The future of the Congress party

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A conversation between Yamini Aiyar, President and Chief Executive, Centre for Policy Research; Zoya Hasan,Professor Emerita, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Rahul Verma, Fellow, Centre for Policy Research.


Yamini: In the 2019 election, the BJP won 303 seats – the strongest mandate in its history. The Congress, meanwhile, was marginally better off than its earlier performance in 2014. Since the verdict came out, we have seen the Congress party somewhat confused. With Rahul Gandhi’s resignation, many questions are being asked about what it means for the leadership vacuum in the Congress. Did this loss have to do with its leadership, with its long history of organizational atrophy, or because of an ideological breakdown within the Congress party? What does the party stand for? How will it position itself in opposition to the new hegemony of the BJP? These are important questions for the future of the Congress, should it attempt to rebuild itself going forward.

Rahul, let’s begin with you: can you tell us in a little more detail what these 52 seats of Congress mean? How is it positioned vis-a-vis the BJP? Where did the Congress gain these seats from? How competitive the party is in direct head-to-head contests with the BJP? The Congress really gained in Kerala and retained seats in Telangana. What does this mean for its power in the southern states?


Rahul: A first look at the numbers seems to suggest that the Congress party has improved its tally from 2014, which in fact is not true. In reality, it has stagnated with a vote share of 19-20%. The number of seats has increased – but most of those seats have come from the South. So in some ways, the Congress party now appears to be a regional party concentrated in a few states.

Second, this is the first time in the history of Indian politics that the Congress contested fewer seats than the BJP – it contested 423, and the BJP 431. Of course, this is partly due to the compulsion of coalition politics, but nevertheless, it reflects the decline of the Congress party.

In 2014, the party stood first and second in around 268 seats. This came down to 262 in 2019. So, the top two slots have gone down. 2014, in some ways, was not just an electoral defeat for the Congress. It had all the ingredients of an electoral disaster. Two out of every five Congress candidates had lost their deposits – something that had not even happened in 1977 or 1989. In more than one-third of the seats, Congress appears not to have the capacity to even get 15-16% of votes. These results can only indicate a defunct organization.

There are a number of states where the Congress party has not been in power for almost 30 years – West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Gujarat. In some ways they have been in opposition here, but between 2014 and 2019, they lost further ground – in Tripura and Odisha, where they were the principal opposition, they have ceded even that space.

If you think about the third-party system, between 1989 to 2014 the base vote share of the Congress party was somewhere around 25%. By 2019, it has dropped below 20%. Historically, once its vote share goes below 20% in any state, it has never revived there. It seems to be sitting at the edge of an electoral disaster, and a revival will be a long haul.


Yamini: Zoya, a lot of your work has been in Uttar Pradesh, particularly on the rise of the regional parties in the 1990s – the beginning of a new set of party politics that the Congress has not necessarily been able to live up to. Did you foresee where we are today, looking back to the 1990s, or do you trace the shift of electoral politics from even earlier?


Zoya: The decline of the Congress started in the 1970s. At that point of time, the Congress party was at its peak, in 1971, and soon after it began to decline. The imposition of the Emergency was an important turning point for the Congress decline. It is obvious that the Congress was not able to consolidate its victory in the 1971 general elections and 1972 assembly elections. This process of decline that started in the mid-1970s, gathered momentum in the mid-1980s, and the decision to open the gates of Babri Masjid, and reversing the Supreme Court verdict in the Shah Bano case was the beginning of the political crisis in the party. This because it was clear that the Congress was trying to please both the constituencies – Hindu as well as Muslim – but ended up displeasing both.

To address your question about the regional parties, it is a very important question because many regional parties were breakaways from the Congress: the Trinamool Congress, the NCP in Maharashtra, and Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress in Andhra. These are now major parties that have replaced the Congress. If in the future some of these parties were to merge with the Congress, the united party would, without a doubt, be a very strong force. In contrast, the BJP has not split even once. The three Congress breakaways – TMC, NCP, and YSRCP – do not have strong regional identities unlike the DMK and the AIADMK. These parties in fact are very similar to the Congress party which makes it more difficult for the Congress to regain its base in these states.


