Congress: The Alice In The Wonderland Of Indian Democracy

Congress: The Alice In The
Wonderland Of Indian DemocracySonia and Rahul Gandhi

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
“I don’t much care where –”
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

In the make believe world of Lewis Carroll, the Cheshire Cat taught Alice an important philosophical life lesson. In the equally exciting world of Indian democracy, the voter is giving a similar message to Congress. The aimless, meaningless drift, which has now become the signature movement of the grand old party of Indian democracy, stands to get amplified after the results of 2016 assembly elections today.

After the crushing Lok Sabha defeat of 2014, Congress has shown no signs of political recovery and has amassed a series of failures – in the elections as well as in the battle of perceptions. Consider the four biggest achievements of Congress in the last two years – coalescing a winning alliance in Bihar, allegedly buying off a government in Uttarakhand with a little help from judicial technicalities, winning four ward seats in Delhi municipal corporations, and getting “Suit Boot Ki Sarkar” jibe stuck on Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a month or two. That’s not a lot of reparation for the party which managed just 44 (since then, won another one) seats in May 2014. Under the iffy leadership of a less than active Sonia Gandhi and the perennially reluctant Rahul Gandhi, the party has sunk to a new low today if it were possible from where it was.

The message from the four states which went to polls over April and May is clear – the Congress decay is now truly secular, a word it overused politically throughout the process of its decay. Assam and Kerala have summarily rejected Congress today. In Tamil Nadu, where it could have tasted power through its ally DMK, the incumbent AIADMK has managed a second term. In West Bengal, Congress allied with long term foe the Left Front, and managed to become the second largest party, but any such future experiment is likely to be vetoed by principled Leftists prevailing over their Lutyens counterparts. Only silver lining may emerge from Puducherry, where the party may be able to cobble up an alliance over the coming days.

Earlier in January, we proposed why 2016 is likely to be a very bad year for Congress. The worst case scenario from the prognosis is now playing out. We had also written earlier on how Congress always works with “this time it is the same” hypothesis, with the phoenix always rising from the ashes. After today’s results, Congress is the closest ever in its history to the point of political extinction, and this time the threat is serious.

Controlling the States

After today’s results, Congress is left with own state governments in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Karnataka, Manipur, Meghalaya and Mizoram. The minor role of Congress in the alliance in Bihar doesn’t count for much and it may add Puducherry to the kitty. Accounting for today’s results and taking a state by state view, the NDA now governs more than 43% of Indian population, with UPA around 15% and the balance 42% with the regional parties. While the Congress had been declining, 19 May 2016 is a historic day for the BJP, which for the first time since its formation in 1980 is set to govern the highest share of Indian population along with its allies.

Of the states where Congress is still in charge, retaining Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka will be an uphill task given the beleaguered local leadership and the corruption crises hitting the top leaders. Uttarakhand is precariously poised if the Congress dissidents who joined BJP on May 18th are allowed to vote on the floor of the house. Manipur government is facing a crisis as The Hindu had reported in March – this crisis may exacerbate after the Assam washout today. In the worst case, Congress may be left only with Meghalaya and Mizoram over the next few months.

Apart from the problem of losing stature as a national party, Congress will also grapple with getting its key leaders reelected to the Rajya Sabha. Not only will Congress lose the ability to raise funds for the party through the states, it will also lose the ability to disrupt Modi government’s legislative agenda heading into the 2019 election.

AAP is going for Congress’s votes in Goa and Punjab

In states where Congress could have revived against BJP or its allies, AAP is nipping at their heels. AAP seems to be a major hurdle in Punjab and Goa, with Arvind Kejriwal looking to displace Congress in both the states. As one of the authors laid out in this Swarajya article, AAP is trying to find natural growth spots in the country, and it has clearly identified states with a Right/Left polarity as ideal expansion options, largely targeting voter base of the Congress.

