elections.
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In 1986, two years after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Pawar returned to the parent Congress and ruled as Chief Minister till 1995. By then, the BJP had received a nationwide boost with a religious-communal agenda becoming part of the public narrative after L.K. Advani’s 1990 rath yatra. The 1992 Bombay riots and the subsequent bomb blasts were the turning point, bringing the Sena-BJP combine to power.
In 1999, having objected to Sonia Gandhi as party president and prime ministerial candidate, Pawar, P.A. Sangma, and Tariq Anwar were expelled. They formed the NCP. Although the NCP became a major player in Maharashtra with Pawar as its mainstay, the split propelled the saffron combine and pushed the Congress back. Of course, the NCP’s ideological commonality with the Congress meant that the two successfully formed alliance governments in 1999, 2004 and 2009. In 2014, the Sena-BJP won again. The 2019 government would have also been saffron, but the ‘wily Maratha’ stepped into a Sena-BJP rift and made unlikely bedfellows of the Sena, the NCP, and the Congress.
In Lok Sabha elections in 1999, 2004, and 2009, the Congress won more seats than the NCP, but the latter overtook it in 2014 and 2019. Overall, both their shares fell drastically in these years. Until 2014, the Congress won about one-third of the seats. In 2019 it won one seat.
Leadership issues are largely to blame for the dethroning of the Congress in Maharashtra. Many of its leading lights have sat back comfortably, with their sugar mills, vast estates, and cooperative bank positions, not concerned with governance and politics. As a retired bureaucrat once told Frontline, “They [the Congress] have no hunger any more. The BJP is on fire….” The bureaucrat made another important point. The party, he said, did not “by and large stoop to actions where the end justifies the means…. The Congress technically still has the correct values but their election strategies, or any strategies, need a drastic upgrade.” But of course, even an upgrade requires fire in the belly.
Lost in Uttar Pradesh
The lack of a combative spirit, inept experiments by the leadership, and large-scale defections reduced the Congress tally to two in the 403-member Uttar Pradesh Assembly in the 2022 elections. India’s most populous State sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha and forms the backbone of electoral victories. For 40 years after 1947, it was the bastion of the Congress and the Gandhi family.
Party insiders believe that as general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh, Priyanka Gandhi’s street protests against the Adityanath government over headline-grabbing crimes and the socio-political initiative of reserving 40 per cent of the party ticket for women were of little help in the State where the election essentially turned into a face-off between the BJP and the Samajwadi Party (SP).
Though the party’s decimation in the real sense began only in the late 1980s, its hegemony was put to test on several occasions. As early as 1967, the Congress failed to get a majority in UP in stark contrast to 1952, when it had won 388 of 430 seats. After the 1967 elections, the party’s Jat leader Charan Singh broke away to head the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal (SVD), an amalgam of opposition parties, becoming the first non-Congress Chief Minister of UP. Charan Singh also founded the Bharatiya Kranti Dal, which sowed the seeds of OBC (Other Backward Classes) politics in the region. The fact that both the Communist Party of India and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh were part of the SVD alliance reflected the anti-Congress wind.
In 1977, when the Janata Party came to power at the Centre, it imposed President’s rule in several Congress-ruled States, including UP. In the Assembly elections that followed, the Janata Party won 352 of 425 seats and the Congress 47. But the Janata experiment was short-lived, and the Congress bounced back, ruling from 1980 to 1989, though the Chief Minister’s post rotated between V.P. Singh, Shripati Mishra, N.D. Tiwari, and Vir Bahadur Singh.
In this decade, it was the firm support of Brahmins, Dalits, and Muslims that kept the Congress in power. Then came the mandal-kamandal wave that swept the State in the late 1980s. But before that another significant thing happened: In 1984, Dalit ideologue Kanshi Ram founded the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) with a simple twofold strategy—to aspire for the principal opposition space and, thereafter, for power. This is a strategy that could have worked for the Congress in the years that followed, but its leadership failed to realise that the fight was as much against the SP-BSP as it was against the BJP. It erred by not wooing a section of Brahmin and Dalit voters who were disillusioned with the BJP but even more so with the SP.
