Rahul Gandhi at the Thirunelli Temple in Wayanad
Rahul Gandhi at the Thirunelli Temple in Wayanad (File) Image Credit: Twitter/INC

So the great Indian tamasha (festival) of democracy has begun once again, as the electorate exercise their right to choose their leaders in a number of states for the next five years. Festoons, caricatures, slogans, posters — and as technology progresses — memes, photoshopped pictures, gifs are filling our everyday lives as the states go to the polls.

While there are a number of contenders in the fray for the political rewards that follow the elections, one common theme is apparent across all the states — the virtual disappearance of India’s Grand Old Party — the Indian National Congress — from a position of being a serious player on its own merit in any state.

When India gained independence from Britain seven decades ago, the Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi suggested that the Congress — which was the main political party dominating the country at the time — be disbanded and turn into a social organisation for charitable activities.

Like many of his suggestions, the political leaders of the day chose to ignore this advice. Now, it seems that the Mahatma’s advice would have at least helped to save the party from the humiliating situation it faces across the country today.

Let us take the states one by one.

Reduced to a bystander

In West Bengal, the Congress, out of power since 1977, has been reduced to a basic bystander in the polls. Its mantle of principal opposition has also now been taken over by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is throwing everything it has in the ring to wrest the state from the incumbent Trinamul Congress.

The Congress has reached such a situation that it has been forced to join hands with the Left Front — also a power-that-was — to gain some semblance of respectability in garnering a few seats.

Looking further east, to Assam, the BJP is the incumbent party in power, teaming up with the Asom Gana Parishad. The Congress, again once the dominant party, was reduced to just 26 seats in the 2016 polls.

One major handicap for the party will be the absence of Tarun Gogoi, its longest-serving chief minister, who passed away last year. The Congress has joined a ‘Mahajot’ — a term to denote a motley group of opportunistic regional parties — to prevent the split in opposition votes.

Moving south, in Tamil Nadu, the Congress has been out of power for almost five decades — since 1967. Allied with the DMK, one of the two principal Dravidian parties in the state, it serves the function of a poor cousin, too timid to upset the balance to ensure it gets some seats during the federal parliamentary elections.

In fact, local media reports suggest that the party is in such a state that it does not even have the manpower to place agents across all the polling booths.

Advantage down South?

Kerala, Congress’ heir apparent Rahul Gandhi’s home constituency, is the only place where the party has a modicum of respectability. The party leads the United Democratic Front, and has alternately held power at the state along with the Left Democratic Front, led by the CPI (M), which is, ironically, and stinking of opportunistic politics, its ally in West Bengal.

However, while chances are brighter in the state, recent opinion polls suggest that the voters may return the LDF to power. If that happens, it will be another nail in the Indian GOP’s coffin.

Let us take a peek through the pages of history to understand how this situation has come to pass.

During the initial days of the Congress, it was, as the name suggests, a congress — a group of different people with different points of view, with the broader aim of achieving more rights for the natives from the British Empire. There were several people, including prominent leaders, who had their own separate units while remaining members of the Congress. As the independence movement gained momentum, these groups merged into the party, providing the groundswell of support that finally broke the shackles and freed the country from colonial rule.

In the initial period after independence, as it has been observed in other newly-liberated countries as well, the Congress held sway across the country due to the virtual absence of any other political force, barring the Left in some pockets.

At this juncture, the large landowning classes, who were prominent members of the party, provided the backbone of its vote bank. The party consciously allied itself to the dominant castes across the region to ensure success in the polls.

As the country matured politically, these alliances started shifting too. Regional forces, who felt that their issues and problems were not being given due consideration by the federal powers, began to drift away from the Congress.

These parties gradually started gaining prominence, culminating in the first electoral setback of the party in 1967 when the United Front was set up. Atul Kohli’s Crisis of Governability, published in 1991, gives us a detailed account of the power shift that was taking place during this period.

A new era of coalition politics began in the country, as the opposition, while gaining prominence, remained fragmented. This culminated in the successive elections and minority governments at the Centre during the 1990s.

As a result of the rise of these regional forces, coupled with the explosion of caste-based politics for which the Congress was itself to blame as it aligned with the dominant castes in the early 1950s, India’s GOP, since then, entered into a steady stage of perennial decline, a trend that continues to this day.

The alternatives?

To top this all, of course, is the obsession of the old guard in the party that no one except the ‘first family’ of the party, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, can lead it forward. The so-called Group of 23, the senior dissident voices who are calling for change, have remained unheard till now.

This obsession has already cost the party a host of young leaders in the states, who could have been its future faces. But even those losses do not seems to bother those at the helm.

So, what next?

The first issue that the Congress needs to do, if it is serious about being a serious contender for political power in the country and not just somehow form alliances to cobble a few seats here and there, is to reinstate the system of internal elections, free from the nepotism and sycophancy that marks the selection of party officials. This will ensure that the various voices are heard within the party to take it forward.

Next, the Congress will have to seek to create a voter base from scratch, without having to resort to factional and caste politics. This is obviously going to be a long-term project, but can yield results if done properly.

There would still be large number of Indians, in general, who would wish to shun the current trend of divisive politics and give a chance to the politics of inclusion once again.

Also, since the caste-ridden politics of several states are already dominated by regional players, there is not much hope that this form of voters would switch allegiances back to the party they shunned once already.

The Congress once already played this game and lost, when it projected Rahul Gandhi as a ‘janaudhari’ (one who wears the sacred thread — the symbol of a high-caste Hindu) before the 2019 federal elections.

Thus a new inclusive agenda, bereft of caste, creed and religion, can be the Congress’ saviour, if it is scripted and executed well.

But does the Congress have the fire in its belly to go for such a project? Or will it go belly up again? Time will tell.