Reviving the Congress: Tough Task for Rahul, But It’s Possible
The Congress needs to revive its traditional voting block that combines minorities, STs, SCs and upper castes.
(With Rahul Gandhi taking over as the Congress President, The Quint is re-publishing the article from its archives. The piece first appeared on 5 December 2017.)
After years of speculation, Rahul Gandhi is set to don the hat of the Congress President this month. He filed his nomination papers on Monday, 4 December. Sonia Gandhi will pass the mantle to her son soon after the results of the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections are announced.
Opinion polls predict loss for the party in both states. Rahul occupies the chair at a time when the party is facing an existential crisis, losing state after state. It is now in power in only two big states – Punjab and Karnataka.
Many people argue that the current problems of the Congress are the creation of Rahul Gandhi, and he is the only reason that voters do not wish to return to the party. However, the fact is that the party had already lost most of its voter share under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi (8.6 percent), Narasimha Rao (10.7 percent), Sitaram Kesari (3 percent) and Sonia Gandhi (6.3 percent).
So the leadership problem has been building over a 30-year period, right after Indira Gandhi’s demise. Critics could argue Rahul has been in forefront of politics since 2004 and is partly to blame for the loss under Sonia Gandhi’s tenure. Even then, Rahul can be held accountable for a maximum of one-fifth of the loss of Congress’ vote share since 1989.
The recent failures in the state elections and likely future setbacks make it extremely important for the Congress leadership to resort to an immediate surgery instead of relying on small doses of improvements.
Rahul needs to focus on these five things in his new assignment to rejuvenate the Congress party:
1. Setting the House in Order
This should be the topmost priority and is also the trickiest. A full reshape of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) is the need of the hour. Out of its 40-odd members, only three are Lok Sabha MPs.
Almost half of the members are loyalists of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi and need to be shifted to a ‘margdarshak mandal’ of sorts. The average age of CWC members is 69, which is very high compared to the BJP Parliamentary Board (57) and the CPM Politburo (60).
This is at a time when 65 percent of India’s population is less than 35 years of age. The party decision-making body is clearly out of tune with this demographic change. It should also appoint one VP each for North, South, West, East and Northeast India.
The Scindias, Pilots, Gogois, Priyanka Gandhi and Gowda could be considered for these positions.
2. Winning Back Old Friends
Congress has suffered many splits during its history, the prominent ones lately being Sharad Pawar (NCP), Mamata Banerjee (TMC) and Jagan Reddy (YSR Congress). This has weakened the party considerably in Maharashtra, Andhra and West Bengal.
These three parties received 8.1 percent vote share in 2014 Lok Sabha elections and won 49 seats, which is higher than the Congress tally. Rahul needs to intensify efforts to bring them back into the fold.
NCP and TMC are already part of talks with Congress to form an anti-BJP front at the national level, and the merged entity would be much stronger. Some egos need to be managed here.
3. Revive Traditional Social Coalition
In 2014 election, Congress won just 12.1 percent of the upper caste and 14.7 percent of the upper OBC vote. It performed relatively well amongst Schedule Tribes where it won 28.3 percent of the vote and Muslims, where it won 37.6 percent of the votes.
However, these two groups make up for only 23 percent of population. This is the Congress party’s biggest predicament at this moment.
OBC politics have changed after ‘mandal’ and community votes for the past two decades have mostly been with Janata Dal splinter groups. After Modi came to the forefront, this vote bank shifted loyalties in large numbers to the BJP. The BJP won 42.1 percent of the lower OBC and 30.2 percent of upper OBC votes. There is a lot of competition in this space.
At this moment, the Congress needs to revive its traditional voting block that combines minorities, STs, SCs and Upper Castes. These groups together constitute about 50 percent of the voters.
BSP’s weakening and recent incidents branding BJP as anti-Dalit gives a chance to the party to develop this vote bank. It should actively canvass for removing reservations for upper OBCs and replacing it with reservations on the basis of economic status. It has to find chinks in the armour of the BJP, which is trying to project itself as an inclusive Hindu party.
4. Build a New Voting Block
The party needs to find one or two large demographic voting blocks to gain vote share in the next few elections. It has to tap the disillusioned voters. Youth and farmers should be the focus here. Modi government has failed to create jobs as promised. Youth could lose patience with BJP for lack of jobs coupled with layoffs.
Voters in the age bracket of 18-25 accounted for 22-25 percent of voters in 2014. While BJP received 34 percent support from youth in 2014, higher than its overall vote share of 31 percent, it recorded high popularity among educated youth (high school pass - 35 percent and graduates - 38 percent). All these sections of youth voted in large numbers for the party in 2009.
The ongoing farmer agitations across states also opens up avenues for the party. Over 3 lakh farmers from 180 groups across the country protested in Delhi on 20 November demanding better price for their produce and a complete loan waiver. With UP and Maharashtra announcing loan waivers, there is pressure on other BJP governments in MP, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan for similar action.
Arun Jaitley has clearly said such waivers will have to be borne by state finances and that the Centre won’t help. While Modi has promised doubling of farmers’ income by 2022, they are getting impatient. Any poor rainfall next year (God forbid) could be a game-changer for 2019 and swell support for the party from this vote block. Their support is significant, as almost half of our population is engaged in agriculture.
5. Put Up a Shadow Cabinet
Congress has a rich history of governance. It has many subject matter experts. It needs to soon put in place a shadow cabinet. They need to take on policies and programs of BJP. Good work should be applauded. This will not only help people understand the shortcomings of BJP policies, but also put Congress philosophy/perspective in public on topics of national importance. Offering an alternate narrative which is not just anti-government but also pro-people would be very helpful.
To sum up, at the moment, the party’s outreach has been focussed on the identity issues and failures of the BJP rather than a more comprehensive solution. As we had articulated in this article, the Congress is still the natural and only alternative to BJP nationally.
If the party works on the above points, it can recover some of its lost mojo.
(This article has been co-authored by Amitabh Tiwari and Subhash Chandra. They are independent political commentators and can be reached at @politicalbaaba and @schandra_100 respectively. The views expressed above are the authors’ own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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