The ‘Declining Congress’ story is in limelight due to assembly elections 2022 in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Manipur and Goa and the results will clarify its existential conundrum, whether it is in decline or revival mode. The Congress paradox bears a close resemblance with the duality of purpose at the time of its birth in 1885. A.O.Hume, a British civil servant and one of the founders of Indian National Congress wanted to use it as a ‘Safety-Valve’ for releasing the latent discontent of the Indians with the British rule. It aimed to pre-empt another uprising on the lines of 1857 Indian mutiny, while Indians hoped to utilize it as a lightning conductor to provide traction to freedom movement. The Congress inherited the legacy of the independence movement and ruled the country for close to six decades after 1947 with several changes in party system, leadership, splits and predominance. The General Elections in 2014 marked a sharp ideological shift in Indian politics, as the Congress received a trouncing from the BJP, paving the way for a new dominant political party system. The saffron party won 282 out of the 543 seats and crossed the majority mark for the first time in Lok Sabha.
The ignominious defeat of the Congress was a bolt from the blue, but many believed its loss of supremacy was transient and it will do a rebound. However, it failed again in 2019 elections, and the political debacle-raised red flags in party corridors. The self-introspection and course corrections attempts partially succeeded due to ill-conceived plans and short-term vision. The party kept losing its electoral footprints in states and it remains currently remains in power in 3 out of 29 states (Punjab, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh). The unabated attrition of leaders and intra-party factionalism in state units in combination with a dissident group of 23 leaders has further deepened the crisis. The changes in the functioning of the party system post 1947 will provide a perspective of its current imbroglio and reasons for fast declining political graph.
Jawaharlal Nehru Weakened the Congress System
The Congress led by Jawaharlal Nehru contested the first General election of free India in 1952 and registered a landslide victory by winning 364 out of the 401 seats in the Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament). It repeated its national electoral success in majority of State elections and initiated a Nehruvian era of single party dominance of the Congress in electoral politics. Rajni Kothari a prominent political scientist defined one party dominance as a competitive party system in which competing parts play rather dissimilar roles. It consists of a party of consensus and parties of pressure. The system provided a comprehensive mechanism of change, conflict articulation and resolution and two-way communications between society and politics. The Congress was the main consensus and therefore the dominant party with an obligation towards nation building through which the Indian political system operated with back-to-back victories in 1952, 1957 and 1962 Lok Sabha election. The Congress grew from strength to strength, but the higher concentration of power in the hands of Nehru and his belief that he could only hold the country together weakened the party system.
The strong leadership of Nehru created insecurities among the powerful leaders in his cabinet and formation of syndicates, and the fratricidal strife that surfaced after his death led to a vertical split in the party and formation of Congress (I) by Indira Gandhi. In the national elections in 1967 after the demise of stalwarts (PMs) Nehru and Lal Bahadhur Shastri, the Congress (I) emerged victorious, the inheritor of the parent party, but suffered a major setback as it lost more than 100 parliamentary seats and shed four percentage points of popular votes. The party lost eight state elections in a trot thereafter that seriously threatened its pan India dominance, but it continued to be in the words of Kothari ‘the preponderant political force in the country’. The defeat in state elections led to alienation of its core supporters and created a belief among the opposition parties that they can emerge as a viable alternative in near future. The failure of Nehru in devising a succession plan and formalizing an apparatus for maintaining consensus weakened the party system and put it on a path of self-created political decline.
Indira Gandhi Undermined Political Establishment
The Congress witnessed major changes in chain of command, organizational hierarchies and work culture after the ascendancy of Indira Gandhi. She contested the General Elections in 1971 on the populist slogan of ‘Garibi Hatao’ (eliminate poverty), and her pro-poor posturing created a huge electoral wave that enabled the Congress to add 69 more parliamentary seats in its tally with a three percent gain in vote share. The landslide victory earned her a comparison with goddess ‘Durga’, the feminine epitome of strength, and the beginning of ‘Personality Cult’ phenomenon in Indian politics. Her tall stature not only dwarfed the party’s political standing, but also created a cult of electoral followers from diverse social groupings that remained politically faithful to her for a long time.