In the 2022 Assembly election, the Congress campaign focussed on the OBCs, as seen in its programmes such as the Nadi Adhikar Yatra advocating the rights of the backward Nishad community, the much-hyped kisan nyay rallies in the light of the farmers’ agitation, and the appointment of the little-known Ajay Kumar Lallu as its State president (Lallu belongs to the Kanu bania caste). According to the party’s senior State leaders, Priyanka Gandhi’s team of “politically novice, far-left ideologues” vetoed a Brahmin-focussed campaign.
Speaking to Frontline, a senior Congress leader said: “We persuaded Priyanka Gandhi to woo the Brahmins. Their support looked attainable at a time when resentment against Adityanath’s ‘thakur raaj’ was peaking. The Muslim votes would follow… for it was the Congress that hit the streets at the height of the anti-CAA [Citizenship (Amendment) Act] protests.” According to this leader, although at one point Priyanka Gandhi agreed that a Brahmin would be the party’s chief ministerial face, “her left-leaning coterie changed her mind”.
Priyanka was apparently sold the narrative that the votes of the non-Yadav OBCs were still there for the taking, but the fact is the OBCs have historically had little affinity for the Congress. The Mandal Commission report gathered dust for a decade of Congress rule before Prime Minister V.P. Singh of the Janata Dal implemented it in 1990. Not that the OBCs found a political haven in the Janata Dal either; the dominant Yadavs hijacked patronage under Lalu Prasad in Bihar and Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh.
But the BJP courted the non-Yadav OBCs from 2014 onwards, using a combination of social welfare programmes and invoking a “Hindu-awakening sentiment”. In 2022, as much as 65 per cent of non-Yadav OBCs voted for the BJP, according to a CSDS-Lokniti survey.
In 2017 the Congress really fell apart in UP. Having initially accepted Prashant Kishor’s call to go it alone under a Brahmin face, it had picked Sheila Dikshit as its chief ministerial face and minted a catchy slogan, “ 27 saal, UP behaal”. But a few weeks ahead of the election, it junked the strategy to align with the SP. When the results came, the Congress had been reduced to a single digit tally.
Political commentator Major Himanshu Singh says the party’s biggest handicap is its lack of assertiveness and long-term goals. “The Congress after 1989 lacked direction in the State and settled for alliances to accumulate short-term gains, thus ceding space to others. Its alliance with the BSP in 1996 essentially handed over the Dalit leadership to Mayawati. Even when it contested alone, as it did in 2022, it wasn’t sure till the last minute and that meant it had neither strategy nor consistency,” Singh told Frontline.
According to Acharya Pramod Krishnan, a senior leader of the UP Congress, “A handful of leaders kept misleading Priyanka Gandhi that they would secure an alliance with the SP. This prevented the Congress from asserting itself in a way that is required in a principal opposition party.” Priyanka picked on the BJP for crimes against women and minorities, but her silence on the “mafia raj” days of the SP weakened her discourse on crime. A large section of the populace who were at the receiving end of the SP’s alleged “mafia raj” credit Adityanath with improving law and order.
Another let-down for the Congress in UP has been the steady flight of its leaders just ahead of polling. Jitin Prasada, Lalitesh Tripathi, and R.P.N. Singh quit one after the other. But here, too, the Congress has not figured out how to respond. In an interview with a television channel in Varanasi before the last leg of the polling, Priyanka Gandhi rejected the idea of accommodating these defectors in future. But in terms of political realism, this strategy might not be prudent, more so for a party like the Congress that survives on a network of influential local satraps.
Today, the BJP’s vote share in Uttar Pradesh is 40 per cent. If the Congress wants to return to power in this all-important State, it must engage in realpolitik manoeuvres rather than moral grandstanding. The appointment of Dalit leader Brijlal Khabri, a BSP defector, as its Pradesh Congress Committee chief may be a move in this direction. With the BSP boat sinking—it polled 12.88 per cent votes in 2022—and Mayawati’s credibility crashing, the Congress is in a good position to revive its Dalit voter base.
South Indian Salve
The five southern States have traditionally contributed a significant number of seats to either the Congress or its allies. This helped it during the era of fractured verdicts that led to coalition governments, especially in 2004 and 2009. The party has retained a grip on its constituencies in south India, and it is not without reason that the Congress chose to field its former president Rahul Gandhi from Wayanad in Kerala.
In 2004 and 2009, south India played a major role in government formation. In 2004, the Left parties, aided by an unprecedented 60 seats, including 20 from Kerala, provided the bulk of the numbers. And in Tamil Nadu, the DMK provided significant numbers to shore up the alliance, leading to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government.
