Sanjay Kumar | Congress’s reluctance to change is its fundamental problem
Questions are being raised after talks between the Congress Party and election strategist Prashant Kishor (popularly known as the PK) broke down over what could be the way forward for the revival of the Grand Old Party. Frankly, with or without PK, reviving Congress will not be easy. I’m not saying it won’t be possible, but two things are certain. First, it will be virtually impossible for Congress to regain a dominant position in Indian politics. Second, the journey for his revival will be long and arduous, and his fortunes are unlikely to change significantly before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. The problems are deep rooted and no quick fix will help you. The party needs a complete overhaul, with multiple changes in leadership, organizational structure, membership and mobilization strategy.
PK is not a magician, and he cannot create the illusion that people are voting for Congress, he is only a poll strategist who can best help the party in one or two aspects. He can help strategize for the party campaign, on which he has a proven track record. Such strategies can help gain additional votes. But what Congress needs are just a few more votes, it takes a massive swing of the votes in its favor to make a difference in 2024, which looks tough. The failure of talks between Congress and the KP not once but twice has also damaged the party’s image. This indicated that the leaders did not know how to revive the party after massive and successive defeats, because otherwise why would they have held talks with the KP? What further harms the party is the widespread public perception that Congress leaders, and particularly the Gandhis, are unwilling to give up their powers and unwilling to change.
The party has been in bad shape since 2014, but things got much worse after its defeat in the 2019 general election. Its failure to win a single Assembly election since the 2019 debacle has demoralized not only top leaders, but also the base. The problem is much more serious than we think. Not only has the party not won any Assembly polls since 2019, but its vote share has fallen into single digits in some states. The elections of the next few years do not leave much hope either.
Look at the dismal performance of the Congress over the past three years, since it lost the Lok Sabha polls in 2019. Of the 17 Assembly elections held since then, the Congress has been unable to win one on his own. It may have the consolation of being part of coalition governments in three states – Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand – but, with the exception of Maharashtra, Congress is a very small partner in the coalition governments of Jharkhand and of Tamil Nadu, led by JMM and DMK respectively. The Congress has only 18 seats in the Tamil Nadu Assembly and only 16 seats in Jharkhand.
The story of Congress’s poor performance in Assembly elections over the past four years goes beyond the number of seats won. Not only has the party lost elections in many states, but it has lost badly in some cases, pushed to third or fourth positions, or even beyond. Of the 17 states that have gone to the polls in the past four years, the Congressional vote share was below 5% in five states, and in five others it remained between 5% and 16%. Only in the remaining seven states did he secure a reasonable vote share of around 25-30%, although he did not win any elections. Congressional vote share fell in 12 of those 17 states – Haryana, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Bihar and Kerala being the only exceptions.
Not only have the past four years been difficult for Congress, but the years ahead show no change for the better. Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh will go to the polls by the end of 2022. The two states have traditionally witnessed bipolar competition, and with the BJP in power in both states, Congress is expected to have 50% of chances of winning the election. But the arithmetic doesn’t seem to work that simple. The BJP has been in power in Gujarat for 27 years and the Congress has lost six consecutive elections to the BJP. By any standard, 27 years of one-party rule should have led to significant opposition to power against the ruling party, but that does not seem to be visible, at least so far. Not only has the Congress not won an election in Gujarat since 1995, but it trails the BJP by more than 9-10% of the vote. In my opinion, there is little hope for the Gujarat Congress in the upcoming elections. What may strike the Congress even more will be the presence of the Aam Aadmi party, which won recent assembly elections in Punjab, in addition to being in power in Delhi. In both states, Congress was the recipient. In Himachal Pradesh, Congress won by-elections for three Assembly seats and one Lok Sabha seat, raising hopes for the party in the state. But we must not forget that the mood of voters can be different during a by-election and a general election. In by-elections voters do not vote to elect a government, they simply vote to elect their representative and may express their anger against a ruling party, but in general elections they vote to elect a government and exercise their voting choice with caution. Just before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP lost a few key by-elections but won the 2019 Lok Sabha elections with a much larger majority. Also, keep in mind that Congress trails the BJP by almost eight percent of the vote and the BJP won more than double the number of seats won by Congress (BJP 44 seats; Congress 21 seats). It may not be easy for Congress to cover as much ground with which it can defeat the BJP.
People are talking about various remedies to help revive the Congress – change of leadership, strengthening the organization, membership drive, etc. I don’t think any cure will work on its own. The disease is much more serious than it looks from the outside, and it must be taken care of by several specialists, and not just one, in order to have a reasonable chance of curing it.