After a gruelling Bharat Jodo Yatra, which cemented Rahul Gandhi’s position as the unchallenged commander of his party’s rank and file, the Congress’ 85th plenary (that ended on February 26) was a bookmarked event for many. As the opposition maps its road to recovery, the questions in everyone’s mind were: Will the Congress embrace the regional parties’ case for building the biggest possible coalition to beat Prime Minister Narendra Modi? Will it cede the leadership role in such a coalition to accommodate ambitious regional satraps? What policy debates will it usher to translate anti-Modi sentiment into anti-Modi votes?
Broadly, there were two main takeaways from the three-day convention held at the carefully-chosen destination of Raipur in election-bound Chhattisgarh, where the Congress is looking to recapture power, riding on its Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel’s populist image.
The first was to assert its role as the principal opposition party. The second was to focus on mobilising voters at the bottom rung of the economic ladder. The plenary promised a “radical new policy package of social justice”.
To that end, the Congress is willing to emulate the socialist or “pro-Mandal” parties, such as Akhilesh Yadav’s SP, Tejashwi Yadav’s RJD, and Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), who have made caste census the fulcrum of their politics, hoping it would transform into an OBC-Dalit consolidation against the BJP in 2024.
‘No’ to third front
While the speeches of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi and party president Mallikarjun Kharge were clear distillations of the opposition argument that the campaign for the 2024 election was nothing short of a national emergency, as they outlined the need to work with like-minded parties to defeat the BJP and safeguard the country’s institutions, they also contained a definitive “no” to the idea of anyone else piloting an anti-BJP front.
Kharge, while describing the stakes of the election, said: “Congress is the only party that can provide decisive leadership to the country.” A political resolution adopted in the plenary said: “Emergence of any third force will provide advantage to the BJP/NDA.”
It was a pitch, said Congress insiders, that was “rooted in political calculus” rather than any ambition to get the “front row of power”.
The Congress’ assessment is that on crucial matters such as crony capitalism, suddenly a hot-button issue after the stock losses of Gautam Adani’s business enterprises, which also affected public sector undertakings such as LIC, or taking a tough line on China’s transgressions in Indian territory, only a national party can show the strength and standing to hold the government to account.
In the Congress’ calculations, if it crosses 100 seats, there would be no major hurdle to acquiring the prime ministerial slot—make no mistake, for Rahul Gandhi. But if it were to fall short of 100 and the formation of a non-BJP government were still possible, a senior Congress leader, who is a three-time member of Parliament, told this reporter that “Rahul himself would be willing to make the sacrifice”. “But,” the leader added, “no Mamata [Banerjee], Nitish [Kumar] or KCR [K. Chandrashekar Rao] would get the top slot. It would be some aging leader from their parties without a mass base.”
In an outreach to the disadvantaged sections, the Congress Working Committee has promised to reserve 50 per cent of its tickets for SCs, STs, OBCs, minorities, and women. The party has also envisaged a special act, which it calls the “Rohith Vemula Act”, to redress grievances of marginalised sections in educational hubs.
But the most startling announcement was its endorsement of a socio-economic caste census, which some political observers perceive is a lightning rod that unites the OBCs on a single platform.
But is it prudent for the Congress to use this plank when the SP, the RJD, and the JD(U), see the caste census, or aggressive OBC-centric politics, as a game-changing counter to the BJP’s Hindu consolidation?
Over the past two decades, a large number of small, impoverished castes have grown hostile to the dominant Yadav community, whom they accuse of nibbling away the benefits of reservation besides gaining undue patronage in the previous regimes of the SP and the RJD. It is this frustration that the BJP exploited in Uttar Pradesh to acquire a passionate, dependable following of non-Yadav OBCs since 2014, along with a section of non-Jatav Dalit voters.
In the 2022 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, even the defection of powerful OBC leaders such as Swami Prasad Maurya, Dharam Singh Saini, and Om Prakash Rajbhar, from the NDA failed to crystallise into a political insurrection against the BJP: a staggering 65 per cent of non-Yadav OBCs voted for the BJP, according to a CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey.
Also, the OBCs and the Dalits have a history of incompatibility, partly owing to the OBCs’ socially dominant position, and partly because the Dalits’ alignment with the forward castes had, in the past, provided them with nominal power-sharing besides protection networks.
The 2022 Uttar Pradesh election was an illustration of that. Despite headliner crimes against Dalits under the Adityanath government, such as the Unnao and Hathras cases, a section of Dalit voters moved to the BJP, alarmed by the prospect of the SP’s return to power, as did Brahmins who were upset with Adityanath’s alleged “Thakur raj”.
Had the Congress been politically crafty, it would recast itself as a viable and attractive platform for disillusioned BJP voters—Brahmins and Dalits in UP and an increasing number of middle class or “the serviced class” constituency in urban and semi-rural India, and fragment the BJP’s roughly 37 per cent vote share which has made it an impregnable fort for some time.
Parroting OBC-centric talking points of a handful of regional parties hinders the ability of a national party like the Congress to reckon with diverse demographics relentlessly in search of an optimistic, forward-looking vision for the country.
Road to 2024
The issues of inflation and unemployment are real, but if the Congress has to ride a wave of discontent against the Modi government, it should avoid collision on sensitive areas. Many successful upstarts in politics, such as Barack Obama, once a fledgling senator from Illinois, lacked definition, but that allowed them to draw voters with divergent political views and backgrounds.
But the Congress has a proclivity to believe that the only way to unseat Narendra Modi is by unifying the nearly 63 per cent of voters who did not vote for him in 2019. What it fails to read is if a common plank of anti-Modism could tide over caste-based incompatibilities, it would have done so in 2019.
The Congress’ failure to acknowledge that has pushed it to overly focus on anti-BJP voters, without any message for disenchanted BJP voters. This is bound to perpetuate the appeal of the political extremes, a game the BJP plays better.
Also, the party’s far-left positions on several economic matters do not resonate with an increasingly aspirational class, particularly the youth, who tend to read it as “anti-growth”.
During the plenary, Shashi Tharoor averred: “We should reassure those who fear we are anti-business. India will not shine until it shines for all and business people have a crucial role to play as wealth generators and job creators.”
There are others in the Congress who privately rue that a pragmatic course for the party would be focusing on livelihood issues and not turning the 2024 election into a mandate on ideology.