Tamil Nadu (39 seats, plus one in Puducherry that does not usually buck the trend), Kerala (20 seats), united Andhra Pradesh (42 seats), and Karnataka (28 seats) contribute 130 seats in the 543-seat Lok Sabha—which is about 24 per cent of the total seats in the House. In 2004, the Congress won 145 seats against the BJP’s 138. In 2009, the Congress managed to win 206 seats. On both occasions, the Congress formed the government, though it was well short of the half-way mark of 272.
In Tamil Nadu, the DMK, after dumping the BJP ahead of the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, has largely allied with the Congress, barring a blip in 2014. In Kerala, although the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) are key opponents, there is a history of the CPI(M)-led alliance in Kerala backing a Congress-led alliance in Delhi in the interest of preventing the BJP from capturing power.
In undivided Andhra Pradesh, a series of strong Congress Chief Ministers traditionally delivered seats to the Congress. In both 2004 and 2009, it was Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy who shored up the Congress. In 2009, with Y.S.R as Chief Minister, the Congress won a massive 33 of 42 seats.
His death on September 2, 2009, and the Congress’ failure to understand the demand for Telangana, set in motion a series of events that eventually led to the creation of Telangana and virtually obliterated the Congress from Andhra Pradesh and reduced it to an also-ran in Telangana.
In both States, the two national parties have been replaced by local parties. In 2019, neither the Congress nor the BJP managed a single MP from Andhra Pradesh. While in Telangana, the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi won nine of 17 seats, the BJP won four, and the Congress three.
Kerala and Karnataka are the two southern States where the Congress, either on its own or in alliance, can still pose a challenge. Even though the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) did suffer unprecedented back-to-back losses in Kerala Assembly elections in 2016 and 2021, in 2019 it won a breathtaking 19 of 20 Lok Sabha seats, with the Congress alone winning 15 of the 16 seats it contested. Minus these numbers, the Congress would have looked far worse in the 2019 Lok Sabha. In 2014, the UDF won 12 seats, with the Congress winning eight; in 2009 (its best year before 2019), the alliance had won 16 and the Congress 13.
In Karnataka, however, the Congress has suffered one of its worst blows. A Congress stronghold from 1952 to 1989, it was in 1983 that Ramakrishna Hegde first slipped in on the back of a Janata Party-led coalition, of which only the JD(S) faction led by H.D. Deve Gowda remains today. It was, however, the first step to splitting the Congress vote, ultimately letting the BJP come to power. From having no presence in the State, the BJP suddenly won four seats in 1991. The party went on to cement the Lingayat vote and by 1994 it had won 40 of 224 seats.
The BJP used communal politics and Lingayat dissatisfaction skilfully, issues the Congress failed to read correctly. The party steadily ceded constituencies to the BJP in 2004 and 2009. In 2014, the Congress won 9 seats to the BJP’s 17. In 2019, it won just one. Mallikarjun Kharge, today the Congress president, lost his seat in Gulbarga, which he had won in 2009 and 2014. The BJP took away over 50 per cent of the votes polled.
Heading into 2024, the Congress alliance in Kerala, the UDF, is likely to benefit from the anti-incumbency factor. This could mean a possible repeat of the 2019 scenario. While in Tamil Nadu, the DMK is expected to hold its ground, helping the Congress win a few seats.
Andhra Pradesh and Telangana will be a major challenge. In the former, the Congress remains a distant third, with the YSR Congress and the Telugu Desam Party fighting for the top slot. In Telangana, the new PCC president Revanth Reddy is making enough noise to be heard, but only a fraction of the Congress MLAs who won are still with the party; a vast majority having migrated to the TRS. Most of the traditional vote base of the Congress has shifted to either the TRS or the BJP. The BJP’s top brass, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has made multiple trips to the State, seeing Telangana as the route southwards.
In Karnataka, the Congress must balance between its street-fighter president D.K. Shivakumar and former Chief Minister and mass leader Siddaramaiah. The inability of the BJP’s Basavaraj Bommai government to effectively counter charges of corruption and the fact that a Karnataka leader, Mallikarjun Kharge, has been given the top Congress post, helps give the party a fighting chance.