AAP strategy may also damage the BJP, but it could prove to be fatal for the Congress in the long term. As in case of Delhi, once voters identify AAP as a serious option, Congress may find the ground below its feet disappearing fast in these states. Punjab seems to be going AAP’s way, with Prashant Kishore’s (PK) campaign for Captain Amarinder Singh stillborn. In Goa, Kejriwal has formally kicked off the battle for 2017 already

Uttar Pradesh and the downside of projecting a Gandhi

The next round of assembly elections in 2017 features Uttar Pradesh, the state which contributes the largest number of MPs to the Parliament. Despite BJP holding 71 of the 80 UP Lok Sabha seats, it is the Congress which is trying to give an impression of being a serious player for 2017. There are regular news plugs on how PK, the self confessed election miracle producer, is reviving Congress at the grassroots in Rahul Gandhi’s ‘karmabhoomi’. This is a strange conundrum for Congress – if they put up one of the Gandhis – either Rahul or Priyanka – and the party looses the election, the credibility of the leader dips further. And if the party manages a miracle win potentially via an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), quite likely Mayawati, the BSP leader will become the Chief Minister, leaving either Priyanka or Rahul to play second fiddle – which of course will be suicidal from the 2019 perspective. Additionally for Rahul, if Priyanka is involved in a UP victory, he will lose face within the party and his chances of leading a 2019 campaign will significantly reduce.

As Congress grapples with this double edged “Rebooting Rahul, Grassroots Gandhis” strategy, it has been hit with the possibility of a PK defection. PK reportedly is unhappy with the lack of control on the proceedings in Punjab, which may be the cover for selling a dud stock short in his political trading book.

Dealing with Nitish Kumar and his national outreach

While Congress has enjoyed piggybacking Nitish Kumar’s popularity in Bihar, it will need to deal with Nitish’s national ambitions at some point. For coalition partners like the NCP and the DMK, Nitish offers a far more experienced, practical, and predictable counter point to Narendra Modi, than Rahul Gandhi. Nitish Kumar needs Congress grassroots apparatus to nurse his national goals, but he may actually want to be in a position to bring in seats from outside Bihar as well.

He has made a start towards that ambition with an outreach in Varanasi jumping in the UP battlefield. Nitish has been doing more campaigning than Rahul Gandhi in recent months, and is building a national issue around prohibition, something he has already imposed in Bihar. He has already appealed to the UP government to impose prohibition – and this can be an emotive issue to build momentum around to attract rural women voters nationwide. Nitish has also stayed away from politics of photo-opportunities unlike Rahul Gandhi, who sat on a dharna with the JNU students. Nitish has stayed away from the nationalism debate too on which Rahul and the Congress got badly cornered. He didn’t back the recent AAP onslaught on verifying PM Modi’s degrees either.

Nitish is serious about challenging PM Modi in 2019. His ambition in November 2015 was coterminous with Rahul Gandhi’s ambitions. The divergence starts now, and Congress will find it very difficult to cut him to size or dissuade him from pursuing his plans. Congress is also not in a position to prop up a new demagogue to take Nitish on – the only other option is Arvind Kejriwal, who seems reluctant to take on Nitish directly as of now. Nitish is clearly the first among equals, even including Rahul Gandhi. And that should be a huge cause of concern for Congress.

Rajya Sabha losses will continue to bite

As we had flagged earlier, Congress’s voice in Rajya Sabha will go down materially in 2016. If the setback in the four states today wasn’t sufficient, Congress will have another bad day on June 11th, when the biennial election for the 57 Rajya Sabha seats is held. The loss of nominated members is already hurting Congress. In the June election, Congress is at risk of losing key voices such as Jairam Ramesh, who will be losing his seat in Andhra Pradesh. He may be given a seat from another state such as Karnataka, but that may trigger other headaches of internal discontent. There are already rumours of Ramesh pitted against the veteran P Chidambaram to claim the Karnataka seat.

The internal strife within the party is likely to simmer further post this June poll. Early signs are visible even in places where the party was strong just a couple of years ago, as witnessed by the brawl between the party workers in Pune earlier this week.

In the story of Alice in Wonderland, Alice wakes up one day:

“’I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!’“

This is the same feeling with which the Congress leadership will wake up on May 20th. The party is grappling with a severe identity crisis. Apart from being stridently anti-Modi, the party stands for nothing. That is neither necessary nor sufficient to win elections.

Mahatma Gandhi wanted the Congress to disband after India attained Independence. The least politically worthy candidate with the hallowed last name may well have catalyzed that process today.

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