Leaders of INDIA alliance parties, including Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, in conversation in New Delhi Image Credit: ANI

As one Congress leader after another switches to the Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP looks more and more like the Congress party. One joke on Twitter said the BJP could also be called the Congress Alumni Cell.

The BJP looks like the Congress of yore in many ways. Dominant, mainstream, a big umbrella that can contain contradictions, a personality cult leader whose face the public trusts, a party that owns multiple narratives of nationalism, religion, caste and progress.

Of course there’s a big difference in ideology over secularism, but you could say, like Congress leader Kamal Nath does, that it was Rajiv Gandhi who started the Mandir-isation of Indian politics.

If the BJP looks like the Congress, what does the Congress look like? Today’s Indian National Congress reminds you of the Communist parties.

Ideologically, geographically, organisationally, the Congress comes across more and more like a rigid force whose appeal is more moral than electoral.

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As the leadership of the Congress party transitioned from Ahmed Patel to Rahul Gandhi, the party looks more left than liberal. It is well known that you have to be leftist to be close to Rahul Gandhi and his coterie. The proximity of Yogendra Yadav and Sitaram Yechuri is a case in point.

The difference between left and liberal may appear too subtle to some, but it is in fact a major chasm.

Disdain for big business

Like the Communist parties, known in India as the Left parties with a capital L, the Congress today shows a disdain for business and industry. It is one thing to attack the government over crony capitalism, as indeed the BJP used to attack the Congress on the same count until 2014. But surely the lack of any engagement with big business does not make sense for a major political party in a fast-growing economy like India.

There are multiple reasons why an opposition party must openly, directly and politically engage with captains of industry: because they must be engaged like all sections of society, because they are wealth creators, because their concerns and problems have a bearing on economic growth, because we need to persuade them to invest more in sectors that create mass jobs, and not least because the Congress needs their donations.

But if the Congress paints itself as anti-big business in principle, sounding like the Communist parties championing the proletariat, then it is the Congress party that is sounding archaic.

Ignoring urban India

India is a country fast urbanising — faster than official data reflects. Often outskirts of cities organically urbanise and become part of the big city. The Communist parties presented themselves as the champions of the rural poor, fighting the bourgeoise of the city. That is how the Congress sounds today, having completely ignored urban India.

The urban poor and their issues are an obvious opportunity that the Congress misses. Even though the Congress did surprisingly well in urban India in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, it has completely ceded the urban to the BJP. This process started in Gujarat, where you can’t even find a Congress worker in many urban polling booths. Now the Congress’ urban apathy is spreading to other cities.

Cities are politically very important, as migrants from across districts come and go, spreading the political message. The media, the political class, and the influential sections of society congregate in cities and are key to forming public opinion. Gone are the days when politicians could win the village and ignore the city — this is how the Communist Party of India (Marxist) ruled West Bengal and the Congress today seems to be trapped in that mould.

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Voice of the oppressed

Much like the Left parties, today’s Congress presents itself as a voice of the oppressed. A mainstream political party has to be everybody’s voice, not just that of the oppressed. It is a fact of life that even the oppressors have equal vote! The job of a mainstream political party is to bridge the gap by making social coalitions. The Congress of yore used to make rainbow coalitions such as Brahmins, Muslims and Dalits.

Today’s BJP marries its upper caste base to lower OBCs, artisan and small peasant communities. Even the Dalit-led Bahujan Samaj Party at one point made a social coalition of Brahmins and Dalits.

By presenting itself as the voice solely of the oppressed, Rahul Gandhi is making the mistake of the Left parties. Political success today demands parties to be the voice of aspirations.

Shunning religious engagement

The Left parties were ideologically opposed to religion. But religion is culture, a part of life. Most religious leaders and sadhus have been co-opted by the BJP, as the Congress has failed to engage with them in any meaningful way.

Despite a pause of temple-hopping that came and went with typical Rahul Gandhi inconsistency, the Congress is stuck in a limbo when it comes to religion. It can no longer do Iftar parties, and if it tries to do a Hindu religious engagement it worries about being labelled soft Hindutva. The Congress has chosen to pretend religion does not exist — like the Communist parties.

Giving up on nationalism

India is a rising global force, but today’s Congress doesn’t have much to say on foreign policy, except blaming the Indian government for Chinese aggression. What is the Congress party’s vision for India on the global stage?

Nobody knows. Indian voters think India deserves a vision of an India-centric worldview. This is how the Congress, the party that won India independence, has ceded the nationalism narrative to the BJP.

Lack of a developmental vision

The Congress party emphasises welfarism, because the poor must be given a leg up. But there’s no economic or developmental vision to differentiate itself from the BJP. The BJP has co-opted welfarism too. How do we boost manufacturing in India to create jobs?

How do we use new arenas like AI for India’s progress? How do we turbocharge public transport in a country full of traffic jams? You won’t hear such ideas coming from the Congress party, because like the Communists it has only one idea: uplifting the poor.

Shunning responsibility

Rahul Gandhi has consistently shunned responsibility — refusing to take ministerial roles in UPA, refusing to become party president forever, resigning from the past after losing an election, appointing a non-Gandhi party president just while still being de facto president.

This reminds you of the Left parties that often supported Congress without joining the cabinet, once even refusing a golden opportunity to occupy the prime minister’s post. Power and responsibility go hand in hand. Those who don’t want responsibility don’t get power.

As the Congress party stares at a historic third consecutive defeat in general elections, it may want to reflect if it has given up the mainstream space itself, due to its own ideological choices. Otherwise, the next election or two it may become about as relevant as the Communist parties.