Can Rahul Gandhi’s Congress be anything more than ‘not-BJP’?

The party has neither a loyal electoral base nor a sharp political identity, all it offers is a promise to shunt out Narendra Modi. Will that be enough in 2019?

What does Rahul Gandhi’s Congress stand for? The Bharatiya Janata Party, especially under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has an unmistakable ideology. This may be less so for the Communists, who have been shoehorned into small corners of the electoral map, but if you were asked what the Left represents, it would still be possible to offer an answer.

The so-called regional parties, the Janata Dals and Samajwadi Parties and Shiv Senas of the world, may have been shaken by the inexorable rise of the BJP, but their core formula of pandering to a specific caste or community and building around that remains. Even the Aam Aadmi Party, which spread itself too thin too quickly to have a coherent identity, has constructed an image that rests on Arvind Kejriwal’s adversarial nature and some sensible policies on healthcare and education.

But ask this question of the party that wants to anchor the resistance to Modi in the Lok Sabha elections due in 2019, and you are likely to get a simple response: we are not the BJP. The Congress in its current avatar has neither a loyal electoral base nor a sharp political identity. What it does offer is a promise to shunt out Modi, and the politics that he represents. But will that be enough to convince the electorate in a closely fought battle next year?

The question might come up sooner than expected because the Congress will first have to convince the parties that are supposed to be on its side in the fight against the BJP. Reports this week suggested that neither the Samajwadi Party nor the Bahujan Samaj Party – former arch-rivals that intend to contest together on an anti-BJP platform next year in Uttar Pradesh – are much interested in making the Congress a key part of their electoral plans. Both parties have a much clearer idea of what they represent, the thinking goes. What does the Congress have to offer?

Congress platform

Of course, on paper the Congress stands for a number of things. Its political resolution at the start of the year listed women empowerment, social justice, concerns about atrocities against minorities and other issues that it hopes to bring up. But the heftiest of the sections in the resolution was dedicated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the BJP:

“India is confronted today by a systematic assault on the foundational principles of our Constitution and the values of Indian republic, by the outfits and organisations affiliated to the ruling RSS-BJP combine. The lifeline of Indian democracy is inclusion and secularism. The very basis of our polity is threatened by the ideology of the BJP, RSS and their affiliates...

The Congress Party warns the BJP and its Government, that its undemocratic methods and acts to curtail liberty, freedom of expression and violation of fundamental rights of the citizens as enshrined in the Constitution will be strongly resisted.” 

Later, in its conclusion, the resolution spells out exactly what the party sees as its platform for 2019: “Congress will adopt a pragmatic approach for co-operation with all like-minded Parties and evolve a common workable programme to defeat the BJP-RSS in the 2019 elections.”

Catch-all to catch-none

This question has always been around for the Congress, a big-tent party that managed to accommodate views from across the political spectrum in part because of its legacy as the organisation that won India’s independence. With 1947 receding even further into the past, however, the party has found its raison d’etre disappearing as well. As political scientist Suhas Palshikar puts it, the party has gone from a catch-all approach, drawing support from almost every section of the Indian population after independence, to catch-none, where no broad group has any particular allegiance to it.

Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi helped the party evolve in the 1970s by adding a populist, leftist bent to its politics, while attracting a “coalition of extremes”: upper castes, Dalits, Adivasis and minorities. But over the 1990s and 2000s, most of these groups too – including minorities – began voting in smaller numbers for the Congress. Results from the last few years, with the BJP picking up state after state, only seem to confirm this trend.

“Both nationally and at the state level, the votes of the Congress come mainly in a residual manner; that is, some of the traditional Congress voters still continue to vote for the party; the less educated and voters with less media exposure still vote for the Congress in relatively large numbers; in bipolar contests the party wins votes from a cross section just because voters would not want to vote for the incumbent (party or candidate); and yet it would be difficult to say that any social section is particularly close to Congress,” Palshikar explained in the Economic and Political Weekly.

‘Casteist’ Congress

In the last two major state elections, the Congress actively tried to counter this phenomenon. In Gujarat, it brought in leaders with the express aim of appealing to Dalits, Patidars and Other Backward Classes, albeit with varying degrees of success. In Karnataka, former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah sought to build on his Ahinda formula, targeting minorities, Other Backward Classes and Dalits, but also appealing to Lingayats, traditionally BJP voters. Here too the results were not massively successful, even though the party managed to stay in power through a post-poll alliance.

Indeed, with the BJP becoming the hegemonic pan-India party that draws in support from most sections – with Muslims being the obvious outlier – it has begun to argue that the Congress is going down a “casteist” path of championing social cleavages for electoral gain. In states where it has a substantial presence, like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the Congress will probably double down on this approach.

But that brings up two questions: what does this mean for Congress units in states where it has ceded space to regional parties with stronger bases like Uttar Pradesh? And how does this fit into a pan-Indian narrative for 2019?

Anti-BJP anchor

An ambitious aim would be to see the Congress connect and build a patchwork quilt of Dalit, Adivasi, Other Backward Classes and Muslim leaders across multiple states to present a national offering that rests on a stable social foundation. But that presumes Congress president Rahul Gandhi is able to manage infighting both within his own party and among other parties that represent interests within these states, a tall order considering Gandhi’s political career so far.

The other option: pushing the idea that the Congress is an indispensable anchor for any anti-BJP grouping. Its legacy and pan-Indian presence, even if that does not come with a sharp political idea, would be a selling point.

This argument, however, will come under pressure like never before, mainly because other parties will simply not see the value in giving space to a party that by all measures continues to steadily decline. Already, the Congress’s reluctance to join the anti-BJP front in Delhi along with the Aam Aadmi Party has revealed fissures. Leaders like West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee and Telangana’s K Chandrasekhar Rao do not want Rahul Gandhi to lead the anti-BJP front. Even the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Mayawati, despite her bonhomie with former Congress president Sonia Gandhi in Bengaluru last month, seems only willing to go with the party in Madhya Pradesh if her party can piggyback on the Congress to enlarge its presence in Rajasthan and elsewhere.

It is almost certain that the Congress, mirroring the anti-Congress coalitions of the 1970s and 1980s, will be a part of whatever anti-BJP grouping that comes together for 2019. But it remains unclear what, if any, political platform will underpin the Congress position. Basing its approach on simply being anti-BJP might even be enough to make some last-gasp gains in 2019, but if it does not come up with an actual political argument, it will not be enough to arrest the decline in Congress fortunes that has seemed inexorable for decades now.

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