Yamini: The ideological crisis begins to hit the Congress post-1977 and accelerates in the late 1980s, giving the BJP the momentum to rise post its decimation in the 1984 elections. But do you see the rise of the regional parties and the ideological atrophy within the Congress as being two consequences of the same problem? Is the absence of a strong political identity creating space for new formations to begin articulating themselves?


Zoya: The Congress ideological crisis is quite serious and has become more so in the past decade. It is extremely important for the Congress to distinguish itself from a right wing party, but given that the BJP has enormous political clout and support, the Congress, instead of taking a distinct position, is often trying to imitate the BJP and appropriate what the BJP stands for, as they have done in the past. And in so doing the Congress hopes that it will not be seen to be going against the popular current and public opinion. But now that the ground has shifted, and it is facing a powerful right wing adversary, trying to incorporate some of its ideas and strategies doesn’t quite work.

After the rise of Narendra Modi, there are two issues on which Congress has to take a clear stand. One is the conflation of Hinduism as a religion and Hindutva as a political ideology that has been working on the ground and mobilizing support for the past 100 years. The second issue is the conflation of Indian nationalism with Hindu nationalism; we must be very clear the two are not the same. This conflation has come to a point where it is commonplace to refer to the BJP as a nationalist party and not a party of Hindu nationalism. The BJP stands for a particular definition of nationalism which is exclusionary, which is very different from the nationalism of the freedom struggle led by the Congress. That was inclusive nationalism which is the calling card of the Congress which it must reclaim and proclaim. Congress has really lost out in the last few years because of its reluctance to join the ideological battle on Indian nationalism and avoiding any frontal confrontation with Hindu nationalism.


Yamini: I think part of the problem is also the ideological conflation of secularization of society and the politics of secularism. Can you talk about political secularism without talking about the secularization of society? In the same sense, in terms of nationalism and Hindu nationalism, it is not only a religious claim, but a deeply Hindu one. It is really worrying that in the Congress manifesto and during the entire election campaign, they never openly had the courage to draw on the word secularism; even today, they prefer to talk about plural India rather secular India. Of course, one can ask if the question of secular India is appropriate at all in this current environment, with all the negative identities that the BJP has added to the word secularism.


Zoya: The basic problem is that the word secularism, for many reasons, has been reduced to minority rights, which is not correct. Secularism basically means the separation of religion and politics. This is of course, different from secularization of society, which despite huge economic development, modernization, globalization, economic liberalization, hasn’t happened. In fact, there is much greater prominence given to religion in the public domain and people are much more demonstrative about their religiousity in a way they were not in the past. But as far as the secular state is concerned, unfortunately that project too has suffered a huge setback – partly because secular parties have compromised on secularism, and partly because there’s so much talk about secularism being just about minority rights, so it would seem that Hindus do not have the same stake in secularism as Muslims, which is not true because both have the same stake in secularism without which democracy cannot work.


Yamini: From 2004 to 2014, the Congress certainly attempted to develop a welfare oriented platform. In 2014, Narendra Modi’s campaign pitted the BJP and its articulation about the future of India in direct contrast to that welfarism. But over the past five years, he essentially became at least as welfarist as the Congress. Any conversation about election results always comes back to Swachh Bharat, Ujjwala, PM Kisan and all the different welfare schemes that the Modi government has implemented over five years. The Congress then had to try and catch-up with BJP, and in that, offered to double, triple or expand the idea of income transfer as the new wave of welfare. The Congress then coined the term ‘Nyay’.


Rahul: Allow me to add a few things on the ideological and organizational decline of the Congress party. It started way back in the 1930s-1940s, when first, the socialist wing slowly started moving away. The Congress Socialist Party (CSP) was formed in 1934 and later, by the 1950s, some of the leaders from CSP had formed several variants of socialist parties. Many regional parties today trace their origin to these. Between 1940 and 1970, the Congress party was also not clear on the question of social justice. It made a historic compromise on the question of reservation for Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes but didn’t do anything for OBC reservation. In the wake of this, many socialist parties in North India transformed into state level backward caste parties in the 1970s.

