The Congress party’s performance in the 2014 general election was by far its worst-ever, both in terms of seat and vote shares. Since 1989 at least, the party’s electoral performance has been characterised by a gradual decline both in general and State Assembly elections, although its performance in 2004 and 2009 did give an illusion of recovery. However, the 2014 general election and the party’s electoral performance since have underscored the fact that 2004 and 2009 couldn’t stem the terminal decline in its electoral and political fortunes.
In party system literature, Congress-type parties are characterised as pluralistic and multi-ethnic coalitions, a virtual representative mosaic of sociopolitical diversity, where the party as an electoral machine maintains its political hold through a well-oiled patron-client network comprising regional elites and local notables. As the principal party of the movement for India’s independence, the Congress gradually came to embody the multi-ethnic character of the movement itself and a federative organisation with a strong regional flavour, where at the State level, the party reflected dominant social cleavages. The presence of a vibrant party organisation on the ground made the Congress adept at responding to social and political changes.
However, the party’s response to the reversal in its electoral fortunes after the 1967 general election was the centralisation of political decision-making, with the party organisation at the centre increasingly dominated by leaders with no mass base and completely beholden to the supreme leader. This centralisation of power took place in the larger backdrop of centralisation of economic powers and decision-making, which helped build support for the party by discretionary access to state patronage. While this did work in the short run and helped the Congress cover its organisational weakness and dwindling support base at the State level, in the long run it made the party singularly incapable of responding to the larger socio-economic and political changes which came to characterise the body politic. The reaction to this was the desertion by important social groups, which gradually facilitated the rise of viable regional alternatives. This was to some extent also the result of the delinking of general and Assembly elections since 1971 which created an entirely different political ecosystem where regional parties could take on the Congress in State elections on State-specific issues. The party managed to survive and maintain its hold largely because of the absence of any polity-wide challenger.
It in this context that one has to make sense of the decline in the Congress’s fortunes in terms of the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party and strong, stable regional political parties. This is marked by decline in party competitiveness, defined as being in the top two positions by vote share, in the States both for general and Assembly elections. In the post-1989 period, the Congress has slipped to third or worse position in four major States – Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu – which have a total of 201 seats in the Lok Sabha. This has become grave after the 2014 election as the party further slipped to third or worse position in five more States and one Union Territory – Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Sikkim, and Delhi – thus becoming uncompetitive in States that total 306 seats, or a majority, in the Lok Sabha.
This pattern mirrors the decline in the party’s competitiveness in Assembly elections. In terms of vote share, the Congress has become uncompetitive in as many as 10 States including Delhi. Even in some States where it remains among the top two in vote share, it has not been in power for many years – for instance, in Gujarat, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, also reflected in the party losing its competitiveness at the Lok Sabha constituency level where it was in third or worse position in 2014 in as many as 194 seats. This loss of competitiveness could partly be explained by slippage of support following a split in the party in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra, all States which were the party’s traditional strongholds, along with conceding more seats to allies as the party sought to build coalitions. Therefore, the Congress comeback in 2004 was part of a larger coalition as an admission of the party’s weakness across a substantial number of States. The United Progressive Alliance victory in 2009 was primarily the result of a combination of several factors – a larger and comparatively more effective coalition than the National Democratic Alliance, assisted by economic recovery and growth along with imaginative formulation and execution of social welfare measures.
The decline in the Congress’s fortunes at least since 1989, both politically and institutionally, has to be seen in the context of institutional incapacity reflected in increased defections by politicians representing newly mobilised social constituencies to other parties or floating new parties. Centre-State dynamics changed and regional and State parties emerged and consolidated. The Congress’s declining relevance as the vehicle of voter aspirations was in parallel with its inability to widen its support base. The party’s profile over the 1990s, and underscored again by its performance in 2014, has become increasingly dependent on Muslims, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, rural and poor voters.
The way forward
It is against this backdrop one has to read the reluctance of the Congress high command in taking a position on Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as the party president, though it may happen sooner than later. The desperate calls by party leaders and workers alike, just before every major State Assembly election, for his elevation is the acknowledgement of the absence of strong regional leaders. Therefore any attempted organisational restructuring has to be substantive both in its intent and reality and done in a manner which is customised keeping the region-specific context in mind.
Paradoxically, the Congress might be in a better position to bring this about while it sits in opposition in a majority of the State Assemblies, as it has to worry less about acting as a mediator between various factions of the party vying for their share in the spoils of power. There are bound to be desertions and defections, especially staged by the old guard of the party. However, these could be overcome by cultivating a newer crop of young leadership adapted to the regional context.
The various outreach programmes undertaken by the party since 2014 have fallen short of creating an alternative narrative both at the national and State level. This is primarily due to the top-down nature of the entire exercise. It is essential to give power to regional leaders along with complete autonomy in State-specific issues; the central leadership’s role should be restricted to creating a larger picture from the multiplicity of inputs being received in order to offer an alternative vision to the one being doled out by the current dispensation. The party has to reinvent itself as a hub of regional interests and aspirations and channelise these into a larger collective whole.
Adnan Farooqui is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.