Can the party of Nehru and the Gandhi dynasty recover from disaster at the last general election? Ashis Ray sifts a crucial round of state polls for clues
The importance of the Indian National Congress goes beyond its own country. It spearheaded one of the greatest freedom movements in history. Founded in 1885, it gathered momentum after the return of Mohandas Gandhi to India from South Africa in 1915. By largely non-violent means it persuaded Britain to withdraw from India in 1947.
For 30 years after Indian independence, Congress was unassailable in national elections. A nation grateful for its stellar role in extricating India from bondage saw no alternative to the party. Indeed, while it has lost six times since, no other party had ever won an absolute majority in India’s Lok Sabha – until the last national election, in 2014. This was the nadir for Congress, which mustered less than 10 per cent of seats in the house, and therefore failed to achieve the status of official opposition.
The cause of the decimation was twofold: poor economic performance in the second of its two five-year terms, and perceived corruption in its ranks.
In 2009 Manmohan Singh was the first Prime Minister since Jawaharlal Nehru to win a second five-year term, thanks to unprecedented GDP growth, employment generation and even alleviation of poverty, not to mention a significant international nuclear deal. But the global financial meltdown, combined with faulty management, slowed the economy. An electorate accustomed to growth in double figures reacted with anger when the pace of development halved.
Andimuthu Raja, a minister in Singh’s cabinet – belonging to a coalition partner, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party – was accused of taking bribes in granting licences to mobile phone companies. He was imprisoned before being granted bail. The allocation of coal mines to private companies also allegedly took place below market prices, thereby subjecting the government to notional losses. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party took advantage of the situation, and succeeded in convincing Indians of Congress’s culpability.
Part and parcel of the megaphone politics was to paint the president of Congress, Sonia Gandhi, and her son and heir-apparent, Rahul, as dishonest, though without presenting evidence, and as uncommitted to India – she being of Italian origin and a Catholic. While Congress suffered from the mudslinging, the hero of the Hindu right, Narendra Modi, was mounting a dazzling, high-decibel campaign full of alluring promises on such issues as job creation, critical in Indian politics, which ignited hope among dispirited voters. Though he garnered only 31 per cent of the vote, this brought the BJP more than half the seats in parliament.
That was the BJP’s high point, however; the erosion in its support started soon after its general election victory. Modi was forced to renege on his undertaking of a smaller government by increasing recruitment in the public sector. His failure to introduce ‘big bang’ economic reforms has disappointed private businesses, who have refrained from diversifying, expanding or investing. In 11 state elections since the 2014 national poll, the party’s share of votes fell markedly, compared to its showing in the Lok Sabha poll.
Significantly, however, Congress failed to benefit. It won only in Puducherry, and became merely a junior partner in the alliance which won Bihar. This means that the current round of elections in five states is crucial for the party to arrest the slide, if not to reverse it and enjoy a credible future. On paper, Congress is the favourite in Manipur, involved in a two-way face-off in Uttarakhand, a contender in a three-cornered contest in Punjab and Goa, and an ally of the Samajwadi Party in the all-important state of Uttar Pradesh.
In Uttarakhand, the outcome is on a knife-edge. In Punjab, it’s a toss-up between the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). In Goa, where the Congress used to dominate before the BJP emerged on top in recent years, the AAP has entered the fray, and the state could well throw up a hung assembly.
But the outcome that matters, of course, is in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous province. The result here will have a major bearing on the next general election, scheduled for 2019. The highest number of MPs in the Lok Sabha hail from UP, which the BJP swept in 2014 to capture power at the centre.
This time the BJP’s share of the vote is destined to decline. In effect, it is in a three-way battle with the Bahujan Samaj Party of Dalits and the Samajwadi Party, representing intermediate castes, who have joined forces with Congress. Samajwadi is seeking to retain office, but it is as much Modi’s record at the centre as Samajwadi’s in the state that could be under scrutiny.
If the BJP regains Uttar Pradesh – which it has not ruled for 16 years – and retains Modi’s home state of Gujarat at the end of the year, it would be likely to emerge as the largest single party in the next parliament, though without an absolute majority. This could still happen if it loses UP, but wins Gujarat. But if it is defeated in both, the result could be a partial comeback for Congress.
Barring a dramatic turn of events, however, the best Congress can expect is to emerge as the largest single party, and lead a grand alliance with regional and left parties as partners, as it did between 2004 and 2014. The increasingly communal Hindu upper and middle classes have deserted the party, while Sonia Gandhi is unwell and unable to lead it at hustings. Though Rahul’s communication skills have improved, the impact remains to be seen. Last but not least, Congress is short of money as well as it is organisationally handicapped.
Of the seven big states where a party needs to secure a bulk of the seats to stand a chance of forming a national government – Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh (now partly Telengana), Bihar and Tamil Nadu – Congress can conceivably recover in the second and third of these, and perhaps Telengana. But the gateway to an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha is Uttar Pradesh, and here the Congress will remain a marginal player for the foreseeable future.