By Kalyani Shankar
Will the Congress Party perish as West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and others believe? Even in the past, many had predicted the end of Congress, but it had survived many onslaughts. The latest was in 1998 when Sonia Gandhi emerged Sphinx-like to revive it and rule from 2004- 2014. The 2019 Lok Sabha results gave the Congress 12 crore votes, though seat-wise, it got only 52. Even in its second successive defeat in 2019, the party retained a solid block of 20 percent votes. The Gandhi family is complacent, believing that the voters will get disenchanted sooner than later and return to the Grand Old Party. No doubt they live in a fool’s paradise as there is an urgent need to revive the party. Undoubtedly, the Congress Party faces a leadership crisis and challenges from many sides.
The first is to quell the internal indiscipline and revolt. The group of 23 led by Ghulam Nabi Azad, is an example and this disenchantment is prevalent in almost all states.
The second comes from within the opposition bloc. Of late West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s attack backed by the wily NCP chief Sharad Pawar has intensified. Now that Mamata has decided to bid for the Prime Minister’s post in 2024, she is trying to edge out Congress from the opposition bloc. As a first step, Banerjee is preparing to broad base her party and also gain pan-national recognition.
The third is the shrinking Congress party in many states and even regions. The Congress should now aim to build upon the 12 crore voter base instead of embroiling itself in self-made controversies. Of the 186 direct fights between the BJP and Congress in 2019, the BJP won 170 seats, amounting to a 91.4 percent strike rate. It had bagged 162 of these seats in the 2014 elections. The Congress, which had won 24 of these seats in 2014, has come down to 15. In Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Himachal Pradesh, and West Bengal, where it ruled in the past, Congress won only 10 out of 286 seats. The party has no representation from 20 states. Further, the BJP has taken over the opposition space in Odisha, Tripura, and West Bengal, where Congress has traditionally been the main opposition. Also, the regional parties continue to put up a much better fight than the Congress.
Options for the party
So, what are the options for the party now that there are cracks within the opposition?
The first is to think of a long-term strategy and start preparing for 2024. Mamata is doing precisely that. The Congress is involved in short-term quick-fix solutions, often messing up the party’s chances as they did in Punjab recently. But before that, the party needs to resolve its leadership crisis, which has been going on since August 2019.
The second is that the party needs enormous resources and committed booth committees to compete with the BJP. Once these two are addressed, the other things are more manageable.
The third is to find ways of uniting the opposition. Sonia Gandhi has the stature to do this as almost all opposition parties might be willing to unite under her leadership, but they have reservations against Rahul Gandhi. If necessary the Gandhi family should pave way for some other leader.
The regional leaders realize that though they could contain the BJP in their states they do not have a pan-national presence. Even today Therefore they need a party like Congress., every village has a congressman.
Pushing Congress away from national politics will strengthen BJP
Last Sunday, the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna in its editorial, said that pushing the grand old party away from national politics and creating an Opposition grouping parallel to the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) would only strengthen the BJP and “fascist” forces. Though Mamata tried to woo the Sena during her recent visit, Sena does not want to lose its government as Congress is its coalition partner in Maharashtra.
Rahul has been in politics since 2004, but he is not yet accepted as the opposition face. Rahul’s efforts to befriend second-generation leaders like Akhilesh Yadav have not succeeded. He needs an image makeover.
The fourth and more complex option is to give a call to all those leaders who had left Congress to come back. This idea has been springing up on and off. Congress has been the parent of many ruling parties like the NCP, TMC, YSRCP. There have been suggestions that such a united party could function under a presidium and collective leadership. But the parent party is hesitant to take such a plunge. A united Congress is more formidable to the BJP than a divided opposition, that is the only advantage of BJP.