2016 Was Bad, 2017 May Be Worse: Why The Congress Party May Be Looking At A Long Winter

by Bodhisatvaa and Aashish Chandorkar - Dec 28, 2016 12:10 PM +05:30 IST
2016 Was Bad, 2017 May Be Worse: Why The Congress Party May Be Looking At A Long Winter Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra greet supporters in Sultanpur. (PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/GettyImages)
  • As the Congress party celebrates its 132nd Foundation Day today (28 December), there are more questions than answers on the anvil.

    The party would do well to heed the advice, don’t cut your nose to spite your face, as it struggles to find credible leadership and attempts to retain control of the opposition space.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, said Charles Dickens opening his magnum opus A Tale of Two Cities. Rahul Gandhi can use that line in his autobiography a few years from now while recounting the time since 2013. As Congress lapses into a seemingly interminable political decline, Rahul Gandhi himself continues to be on ascendancy in the party.

In 2015, Congress had a small ray of hope as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suffered setbacks in Bihar and Delhi elections. Although Congress itself was wiped out in the Delhi assembly, while being a small part of the winning grand alliance in Bihar, it could take solace from the stunning defeat of the BJP in both the states. However a year later, Congress continues to languish. In the absence of any meaningful improvement in its electoral prospects, the grand old party of India has had an indifferent 2016 electorally, legislatively and also organisationally.

In 2016, the party had little to show in terms of electoral successes. It made wrong choices of allies in both Bengal and Tamil Nadu, and was swept out of power in Assam and Kerala. In the local body elections in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Rajasthan, where it directly competes with the BJP, Congress could not do much more than reducing its margin of defeat. The Lok Sabha and assembly by polls across the country brought no cheers either. In Maharashtra local body elections, the party has retained some of its strongholds in the rural areas, but the BJP has made significant gains outside of its traditional urban power centres.

The party already appears to have peaked in Uttar Pradesh in what has so far been a haphazardly organised campaign, and is now desperately searching for allies. The alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP) seems to be blowing hot, blowing cold, and may well be the last hope for the party to come to power in the politically most significant state in India. With the Congress chief ministerial candidate Sheila Dixit absent from the campaign scene and virtually dismissing the Rahul Gandhi corruption allegations against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the party remains in a fix in the state. Sonia Gandhi has not recovered from her medical emergency in Varanasi couple of months ago, and Rahul Gandhi appears to be facing multiple internal battles while putting up a brave face.

The year 2017 is not going to be easy at all for the Congress party. It will find itself defending its governments in Manipur, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, and it appears to be in contention only in Punjab. At the same time, the leadership infighting within the Congress appears more obvious as time passes, while its potential allies continue to browbeat the Congress into submission.

Congress may not recover in the 2017 elections with seven states going to the polls. While large states such as Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Punjab go to polls, we will also see elections in Goa, Manipur, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand as well. Among the sitting governments, the BJP and its allies rule three states, Congress has three states while SP is the incumbent in Uttar Pradesh.

So for the Congress, even though it is defending only small states, they do comprise three out of the seven chief ministers the party is left with in the country. At the current juncture, Congress may struggle to retain more than one state out of the three (Manipur, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand), given the latest opinion polls. At the same time, while the BJP itself is struggling in Punjab and even Goa, the incumbency challenge appears to be coming from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), not from Congress.

The problem for the Congress is compounded by the fact that the BJP appears to be in a pole position in Uttar Pradesh, where the party’s ambitious campaign designed by Prashant Kishore is failing. In fact there have been talks of Congress parting ways with Kishore, who earlier played a part in Modi’s and Nitish Kumar’s victories. Perhaps, the party should have focused on the product before going all in with promotions, to use Kotler phraseology.

While the impact of the 8 November demonetisation announcement on the Uttar Pradesh elections is far from clear, it is fair to say that the Congress party will not reap any benefits from it, and may even face setbacks given the constraints to its funding mechanism. Even in Goa and Gujarat, where incumbency appears to be catching up with the BJP, the Congress has continued to bleed, with several leaders quitting the party.

Rashtrapati Bhavan Will See A Change In July

After July 2017, Congress will have to contend with a new President. It is highly unlikely that Prime Minister Modi will nominate President Pranab Mukherjee for a second term. In all likelihood, the new President will be from Uttar Pradesh with the Vice President from the South (most likely Tamil Nadu, given the recent events). As such, the Congress will have to build a new relationship to push their ideas to the government. With this, the communication gap between the government and the opposition will only widen.

