Since the election results were announced on May 23, the Congress (and most of the opposition) has gone into some kind of a convolutional fit. India’s Grand Old Party – the Indian National Congress, is facing a crisis of unparalleled proportions. So much so that for the first time, there is a leadership vacuum due to reluctance instead of competition. The ridiculous fashion in which senior leaders and the CWC has conducted itself will (if it hasn’t already) turn out to be virulent for the party. Recently, they decided not to send their spokespersons to TV debates, because let’s face it, nobody knows what the Congress is up to!
As much as everyone would like to blame the dismal electoral performance on the Modi wave, or the sudden Hindu nationalist narrative unleashed, or media propaganda, or aggressive national security policies and decisions, the truth is, this election was never the Congress’, neither did it ever belong to the opportunistically stitched together Federal Front of the Mahagathbandan. The failure of the Congress is the result of a series of blunders and miscalculations it has undertaken since 2014. Each one contributing its bit to the ultimate disaster that unfolded on the 23rd. In fact, as written in an earlier post, the Congress failed to even understand the silent anti-establishment undercurrent that has gripped the nation.
To begin with, the NYAY debacle. NYAY as an election promise or policy for the matter, was destined to fail. Once again the Congress showed that the top echelons and their attitudes haven’t changed much, and as a whole, it doesn’t understand modern Indian voter’s psyche. In two well-researched articles by Swaminathan S. Aiyer (of the famous Swaminomics) fame, it is pointed out in December 2016 and again in March 2019, that the time when freebies and handouts won elections have gone. A vivid example of this is the fact that firstly, every state government that has managed to deliver rapid GDP growth has returned (irrespective of freebies offered), and the fact that despite the much publicised NREGA launched under UPA-I, the Congress performed poorly and won just 22/115 seats in poor rural regions, some which were the biggest beneficiaries of NREGA.
Not to mention the complete wipeout five years later in 2014. In another well-articulated video put forward by the Quint, its founder Raghav Bahl argues that the Congress’ 2009 victory was due to strong economic growth, and bold leadership shown by Dr Singh, especially during the Nuclear Deal fiasco. Albeit, the Congress went back again to the same old ‘Gareebi Hatao.’ One remarkable bit of insight into Modi’s earlier victory in 2014 actually came from, of all places, an episode of John Oliver’s The Last Week Tonight. In the episode, Fareed Zakaria of CNN said that 2014 was the first time an Indian General Election was won by promise of strong economic growth, rather than subsidies and freebies. All of this indicates two things – a paradigm shift away from the socialist cries of ‘Gareebi Hatao,’ and a sense of self-respect amongst the voters who are no longer swayed by mere handouts.
The second blunder was forgetting the fact that the Congress is a national party. While evoking subnational and regional sentiments is often necessary during state polls, during national polls, the same people vote keeping in mind the broader national picture, and the best representatives of states’ issues at the Union level. This cross voting is well illustrated even recently in states like Odisha and Telangana where Assembly and Lok Sabha poll results showed opposite trends.
The Congress decided to make the general election, 543 wars instead of one battle. In states like Karnataka where it joined hands with rival JDS, resulting in disillusion amongst the cadres and erosion of vote bank, it lost heavily. Same was the cases elsewhere, where the Congress often found itself supporting parties with diametrically opposite vote banks. In states where it aligned well like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, it won. Everywhere else it lost.
The third was deciding to lend a voice every small skirmish against Modi and the BJP. This resulted in an image of the party lacking self-confidence and the ability to weave a narrative. Anyone waging any kind of a battle against the BJP found support from the Congress. Whether JNU, or the TMC in Bengal, TDP in Andhra or KCR in Telangana, the Congress couldn’t be happier to help. Little did it realise that often this resulted in their own local cadres losing voice and them losing opportunities.
For example, in 2016, the Congress came out as the second largest party in Bengal. This was despite it fighting a lesser number of seats than its partner CPI (M). However as is always the case, the Congress couldn’t wait to lose another opportunity. Instead of capitalising on this gain, the central leadership stood beside Mamata Banerjee during every protest or rally and senior leaders defended Mamata and the TMC in court, during which the state unit found itself on the other side. While their own cadres were killed and harassed, the Congress lent a voice in support of TMC on almost every issue. Furthermore wasting resources and energy on controversies like run-ins against the judiciary proved to be counterproductive.
Finally, the only change Rahul Gandhi managed to get across was surrounding himself with academics and apolitical individuals who often leaned so much to the left that many of them had previously reprimanded Dr Singh as being too neo-liberal. It added no value, as by and large left ideology has been in decline since 2004 across India. In fact, much of the gains of the Congress and the BJP in the last few years have come at the cost of socialist leaning smaller parties or the Left front itself.
Part of the misguided strategy was relying too much on social media presence. If Twitter trends were to be believed, Congress should’ve swept every state election since Karnataka went to polls, and also contributed to a non-NDA front at centre. Alas, social media presence and on ground presence are two different things! These individuals contributed little to quality political strategy due to having no ground level connect whatsoever. In a blog post that was quickly taken down, Congress’ media head blamed their losses at these very individuals, especially the unneeded attacks during the aftermath of Balakot, Uri or other decisions which evoked a sense of nationalism.
Last but not least, as mentioned in an earlier post, the Congress failed to understand a worldwide anti-establishment undercurrent. It stuck to the same old guard, and old ways which people had grown weary and distrustful of. Instead of rewarding fresh hardworking faces such as Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot, the fresh blood had to hand the victory on a platter to the same old established faces.
Moreover, the Congress went ahead with the blunder of attacking the Prime Minister’s personal character and intentions on issues like Rafale and demonetisation. The PM’s character, even to his opponents and detractors remains intact, and an attack only created an antagonistic image for India’s GOP.