The hegemonic power of the Congress Party is rapidly diminishing in Indian politics
The story of ‘Congress in Decline’ is in the spotlight due to the 2022 parliamentary elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Manipur and Goa and the results will clarify its existential conundrum whether it is in decline or in revival mode. The Congress Paradox closely resembles the Duality of Purpose at the time of its birth in 1885. AOHume, a British civil servant and one of the founders of the Indian National Congress wanted to use it as a “safety valve” to release latent discontent Indians against British rule. It was intended to anticipate another uprising on the lines of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, while the Indians hoped to use it as a lightning rod to provide traction for the freedom movement. Congress inherited the legacy of the independence movement and ruled the country for almost six decades after 1947 with several changes in party system, leadership, splits and dominance. The 2014 general election marked a radical ideological shift in Indian politics, as the Congress was defeated by the BJP, paving the way for a new system of dominant political parties. The saffron party won 282 seats out of 543 and crossed the majority barrier for the first time in Lok Sabha.
Congress’ ignominious defeat was a thunderclap, but many believed his loss of supremacy was temporary and he would bounce back. However, he failed again in the 2019 election and the political debacle raised red flags in party halls. Attempts at self-introspection and course corrections were partially successful due to ill-conceived plans and short-sightedness. The party has steadily lost its electoral footprint in the states and it currently remains in power in 3 of the 29 states (Punjab, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh). Relentless leadership attrition and intra-party factionalism in state units, combined with a breakaway group of 23 leaders, further deepened the crisis. Changes in the functioning of the party system after 1947 will put its current imbroglio and the reasons for a rapid political decline into perspective.
Jawaharlal Nehru weakened the Congress system
The Congress led by Jawaharlal Nehru contested Free India’s first general election in 1952 and recorded a landslide victory winning 364 out of 401 seats in the Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament). He repeated his national electoral success in the majority of state elections and launched a Nehruvian era of one-party dominance over Congress in electoral politics. Rajni Kothari, a prominent political scientist, has defined party dominance as a competitive party system in which competing parties play rather different roles. It consists of a consensus party and pressure parties. The system provided a comprehensive mechanism for change, articulation and conflict resolution, and two-way communication between society and politics. The Congress was the main consensus and therefore the dominant party with an obligation towards nation building through which the Indian political system functioned with consecutive victories in the 1952, 1957 and 1962 Lok Sabha elections. The Congress grew stronger and stronger, but the greater concentration of power in Nehru’s hands and his belief that he could only keep the country together weakened the party system.
Nehru’s strong leadership created insecurities among his powerful cabinet leaders and the formation of trade unions, and the fratricidal strife that surfaced after his death led to a vertical split in the party and the formation of Congress (I) by Indira Gandhi. In the national elections of 1967 after the demise of Pillars (PM) Nehru and Lal Bahadhur Shastri, Congress (I) emerged victorious, heir to the parent party, but suffered a major setback losing over 100 parliamentary seats and losing four percentage points of the popular vote. The party subsequently lost eight state elections in a row, which seriously threatened its pan-Indian dominance, but it continued to be, in Kothari’s words, “the preponderant political force in the country”. The defeat in the state elections led to the alienation of its main supporters and created the belief among the opposition parties that they may emerge as a viable alternative in the near future. Nehru’s failure to devise a succession plan and formalize an apparatus to maintain consensus weakened the party system and set it on a path of self-created political decline.
Indira Gandhi undermined the political establishment
Congress witnessed major changes in the chain of command, organizational hierarchies, and work culture after the ascension of Indira Gandhi. She contested the 1971 general election on the populist slogan of ‘Garibi Hatao’ (eradicate poverty), and her pro-poor posture created a huge electoral wave that allowed Congress to add 69 more parliamentary seats to its tally. with a 3% gain in vote share. The landslide victory earned him a comparison to the goddess ‘Durga’, the female embodiment of strength, and the start of the ‘cult of personality’ phenomenon in Indian politics. His tall stature not only eclipsed the political position of the party, but also created a cult following of electoral supporters from various social groups who remained politically loyal to him for a long time.
Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in 1975, allowing her to rule by decree and suspend civil liberties. His rule had a collateral impact on Congress, as it led to political personalization and authoritarianism that temporarily eroded its brand value and base of partisan electoral support. As a result, the Janata Party (JP), a multi-party platform of different ideological hues based on anti-congressism, routed Congress in the 1977 general election. It lost over 200 seats in Lok Sabha and nine percent of the vote and was in complete disarray, but the collapse of JP provided him with an electoral opening and he returned to power by winning the 1980 national elections. He lost his authoritarian pre-eminence in the states from the heartland of Hindi, but he made up for the loss with political gains in the provinces south of the Vindhyan mountain range. Minority votes that have remained loyal to Congress for decades have split and it has become vulnerable and beatable in electoral contests. His tenure has witnessed the purge of second-tier leaders, silencing voices of constructive criticism and the substitution of strong regional leaders with unfounded personnel. The party structure changed with the centralization of decision-making, the redundancy of existing feedback mechanisms and the closing of open dialogues with the subordinate electorate. The popular belief that Congress is the only party capable of governing India has evaporated and there has been a serious breach in its aura of invincibility.
Excessive centralization decimated party organization
The period after Indira Gandhi witnessed a transition from single-party rule to coalition politics and Congress forged an alliance with smaller parties to govern until 1996. He was overthrown from power by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) which ruled from 1997 to 2004 and emerged as the first stable and feasible national alternative to Congress. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) of left-center parties defeated the NDA in the 2004 national elections. Congress leadership shifted from concentration of power in one hand to centralized customization directed by Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi-Rahul Gandhi. The excessive centralization of power or the new culture of “high command” worked quite well and helped Congress retain power in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections with a broader mandate. However, the political gains made were lost halfway as the UPA II government became embroiled in political fraud, high inflation, unemployment and political paralysis. The 2014 general election was marked by strong anti-incumbent sentiments and a huge wave of electoral support for the BJP that resulted in a humiliating defeat for Congress. His tally in the lower house of parliament hit rock bottom, as he won 44 seats. He lost several state elections and the Lok Sabha election in 2019, but he continues to be the first choice of two out of ten Indian voters.
The delicate balance on which the legitimacy and power of the Congressional system rested had the potential to be brutally disrupted by the emergence of an authoritarian system, through a deliberate coalition of dissident and opposition groups. Kothari’s 1964 prophecy that political systems change their nature over time and that there is no particular sanctity in any particular system came true when the BJP emerged from the shadow of Congress and replaced it as the new dominant party. It entered a downward spiral due to the rise of the BJP as the single dominant party and the start of a new party system. Reasons leading to the decline of Congress include liabilities of dynastic politics, intergenerational strife in the first family, decimation of the “Congress system”, failure of organizational transformation, and disconnection with Indian aspirants. It lost its hegemonic power due to ideological stagnation, nonchalant attitude and resistance to evolving political changes.
In conclusion, the decline of Congress fits with the concept of Jim Collins’ “Five Stages of Decline” in his book How the Mighty Fall. He said every institution goes through five stages of evolution: one Hubris Born of Success, two Indisciplined Pursuit of More, three Denial of Risk and Peril, four Grasping for Salvation and five Capitulation to Irrelevance. The Nehruvian-era Congress was in the first stage because it lost sight of its main goals and believed that nothing was more successful than success. It passed to the second stage during the reign of Indira Gandhi, when he tried to impose his supremacy by force and by unconstitutional methods. The party entered the third-fourth stages under the leadership of Sonia-Rahul Gandhi. He was in the stage of denial, but when the freefall became publicly visible, he instinctively resorted to instinctive plans to reverse the decline. The party is in suspended animation and needs to retain power in Punjab and win few states to avoid sliding into the fifth phase of decline and reaching a point of no return.
The author, Praveen Rai is a policy analyst at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.