Future tense

| Updated on October 19, 2021

India needs a credible Opposition, but the Congress is showing no resolve to rise to the challenge

For the time being, the leadership question in India’s principal opposition party appears seemingly settled. The much-touted ‘G-23’has been shown its place with Sonia Gandhi’s burst of assertiveness as a “hands-on” president, at the recently held Congress Working Committee meeting. Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi will remain the de-facto leaders while Sonia will continue back-seat driving for the next year, by which time the Congress is expected to complete its organisational election process. Whether that leads to a revival of fortunes is anyone’s guess. That said, G-23 luminaries do not, for now, have the mass base or the gumption to pose a challenge to Rahul Gandhi; this is despite the fact that he has presided over spectacular defeats with the Congress’s vote share sliding to around 19 per cent in two consecutive general elections in 2014 and 2019 and to third or fourth slot in 10 major States, which account for 59 per cent (or 320) of the Lok Sabha seats.

Political parties in India, even cadre based ones such as the BJP, thrive on central momentum — and the Congress stands out here as a confused, family-run show. The Gandhis need to display leadership skills and democratic intent. The BJP which had come a cropper in 2009 with just 18.80 per cent of the national vote share, rose stupendously in just five years by projecting Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate in 2014. The party won 31 per cent vote share and 282 seats in Parliament, and about 37 per cent (303 seats) of the votes in 2019. Given Rahul Gandhi’s dismal track record, the energy that the Congress desperately needs will be missing in its organisational overhaul — unless the party does well in the upcoming elections in Punjab, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Goa and Manipur. Leadership is not the only issue with the Congress. Its decades-old organisational decline and ideological ambivalence have contributed to the morass. As a paper by Adnan Farooqui and E Sridharan explains, the Congress is now mostly dependent on a shrunken vote bank of minorities, a section of SC/STs and the poor, having lost a majority of the social groups to regional parties and the BJP, which has also pulled the dominant middle class into its fold. Meanwhile, the Congress also decided to shed its broad, left-of-the-centre umbrella tag that revived its fortunes in 2004. Deep anti-incumbency arising out of some five decades of rule have also shrunk its vote bank.

Now, the time has come for the Congress to articulate its position on key political economy issues. Rahul Gandhi’s ad hoc statements suggest a complete leftward tilt, but this is no way to go. Discussions around growth, welfare and other conceptual concerns need to be discussed threadbare, even if that means risking dissent. The party’s booth-level workers’ training workshop to be held at Wardha later this year can be such a platform. The Congress should sort itself out in terms of thought and strategy to be a viable alternative to the ruling party at the national level.

Published on October 19, 2021

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