Rahul Remains A Reluctant Leader; Priyanka Is An Emerging Challenger

Rahul Gandhi finally appears to have mastered the art of delivering one liners. Almost 13 years into politics, Rahul Gandhi’s oratory skills are certainly improving, but it is not necessarily being appreciated by the Congress party. With Sonia Gandhi’s health taking a turn for the worse, the concerns and urgency around succession within the Congress are rising. Indeed, the resolution by Congress Working Committee (CWC) for Rahul Gandhi to take over as party president was remarkable, even as the first family pushed back on the transition. So it is not clear who wants the succession and who does not, within the party.

Yet Rahul Gandhi does retain support from a section of the Congress, especially the NGO style advisors and professionals who he had attracted after his 2009 Uttar Pradesh Lok Sabha campaign. Whether this lobby will prevail over the institutional Congress old guard seems unclear, though the probability of this lobby losing out keeps increasing with every new election defeat that Congress courts.

The main complication for Rahul Gandhi is the emergence of Priyanka Vadra as a formidable challenger. Amid cries of ‘Priyanka Lao, Congress Bachao’, the sibling rivalry is playing out to the hilt in the Uttar Pradesh election preparations. The gambit to bring Prashant Kishore to the forefront of electoral management has failed to buy Rahul Gandhi any brownie points, and his case for leadership has been dented with Congress old guard throwing their support behind Priyanka Vadra, who appears to be taking a more collegial approach, empowering Congress local leaders. This may also explain why many leaders appear to be in a hurry to place the thorny crown on Rahul’s head, only to discard him for Priyanka soon after. This battle will likely shape the future of the party for the next decade.

Congress Needs Allies, But the BJP Appears To Be Gaining Some

Congress’ ally management remains in shambles. After picking the damaged Left front in Bengal and the DMK in 2016, Congress is now flirting with the idea of teaming up with the SP in Uttar Pradesh. The common factor in all of these states is that Congress is in no position to actually command any seats on its own, and is likely to play the role of a junior partner, further ceding space. This is in sharp contrast to the BJP, which has gained allies even after the 2015 electoral debacle.

Through the North East development Alliance (NEDA), spurned Congressman Himanta Biswa Sarma is emerging a key player for the BJP at a rapid pace, who can soon control 25 Lok Sabha seats in the region. The BJP has also got significant statements of support from Naveen Patnaik (Biju Janata Dal, Odisha), Nitish Kumar (Janata Dal United, Bihar), K Chandrashekhar Rao (Telangana Rashtra Samiti, Telangana), and even the post-Amma All India Anna Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (Tamil Nadu) on issues such as demonetisation and infrastructure projects. Congress will especially resent Nitish Kumar, the wily Chief Minister of Bihar, breaking opposition ranks to support demonetisation, amid rumours of a ‘ghar wapsi’ to the NDA.

In such a fractious scenario, the Congress may be at a serious risk of contesting less than 300 seats in the 2019 elections, which will automatically guarantee a weak centre even if the Congress somehow manages to form the government. At the same time, the footprint of the BJP is likely to expand, as it can hope to have a more equal seat sharing arrangement with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, while at the same time hoping for a better performance in North East.

A Difficult 2017 Is On The Anvil

Congress has by all means a very difficult situation to counter in 2017. Don’t cut your nose to spite your face, goes an old saying. This is an advice Congress would do well to heed and pay attention to, as it struggles to find credible leadership and attempts to retain control of the opposition space.

As the party celebrates its 132nd Foundation Day on 28 December, there are more questions than answers on the anvil. In his book 24 Akbar Road, Rasheed Kidwai refers to a conversation between Timur the conqueror and the Ibn Khaldun the historian. In response to Timur’s query on longevity of political dynasties, Khaldun apparently theorised that beyond the fourth generation, dynasties wither away. There are the first generation conquerors followed by the second generation administrators who consolidate gains and create wealth. The third generation starts patronising arts and enjoys the riches left by the second one. By the time the fourth generation takes over, there is lack of administrative capacity and lack of resources to extend gains. Kidwai narrates this historical dialogue in the context of Rahul and Priyanka’s generation - the fourth one in the Nehru-Gandhi family. The siblings face an uphill battle if they are to prove the 7th century old Ibn Khaldun wisdom wrong.

Dickens continued his opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities - “it was the spring of hope; it was the winter of despair”. Unless Congress makes a dramatic, unseemly comeback in 2017 starting with Uttar Pradesh, a long winter is almost certain to set in.

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