One and a half years after Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party to power, imposing a crushing defeat on it, the Congress party is still without an action plan to revive its fortunes.
Recent election results indicate that the Modi wave of 2014 has abated. In that year’s Lok Sabha poll campaign Modi had called for a Congress-free India. He repeated the call while campaigning in the Assembly elections too.
Under Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, the Congress party had held in check the Hindutva flag-bearers, the Jana Sangh and the BJP, for decades. Modi’s antipathy towards it is, therefore, understandable. But the grand old party’s disappearance can only weaken India’s democracy, not strengthen it.
In last year’s elections to legislatures and local self-government institutions in several states, the BJP did not do as well as was expected. What’s more, the Congress showed distinct signs of recovery in the Hindi-speaking states where the BJP had pushed it down to the second place.
In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress snatched a Lok Sabha seat from the BJP in a by-election. It made impressive gains in local body elections in MP, Rajasthan and Gujarat, all at the expense of the BJP.
In the rural areas of Gujarat, the Congress wrested control of many district and taluk panchayats from the BJP. However, in the urban areas the BJP held its ground.
In Gujarat, the Congress had been declining continuously since 2001, when Modi became the Chief Minister. It was revealed recently that the party’s state leaders felt so intimidated by the anti-Muslim riots under Modi’s watch that they did not let Congress President Sonia Gandhi visit the wife of former party MP Ehsan Jafri, who was hacked and burned to death by Hindutva goons.
The BJP’s success in the urban areas testifies to its continuing hold on towns. But about 68 per cent of the people of Gujarat live in villages. The new electoral mood reflects the villagers’ growing disenchantment with Modi’s development model which helps the rich and hurts the poor, especially villagers engaged in agriculture.
Apparently the BJP is vulnerable even in the urban areas. In local elections in Chhattisgarh, the Congress outperformed it in several towns.
Modi doesn’t talk of a Congress-free India any more. One reason may be that there is no election around the corner. Another is that the Congress has blocked some legislative measures which are crucial to his reform agenda and he knows that while that party is around he has to deal with it. He, therefore, reached out to Sonia Gandhi and party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, the ma-beta (mother and son), whom he had berated in election speeches.
While the ground situation is turning favourable to the Congress, the party apparatus remains moribund. The old guard and the coterie that surrounds Sonia Gandhi have defeated Rahul Gandhi’s attempts to introduce a measure of democracy in the party.
In Kerala, one of the few states where the Congress has a functioning apparatus, rival factions led by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala came together to scuttle organisational elections. They also defeated the efforts of VM Sudheeran, whom Rahul Gandhi had installed as head of the state party, to put an end to factionalism.
West Bengal and Kerala are among the states where Assembly elections are due this year. Mamata Banerji’s Trinamool Congress had ended three decades of Left rule in West Bengal in 2011. A coalition led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist and a rival alliance headed by the Congress have been alternating in power in Kerala for several decades.
Both states have been traditionally hostile to the Hindutva ideology. Keen to take advantage of the decline of the Left and the Congress, the BJP, aided by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has drawn up plans to storm the two states.
At the recent CPI-M plenum in Kolkata, the West Bengal unit mooted the idea of an alliance with the Congress to check the growth of Hindu communalism. The Kerala unit shot it down.
When Sonia Gandhi named Rahul Gandhi as the party’s Vice-President, it was believed he would soon replace her as the President. However, the transition is getting prolonged because the old guard is not quite ready for it.
Lampooning by critics of dynastic succession notwithstanding, Rahul Gandhi appears to be the best bet if only because there is no one in the party with better credentials than him. In the last few years he has made a conscious effort to identify himself with the rural poor.
If Rahul Gandhi is to succeed Sonia Gandhi, the sooner the transition the better for the party. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 5, 2016.