Goa gifted away
A Kharge-like stalwart steered the Congress ship in Goa from 1980 onwards and kept going for the next 20 years. His name: Pratapsingh Rane. He brought in industry, created public transportation, established educational institutions, and developed the mining sector. In return, the State rewarded the Congress with electoral victories for two decades.
When Goa conducted its first Assembly election in 1963 after its liberation from the Portuguese, the Congress had just one seat in the 40-member Assembly, which was dominated by the regional Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) and the United Goans (UG). The Union Territory was led by popular Chief Minister Dayanand Bandodkar of the MGP. However, differences between that party and the UG led by Jack de Sequeira over the Goa referendum—on whether Goa should merge with Maharashtra—and the Marathi-Konkani language issue caused a major chasm in Goan politics, allowing the Congress to step in and fill the void.
But since the early 2000s, fissures within the Congress and inept leadership at the national and State levels frittered away that early advantage, reducing its presence in Goa to three MLAs today. Political observers see the party’s policies and the arrogance and ignorance of its central leadership in Goa as a microcosm of how and why it has failed nationally.
In 2002, Manohar Parrikar, a young dynamic BJP leader, rode an anti-incumbency wave to power. The Congress managed to win back the State in 2005, but that would be the last time the party occupied the Chief Minister’s post. Parrikar’s masterstroke was to break into the Catholic bastion. Once staunch Congress supporters, the community had become unhappy with the party’s petty quarrelling and lack of leadership.
A similar story of disillusionment played out in 2017. The Congress entered a pre-poll alliance with Goa Forward, a party that was then becoming popular, allowing its chief Vijay Sardesai to contest from Fatorda.
But just 15 minutes before nominations closed, the Congress had its senior leader Luizinho Faleiro file papers for the same seat. Sardesai broke the alliance and won on his own.
When the elections threw up a hung Assembly, with the Congress winning 17 seats, the BJP 13, the MGP three, Goa Forward three, and the NCP one seat, the Congress twiddled its thumbs waiting for “high command” instructions. The BJP swiftly negotiated with the MGP and Goa Forward and stole the government from under the Congress nose.
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In 2019, 10 Congress MLAs defected to the BJP, weakening the party further. Said Oscar Rebello, a political columnist: “The Congress seems unable today to fight both the mighty forces of political intimidation and Goa-specific petty squabbles and ideologically bankrupt aspirants.” According to him, the Congress leadership in Goa is “fundamentally terrified of Central agencies” being unleashed on them. They do not even aim for plum Cabinet positions, but simply align with the ruling side. “It has nothing to do with ideology or loyalty. It is about survival,” said Rebello.
In 2022, singed by the 2017 failure, the Congress appeared to have a plan in place. It picked heavyweights such as Michael Lobo and his wife Delilah to contest. But mistakes continued. It sidelined former Chief Minister and popular politician Digambar Kamat, who remained in the party then but betrayed it later. Of the 11 MLAs who won on the Congress ticket, eight defected to the BJP this September, crippling the Congress in Goa.
A Congress source said, “Over-reliance on the high command; incompetent decisions by Congress Goa in-charge Dinesh Gundu Rao; marginalising stalwarts and loyalists such as Kamat, Francis Sardinha, Luizinho Faleiro, and Aleixo Reginaldo were fatal mistakes.” Rebello and others agree, saying the Congress has dug its own grave. The only sign of hope is that the party managed a respectable vote share, which seems to indicate that it is down but not yet out.
With inputs from Lyla Bavadam, Anando Bhakto, R.K. Radhakrishnan, and Anupama Katakam.
- On December 28, 1885, the Indian National Congress was founded at Mumbai’s Gokuldas Tejpal Sanskrit College with 72 delegates present at that historic meeting. It remained dominant in Maharashtra till as recently as 2014. Of the 20 Chief Ministers since, 13 have been from the Congress and two from its breakaway unit, the NCP.
- Inept experiments by the leadership, and large-scale defections have reduced the Congress tally to two in the 403-member Uttar Pradesh Assembly in the 2022 elections.
- The five southern States have traditionally contributed a significant number of seats to either the Congress or its allies. The party has retained a grip on its constituencies in south India.
- Since the early 2000s, fissures within the Congress and inept leadership at the national and State levels frittered away have reduced its presence in Goa to three MLAs today. Political observers see the party’s policies in Goa as a microcosm of how and why it has failed nationally.