Congress@135: How a Weak Opposition on a Strong Wicket Can ‘Win’

Congress must note that much of the anti-CAA protesters are the urban middle class, and this should be its target.

4 min read
Image of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi used for representational purposes.

How do you greet a political party on its birthday when it is 135-years-old? By normal human yardsticks, the Indian National Congress is an old man, but the party likes to see itself as India's oldest party in a sense that invokes a sense of respect and wisdom. As it happens, the party that has been out of power since 2014, could do with a bit of both.

The bad news is that Congress is weak, but the good news is that it could well be on an unexpectedly strong wicket. The sprightly flag marches planned by the party in a ‘Save the Constitution’ initiative on its Foundation Day could well be the first of a series of booster shots for the party cadres licking their wounds since the day Narendra Modi led his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in 2014, and retained his hold in 2019, aided by long-time RSS colleague Amit Shah.

Anti-CAA Movement: Unexpected Bonus for Congress

As it happens, the unexpected bonus for Congress is the visible citizens' backlash against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that conferred different statuses for non-Muslims and Muslims aspiring to live in India.

Add to this the persisting uncertainties on the economy in a nation where a million people are said to be entering the work-force every month amid a six-year-low in GDP growth, and the potential for the party is not looking bad.

Sonia Gandhi, the interim president of the party, holding the reins in anticipation of some kind of a strong leadership to emerge could well be looking into a new year that presents the biggest opportunity for a comeback since a decade ago, when Modi weakened the Congress-led UPA with rhetorical flourish as he targeted the 2G spectrum scandal in a belligerent push to power.


Congress’s Gaping Leadership Vacuum

Here's the catch. The leadership vacuum is so evident in Congress that it is seeing a round of public introspection rare in the party, where a projection of power and a certain smugness of winning on the rebound has been a hallmark for decades. Senior party leader Jairam Ramesh minced no words when he said in a recent interview that the party was facing an ‘existential crisis’.

“It is a very serious moment; certainly not a moment of celebration. We are facing a crisis, the likes of which we have never faced in 135 years,” Jairam Ramesh said. “We are faced with two people who seem to have killer instincts, they are hyper-aggressive and I think they are dangerous to India in the long run... but to confront them, you have to understand them; we cannot fall back to old slogans and methodology.”

Congress Must Win Over Urban Middle Class Voters

What does this mean? The answer could lie in the fact that Congress seems to have won over the top and the bottom of the country's social pyramid, while there is a yawning gap in the middle. The largely urban middle class protests is at the top of modern India's social pyramid, while the party's own hard work has largely focused on the bottom. Rahul Gandhi's valiant show of solidarity with tribals in Odisha's mining belt and farmers’ rights at Bhatta Parsaul in Uttar Pradesh may have stirred bleeding hearts, but BJP's success — as I have argued after its 2019 victory — can be substantially attributed to the Hindutva party's own development plank, covering a host of things from MUDRA loans for entrepreneurs, to cooking gas and toilets in rural areas.

The potential voter population in a section above the poverty line but still poor, can be estimated at 300 million people. This is a constituency largely untouched by Congress.

Is Congress ‘Waiting’ for ‘Better Times’ to Come?

Urban protests over the citizenship law are seeing laudatory articles in publications like The New York Times but Indian elections are won in places like Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, not Brooklyn or Manhattan. What Congress has gained therefore is a moral advantage in a global context, even as it has to face up to an anti-Islamist narrative at home, deftly converted by the BJP into a threat to the Hindu majority. The danger for Congress is to fall back into the smug political narrative of ‘minority-ism’, which is to invite a populist put-down from the BJP.

However, the fact that fear-mongering can hardly last in an economy aspiring to higher growth for hundreds of millions of Indians could well be Congress party’s best bet in an emerging playing field.

But where is the party machine? Where is the follow-up on the NYAY plank of a universal basic income of sorts that it promised to the poor? Is this a case of waiting for better times to come, or is this a state of drift? If Ramesh's outpourings reflect a wider consensus among party seniors to seek real action on the ground, it might well be a happy new year for the Congress. Else, not.


Is There a Silver Lining for the Congress?

Perhaps the silver lining lies in the fact that the Congress has shed its traditional ‘we-are-the-magnet’ syndrome. In both Maharashtra and Jharkhand, Congress has successfully helped install non-BJP regional allies in power after state assembly elections this year while playing the second fiddle itself. That is a long way from the party's position three decades ago, when the BJP was on the rise. Party leaders had said then that the Congress would not be a junior partner in a coalition. Things have changed now. Knowing one's weakness could well be a sign of strength.

If Congress builds on this realism and uses the economic crisis to win over large sections of middle India, the birthday would be a great occasion for rejuvenation. As of now, it is in a stage where its hopes have not become a plan. Not yet.

(The writer is a senior journalist who has covered economics and politics for Reuters, The Economic Times, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He tweets @madversity. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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