The Congress in the 1960s faced a challenge from both the left (socialist parties) as well as the right – with the Swatantra party and BJS joining forces. In response, under Indira Gandhi, it became a more statist party. At the same time, on the question of religion and how to accommodate Hindu sentiments, the Congress party moved further left. So that Hindu traditionalist group of party workers and the syndicate (followers of S.K. Patil), who basically controlled the party’s organization started moving away from the Congress party.

In the 1990s, when there was a simultaneous onslaught of Mandir, Mandal and Market, the party got caught in a situation where it didn’t know what to do on the issue of OBCs reservation and Mandir issues, while the BJP had a clear stand. I empathize with the Congress party here because centrist parties, in the long run, are likely to face this dilemma – socialists had already left, as well as Hindu traditionalists and the right wing over the last couple of decades. The Congress party was now left with a hollow centre. It was difficult for it to articulate an ideological vision without an organization on the ground to match it.

I believe that is one of the reasons for the current crisis within the Congress – the failure of the statist model pursued by various Congress governments. There is a moral component behind any statist enterprise. When Modi attacked the Congress party in 2014, he was not attacking any particular policy, but the statist model. In that sense, it provides the opposition with a weapon to play the ‘elite versus masses’ card. It could follow the same welfare policy but in a very different way, with policies targeted to lift everyone, as opposed to the exclusive nature of the Congress party’s policies. Look at the difference between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi’s speeches – Rahul Gandhi’s argument about welfare policies often sounded patronizing, whereas Modi talked about the same policies in the language of empowerment. They were articulating very different things.


Zoya: On the question of welfare, let us for a moment set aside the question of state – because the Congress was a statist party and after 1991 it was responsible for liberalization and therefore, it had to rethink its policies. In terms of its politics, the Congress party has difficulty in dealing with questions of religion and caste and minorities as well. It is far more comfortable focusing directly on the economy and economic issues. And on the question of welfare, I have a slightly different perspective which is that the Congress welfare position, especially from 2004-2014, was the rights-based approach. This approach to welfare is very different from the BJP which, in fact, is trying to play catch-up with the Congress.

Second, Congress welfarism is more substantive. I mean NREGA, or Right to Food. These rights are very significant, they are demand drive, whereas the BJP’s welfare schemes are individually targeted schemes such as Ujjawala, loans for toilets and housing etc.

The BJP’s economic populism is something the Congress could have countered, but it was having some difficulty because it was not just populism, it was populism plus Hinduism that the BJP offered to the people in 2019. But Congress crisis is not unique to it. Liberal, centrist parties everywhere, are facing difficulties in grappling with populism and majoritarian nationalism. Most of the parties that have won elections in Europe and elsewhere are right wing populist parties which have challenged the hegemony of centrist parties. So, to your point about ‘what is the future’, I think the Congress does not have the luxury of walking away from the fight. To stay in the fight, it needs to focus on two issues – when you compare the Congress organization with the BJP, the BJP has organization on the ground while Congress has no organization on the ground. The top leadership of the Congress – Sonia Gandhi as well as Rahul Gandhi, over the last 15 years, have completely neglected the organization which is today in a moribund state. The second issue is state leadership. The Congress has to rebuild its support in the states and for that, it needs to encourage and promote state leader.

Indian democracy needs a strong opposition and it needs a strong national opposition. Regional parties are important, and some of them are vigorously opposing the BJP, but regional parties cannot be a substitute for a national opposition and Congress is the only nation-wide force opposing the BJP, which however needs to be strengthened.


Yamini: I completely agree with you, especially in the context of rising regional inequalities in India, which are going to become a very critical federal fault line. We have the 15th Finance Commission report which is to be tabled this October, which will be a critical conversation on the future of India’s federal identity. It will be followed by the 2026 delimitation exercise that’s going to start immediately, and with these, you will have a national structure that is able to talk about India as a whole.


