Opinion: If these two mistakes are made then the rise of Rahul-Priyanka can become a big threat to Congress getting back on track!

Ananya Shroff
9 Min Read

Writer: Asim Ali
What does the mandate of the Lok Sabha elections say? Congress says that BJP should pay attention to this mandate. Its suggestion has merit. However, there is also a danger that Congress itself may misinterpret the mandate. The main reason for the increase in Congress seats from Haryana to UP and Maharashtra was the deepening anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP. There is no doubt that neither the support base of Congress has increased nor the Gandhi family has been able to do any magic. Therefore, if the Congress leadership keeps repeating the past mistakes in the illusion of results, then the better performance may deteriorate again. This time, the main challenge before Congress, which is excited by the doubling of seats, is to maintain the momentum and increase its voter base. To maintain the improvement in its performance, the party will have to avoid two strategic mistakes. First of all, it will have to ensure that the party does not depend too much on the charisma of its leadership but strengthens the organization.

The re-emergence of the Gandhi family could be a sign of danger for the Congress. It is possible that Rahul Gandhi becomes the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha and Priyanka Gandhi reaches Parliament by contesting from Wayanad. The rise of Rahul-Priyanka could prove to be a double-edged sword for the Congress party. If the increased power of the Gandhi family is used only to take organizational decisions and emerge as an alternative leadership at the national level or to run a Gandhi-centric campaign in the assembly elections, then it could be the reason for stopping the progress of the Congress.

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After a spectacular performance in the Hindi heartland in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress made the same mistake. Projecting Rahul as the 'Prince-in-Waiting', the Congress decided to contest almost all the seats in the elections to be held in UP and Bihar. It suffered a crushing defeat in both the states. In 2022, despite Priyanka's efforts in UP, the Congress managed to win only two assembly seats. After this, the Congress lost its deposit in all the seats except a dozen.

The strong political capital of the Gandhi family will strengthen the party only if it is used very carefully to strengthen the organization and infuse new life into the party. The first step in this direction is to stop factionalism. Only then will the Congress governments in Telangana and Karnataka be stable, while the possibility of forming a government in Haryana and Kerala will turn into reality. Second, the Gandhi family's hold must be used to push through organizational changes as proposed by the Udaipur camp and to give place to youth and leaders with diverse ideas in all decision-making bodies.

A similar reorganisation of the Congress Working Committee a few months after the victory in Karnataka last year was a good example. The party also needs to bring forward new leadership in Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where tired old leaders have ruined the party. The defeat of Ashok Gehlot and Kamal Nath's sons and Bhupesh Baghel himself has given a great opportunity to make a new beginning in these states, where the Congress suffered a massive defeat under the leadership of these satraps last year.

The second mistake the party must avoid is following a nationally determined strategy rather than a state-specific one. The Congress must understand that it can no longer repeat the Indira Gandhi era, when charismatic leadership and a centre-set campaign were enough to overcome the structural problems of weak organisation and dwindling social base. The nine seats the party has won in UP and Bihar are mainly due to the support it received from the SP and RJD respectively. The party must use this as a bridge to build organisational strength and a core voter base for the long term.

For example, the BJP adopted a patient strategy of stable coalitions and collective leadership to make headway in states such as Bihar, Maharashtra and Haryana from the mid-1990s onwards. It realised that hardline Hindutva and leadership charisma could only bring limited success. It has since adopted a strategy of alliances with regional parties to make headway in Dalit-OBC dominated constituencies, where it has traditionally been weak. On the other hand, it has built a core base among upper caste and middle class voters.

The Congress should adopt a similar strategy in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra, where its alliance partners bring complementary social bases. On the other hand, it should replace parties that have reduced their share of the voter base but are slowly losing ground. Such parties include the BRS in Telangana, the JDS in Karnataka, the BJD in Odisha and the BSP in northern and central India.

Political scientists Sridharan and Farooqi wrote in 2016 that the Congress was “headed for disintegration and eventual extinction, as it faces further divisions and a shrinking social base” unless it “reinvents itself as a broad, moderate coalition of the disadvantaged… and confronts a powerful, right-wing coalition led by the BJP”.

These elections demonstrated the Congress' ability to strengthen its hold in backward and rural areas through centrist politics. Vidarbha in Maharashtra, the Jat belt in Haryana, the Kalyan division of Karnataka, eastern Rajasthan and southern Telangana are examples of this. CSDS-Lokniti's post-poll data also shows that the party gained the most among small towns and Dalit and peasant caste voters.

However, these scattered constituencies cannot be unified by a common national agenda. The Congress’s better success this time was due to fine-tuning the campaign issues on a state-by-state basis. It was a more cleverly crafted campaign than the highly centralised narrative built around Rafale and a uniform income guarantee (Nyaya Yojana) in 2019.

For example, the Congress did not push for a caste census in Haryana but focused on unemployment and rural distress. This helped it bring together the influential Jats and marginalised backward castes and Dalit voters. Similarly, in Maharashtra, the Congress pushed for a caste census only in Vidarbha, not Marathwada or Western Maharashtra. Here it followed its allies in demanding a special kind of reservation for the Marathas. Last year too, the Congress found success in Karnataka and Telangana when the party focused on caste equations along with a pro-poor agenda.

These elections have shown the Congress a direction in national politics that voters can be won over by centrist ideas. The party will have to expand its centrist ideas and include new constituencies in the next decade. This strategy will have to be made successful by focusing on the middle income group, which is almost half of the population caught between the rich and the poor, tribals, backward castes and women voters.

The Congress has performed poorly among these voter groups, weakening the party’s ability to mobilise them around socio-economic concerns. The relatively young Gandhi siblings are well placed to facilitate such an expansion of the Congress, provided they follow a long-term and state-specific roadmap and stay away from impulsive and centralised temptations of short-term gains.

The author is a political researcher.

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