The Indian National Congress faces two profound challenges, not entirely unrelated. The obvious one is its dependence on incompetent dynasts. When Rahul Gandhi took on his inaugural political assignment of leading the Youth Congress in 2007, his stated goal was to modernise and democratise the organisation’s functioning. He failed comprehensively in that aim, appointing heirs and scions to important positions and unearthing no new talent. It was the first in a series of spectacular failures.
Hereditary succession, however, is not the Congress’s most serious problem. While the culture of inherited political capital may be most deeply entrenched in the Congress, it is prevalent across parties in India and South Asia. Narendra Modi has successfully projected the House of Nehru-Gandhi as the root of every misfortune, real or imagined, to have befallen India since Independence, but the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has its own share of dynasts carving fiefdoms for themselves.
The rise of identity politics
The fundamental issue facing the Congress and old-fashioned big tent parties across the globe is the rise of identity politics. When Barack Obama was elected to the American presidency in 2009, and the Indian National Congress returned to power in India soon after with an improved seat count, it appeared that liberal, inclusive, broad-based politics had triumphed over right-wing nationalism. We now see that Obama’s dream of a post-racial United States bore little relationship to reality. In 2016, Donald Trump squeezed enough votes from White citizens to seize power with an agenda of overturning every signature achievement of the first African-American President.
Demographic trends remain on the side of the Democrats, but the discourse on the Left has changed radically in recent years. The current primary campaign heading into the 2020 Presidential election is focused insistently on ethnic, gender and sexual identities, far more so than the bruising battle between Obama and Hilary Clinton a decade ago.
As for the Congress party’s 2009 victory, it masked a long-term decline in vote share, like its surprisingly high seat tally in the previous election. In 1989 the party, led by Rajiv Gandhi, had won 197 seats out of 545 with 39.53% of votes cast. In 2009, it placed first in 206 seats out of 543 with a mere 28.55%. The Congress-led coalition as a whole won 262 seats in 2009 with a vote share of 37.22%, lower than the stand-alone Congress count of 1989.
The consistent deterioration of the Congress vote over the past three decades has gone hand in hand with the rise of political formations based on regional, linguistic, caste and religious identities. What kept the Congress in play was two forms of competing identity politics breaking out in the same period, one seeking to consolidate Hindu votes while the other undercut it by appealing to particular communities within the Hindu fold. In VP Singh’s short term as prime minister, he consciously used the second form of identity politics to counter the first, with particular success in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The Bharatiya Janata Party, stymied in its efforts, spoke incessantly of the purported Muslim vote-bank with a mixture of hatred and envy.
In the elections of 2014 and 2019, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah checkmated caste-based outfits like the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party by attracting non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits to the BJP’s majoritarian nationalism, fulfilling the party’s long-standing dream of creating a Hindu vote bank across the nation. Even in a state like Kerala where it did badly in terms of seats won, the BJP received a higher percentage of votes than the Congress managed in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. According to a post-poll survey by The Hindu and CSDS-Lokniti, 52% of Hindu upper caste voters, 44% of Hindu OBC citizens, 34% of Hindu Dalits and 44% of Hindu adivasis voted for the BJP in the 2019 general election. This contrasts with the 8% of Muslims, 11% of Christians and 11% of Sikhs who cast their vote in favour of Modi.
Considering the battle of ideas that has raged for the past decades between Hindutva and secular nationalism, and considering the consistent drop in popularity of the latter, represented by the Congress, it is hard to accept Amartya Sen’s argument that, “there has been no particular victory for the philosophy of Hindu nationalism and no noticeable vanquishing of the idea of inclusiveness and unity championed by Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore”. The BJP won not only the battle for power but also the battle of ideas.
Identity politics on the Left
Sen not only underestimated the popularity of the Sangh Parivar’s idea of nationhood, but also overlooked the shift that has occurred in Left-wing thought in India, paralleling the American Democratic party’s gravitation towards identity politics. The syncretic nationalist idea of India has gradually been abandoned by the Left-wing intelligentsia over the course of the past decade. Should the Congress somehow discover leaders with enough charisma and intellectual prowess to win the battle for hearts and minds, it will have to confront not just Hindutva but also the new Left in whose mind the “inclusiveness and unity championed by Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore”, whether intentionally or otherwise, served only to perpetuate patriarchal, upper-caste dominance.
The tide of right-wing nationalism will doubtless ebb, but in an era when all politics, whether Left or Right, is identity politics, big-tent parties like the Congress are ideologically adrift, no matter the quality of talent they can marshal.