Of all the data points that reveal the contrasting fortunes of the BJP and the Congress over the last decade, here is the most striking: the BJP won 7.84 crore votes in 2009 but as many as 22.9 crore votes in 2019 while the Congress won 11.9 crore votes in 2009 and 11.94 crore votes in 2019. In effect, while the BJP votes have almost tripled, the Congress votes have remained static, indicating a stark failure to attract ‘new’ or ‘floating’ voters. Which is why the ambitious Kashmir to Kanyakumari Bharat Jodo Yatra is perhaps a final chance for the grand old party to restore a lost connect with the voter before the 2024 general elections.
Rewind to 2009, the last time the Congress bested the BJP in a national election. The Congress was clearly on an upswing, winning 206 seats, its best tally since the landslide of 1984. The BJP, by contrast, was down and almost out, winning just 116 seats, its lowest tally since the party’s breakthrough election of 1991. Success can breed complacency: the Congress mistakenly concluded that the 2009 mandate marked a return to an era of dominance when the verdict was actually only another opportunity to build for the future. By contrast, the loss was a wake-up call for the BJP, a realization that the Vajpayee-Advani era was drawing to a close, both their stalwart leaders now ‘tired’ and ‘retired’.
Flashback to 2011-12, the other critical period in the ebb and flow of politics. The Congress-led UPA government was battered by a series of scam allegations, culminating in the Anna Hazare anti- corruption agitation. Instead of using its executive power to challenge the Anna movement, the Congress surrendered the narrative to an inchoate grouping of political novices. By contrast, the BJP capitalized on a distinct momentum shift by craftily aligning with the anti-incumbency mood and then throwing up in Narendra Modi the ideal muscular mascot to confront an increasingly effete-looking Congress old order. The rest is history.
Which leaves open the question: if the BJP could recover from the debris of 2009 to achieve its first parliamentary majority in the space of just five years, what stops the Congress from similarly bouncing back? The answer lies in the three key elements any party needs to script a revival: strong message, inspirational messenger, robust organization. Between 2012 and 2014, the BJP discovered all three. The message of providing stable, corruption-free governance – exemplified by the ‘acche din’ slogan – resonated amongst voters who were fatigued by high inflation, scam charges and the compromises of coalition politics. In Mr Modi, the BJP had a messenger whose persona as an aggressive communicator and ‘doer’ neta was in sharp contrast to Manmohan Singh’s docile public profile. While in the RSS and the wider sangh parivar, the BJP had the enthusiastic cadre to ensure last mile connectivity.
In the last decade, the Congress has struggled on all these fronts. It has been unable to enunciate a coherent message that can compete with the BJP’s core ‘hyper-nationalism’ plank. A ‘Hindu’ versus ‘Hindutvawaadi’ pitch has only confused the rank and file: is the Congress a party that cannot accommodate religious identity because it is wedded to a secular ideal that lacks clarity in the face of cynical vote bank politics? As Sonia Gandhi candidly admitted in 2018, the BJP has managed to convince a large number of people that the Congress is a ‘Muslim party’.
The BJP’s other great success lies in mocking Rahul Gandhi as a ‘Pappu’, a sustained, well-choreographed campaign designed to ridicule the Congress leader as unfit for politics. This ‘Pappufication’ of Rahul Gandhi has meant that the Congress’s preferred choice for leadership has never been able to strike a chord with any constituency outside the party’s echo chambers, his own style of episodic stop-start political interventions hardly helping matters. This credibility deficit has been perhaps most acute amongst the younger social media savvy demographic: the Lokniti post-poll survey in 2019 reveals that the gap in popularity between Mr Modi and Mr Gandhi was the highest in the 18 to 21 age group.
And finally, the Congress has been unable to reboot itself organizationally. As an ‘umbrella’ party of power for several decades, the Congress perhaps never felt the necessity to nurture a cadre even remotely equivalent to the saffron brotherhood. Grassroot frontal organisations like the Sewa Dal for example were marginalized right from the Indira Gandhi years to the point where membership began to rapidly shrink. Moreover, a centralized high command culture retarded the emergence of locally empowered state leaders. Just ahead of the 2019 elections, a senior Congress leader disclosed that more than 250 Congress district units were non-functional.
So what is the solution to the gravest existential crisis faced by the Congress in its history? Message clarity beyond anti-Modiism is the first step. If the Congress claims to stand for ‘Bharat Jodo’, then it must explain what specifically the slogan means in reality and not just as a catchword. Notions of economic equality and social harmony need to be fleshed out beyond just the familiar attacks on the Adani-Ambanis or indeed the RSS’s Hindutva politics. Either the Congress provides a clear vision of its alternate economic agenda else the attacks on big business can only prove counter-productive. If social harmony is a rallying cry, then it must be an article of faith and not convenience: short-term alliances with religious clerics like Furfura Sharif in Bengal must be abandoned.
Secondly, the Congress desperately needs an inspiring messenger. Rahul Gandhi appears a reluctant leader, if well-intentioned, his ‘power is poison’ messaging hardly likely to enthuse party workers who are feeling increasingly frustrated at the prospect of a shrinking footprint across the country. Leadership is about motivation and not entitlement, consistency and not ad-hocism. Either Rahul Gandhi leads from the front or makes way for someone who has the appetite for a fight.
Finally, there is no path to political rejuvenation other than a mass connect. This requires a massive organizational shake-up that must begin with booth level workers. One of the biggest reasons for the BJP’s success in recent years has been the efficacy of its booth-driven model: its booth committees and panna pramukh volunteers are at the heart of the formidable election machine. The Congress might justifiably argue that it doesn’t have the resources or institutional support to match the BJP’s efforts. But if the Aam Aadmi Party can run such an energetic campaign in Gujarat, where it was practically non-existent till a few years ago, what stops the Congress from getting its act together? Finding excuses for sheer lethargy is no longer an option.
Post-script: At the Congress’s recent ‘Mehngai pe Halla Bol’ rally, the focus was ostensibly on rising prices. But restive workers in the audience kept shouting for Rahul Gandhi to take over as party president. In the next few weeks the Congress must decide: is the Bharat Jodo yatra about re-defining the party’s message or re-launching the party’s star messenger?