Indira Gandhi declared emergency in 1975 that authorized her to rule by decree and suspend civil liberties. Her rule had a collateral impact on Congress, as it led to political personalization and authoritarianism that temporarily eroded its brand value and partisan electoral support base. As a result, the Janata Party (JP), a platform of several parties with different ideological hues based on anti-Congressism routed the Congress in 1977 General elections. It lost more than 200 Lok Sabha seats and nine percent votes and was in total disarray, but the collapse of JP provided it an electoral opening and it came back to power by winning the 1980 national elections. It lost overbearing pre-eminence in Hindi heartland states, but it made up for the loss by political gains in provinces situated south of the Vindhyan mountain range. The minority votes that remained steadfast with the Congress for decades drifted apart and it became vulnerable and beatable in electoral competitions. Her tenure witnessed purge of second tier leaders, silencing the voices of constructive critique and substitution of strong regional leaders with ungrounded personnel. The party structure changed with centralization of decision-making, redundancy of existing feedback mechanisms and closure of open dialogues with the subaltern electorate. The popular belief that Congress is the only party that can govern India evaporated and there was a serious breach in its invincibility aura.
Over-Centralization Decimated the Party Organization
The period after Indira Gandhi witnessed a transition from single party dominance to coalition politics and Congress forged an alliance with smaller parties to rule until 1996. It was unseated from power by BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that governed from 1997 to 2004 and emerged as the first stable and feasible national alternative to the Congress. The Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) of left to centre parties defeated the NDA in 2004 national elections. The leadership of Congress changed from concentration of power in a single hand to centralized personalization led by Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi-Rahul Gandhi. The over-centralization of power or the new ‘High Command’ culture worked quite well and helped the Congress to retain power in 2009 Lok Sabha election with a bigger mandate. However, the political gains made was lost midway as UPA II government got embroiled in political frauds, high inflation, unemployment and policy paralysis. The 2014 General elections witnessed strong anti-incumbency sentiments and huge swell of electoral support for the BJP that resulted in a humiliating defeat for the Congress. Its tally in the lower house of Parliament hit a rock bottom, as it won 44 seats. It lost several state elections and the Lok Sabha election in 2019, but it continues to be the first choice of two out of the ten Indian voters.
The delicate balance on which the legitimacy and power of the Congress system rested had the potential to be rudely disturbed with the emergence of an authoritarian system, through a purposive coalition of dissident and opposition groups. The prophecy by Kothari in 1964 that political systems do change in their nature over time, and there is no particular sanctity in one particular system turned true as BJP emerged from the shadows of the Congress and replaced it as the new dominant party. It went into a downward spiral due to the rise of the BJP as a single dominant party and the beginning of a new party system. The reasons that lead to diminution of the Congress include liabilities of dynastic politics, intergenerational conflict in first family, decimation of ‘Congress System’, failure of organizational transformation and disconnect with aspirational Indians. It lost its hegemonic power due to ideological stagnation, lackadaisical attitude and resistance to evolving political changes.
To conclude, the decline of Congress fits in with Jim Collins ‘Five Stages of Decline’ concept in his book How the Mighty Fall. He said every institution goes through five stages of evolution: one Hubris Born of Success, two Undisciplined Pursuit of More, three Denial of Risk and Peril, four Grasping for Salvation and five Capitulation to Irrelevance. The Congress during Nehruvian era was in the first stage as it lost sight of its main objectives and believed in nothing succeeds like success. It progressed to the second stage during Indira Gandhi’s rule, as it tried to stamp its supremacy by force and through unconstitutional methods. The party entered into the third-fourth stages during the leadership of Sonia-Rahul Gandhi. It was in the stage of denial, but when the freefall became publicly visible, it instinctively resorted to knee jerk plans to reverse the decline. The party is in a suspended animation and needs to retain power in Punjab and win few states to avoid slipping in the fifth phase of decline and reach a point of no return.
The author, Praveen Rai is a Political Analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.