Zoya: If there is one lesson we can draw from the 2019 election it is that we need a political narrative and leadership that can articulate the alternative narrative. But for this to go forward the Congress and the opposition has to first recognize what it is up against. I mean opposition unity is absolutely imperative to take on a dominant party in the ‘first-past-the-post’ system that we have. This might not have been the case if we had some kind of proportional representation system or variations of it. We don’t. Let’s not forget, in this election too, even though the BJP’s vote share has gone up, it’s still 38% which means 62% people didn’t vote for the BJP. The BJP got 20 crore votes and the Congress got 12 crore votes which is not something to be sniffed at. That is something to build upon. But you can only build upon that if the opposition is united and it recognizes the dangers to democracy from an all-powerful ruling party riding roughshod over dissent and opposition.


Rahul: It seems we are in agreement that the Congress is facing a leadership problem, organizational challenges and ideological problems, and all three are tied together. And some would argue that a dynastic leadership at the top would never allow an independent state-level leadership to develop that would command organizational muscle. The problem in some ways is twisted. What should the Congress actually do in the next one year?


Yamini: I think the current leadership crisis that the Congress is going through is an important example of precisely that – it is pitted against a party like the BJP, that is hungry for power, already looking ahead to the next election even though it has just won the current election with a massive mandate. Its opponent is playing election politics all the time and the Congress is not as agile, or as mobile and adaptive, partly because of its history and dynasty. It faces a reality of at least 30 years of organizational and leadership atrophy, and it is not going to sprout state leaders out of nowhere. In some senses, it needs its older leaders as they are the ones who continue to have the base.

It is a very difficult task unfortunately, that the only people in the party who have the moral authority to initiate change are of the dynasty itself, despite the dynasty being a problem. I think the only thing that the Congress can do from this point on, is to have the courage and resilience go back to the grassroots.

The Congress must start building from bottom up. Look at Karnataka for example: they lost the national elections so badly and days after they did well in the local level elections. So, the party has to start working with the grassroots cadre and mobilize these new actors who are hungry for the fight. It may not necessarily be a clean fight but it is a necessary one, to instill ideological shifts and have the courage to articulate what they actually plan to do, and do it bottom up. That’s how they will create consensus in the party. I do believe that a lot of the leadership in the party isn’t necessarily convinced about secularism as an ideological position. Start bottom up, and these ideological consensuses would probably emerge. We have seen mobilization and protest across the country; protest is ingrained in Indian democracy. Just build an umbrella around the protest and you have a revived Congress party. I think that’s the future.


Zoya: Congress has to focus on the public campaigns, political movements, social mobilization which frankly speaking, the Congress has forgotten all about in the last few years. It led the biggest nationalist movement in world history and look at the party today and its disengagement from mass movements. It simply does not organize them anymore. On agrarian distress, Left parties which are a much smaller force, organized marches and movements of farmers, but not the Congress. Even in Maharashtra where the Left is not strong, they organized a big farmers’ march to Mumbai. But the Congress didn’t do so. On unemployment, the party certainly highlighted it and made it into a big issue but this should have been backed with social mobilization and mass campaigns on the ground, which the Congress didn’t do.


Rahul: And all the Congress frontal organizations seem to be defunct. You can’t expect such mobilization to happen just through the political party route. Even the BJP organization’s machinery is built around all its frontal organizations like the VHP, RSS, and other affiliates. Where are the Congress affiliate organizations? We don’t even know who the president of the Congress Seva Dal or the Congress Kisan Sabha is. Without those frontal organizations, social movements cannot be built.


Zoya: For the last many years, the Congress has become impervious to feedback from the ground because it virtually outsourced mass campaigns to civil society and that was a problem as it weakened the Congress in the sense that it was not engaged with mass politics. That’s been the big failing of the party. In a way, the National Advisory Council formation was partly helping the Congress establish good links with civil society organizations, but the fact is that the Congress should have been doing this mass contact itself. The Congress needs to engage in mass contact programmes on the lines of the mass contract programmes it had organized during the national movement in the 1930s.


Yamini: But the party could potentially draw on them to build frontal organizations. The only route is to go with the pre-existing social movements that it already has strong networks with, many of whom have openly become a part of the Congress machinery at the grassroots. The vast network of local government elected representatives that are there could be the source point for the electoral mobilization for the Congress party in the future.


* This is an edited transcript of the discussion. Transcribed by Talha Rashid and Tanvi Mehta.