Can Indian National Congress Bounce Back? – OpEd

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Despite a modest gain of 99 MPs in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the Indian National Congress (INC) is struggling with a profound crisis of relevance and identity. This analysis explores the intricate reasons behind the Congress’s diminishing stature, the erosion of its ideological foundations, and the potential pathways for resurgence under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi.

Historical Context and Erosion of Ideological Foundations

The Congress party, once the vanguard of Indian nationalism under the aegis of leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, is today a shadow of its former self. The Nehruvian era was characterized by an inclusive, secular nationalism that sought to harmonize diverse ideological strands within a broad, centrist framework. This capacious vision allowed the Congress to dominate Indian politics for decades, effectively sidelining both left and right-wing challengers.

However, this ideological inclusivity began to fray during Indira Gandhi’s tenure, evolving into a more centralized, personality-driven model of governance. The subsequent era under Sonia Gandhi saw the Congress transitioning into a dynastic entity, further alienating grassroots leaders and regional satraps. The party’s inability to rejuvenate its leadership cadre and reconnect with the masses has left it vulnerable to the relentless rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The Rise of BJP and Modi’s Populism

The 2014 general elections marked a watershed moment in Indian politics, with the BJP, under Narendra Modi, harnessing a wave of anti-incumbency sentiment and a robust nationalist narrative to secure an overwhelming mandate. Modi’s ascendancy was fuelled by a promise of economic rejuvenation, decisive leadership, and a return to India’s cultural roots—a potent mix that resonated with a broad spectrum of voters disillusioned by the perceived inefficacy and corruption of the UPA-II government.

The BJP’s electoral strategy has adeptly co-opted welfarist policies traditionally associated with the Congress, thus blurring ideological lines and consolidating its position as the preeminent political force. By championing initiatives such as the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (housing for all) and the Ayushman Bharat scheme (healthcare for the poor), Modi has successfully appropriated the Congress’s populist agenda while infusing it with a majoritarian ethos.

The Crisis of Leadership in Congress

One of the most glaring weaknesses of the Congress has been its leadership vacuum. Rahul Gandhi, despite his earnest attempts at reinvigoration through initiatives like the Bharat Jodo Yatra, has struggled to shed his image as a reluctant and inconsistent leader. The party’s persistent reliance on the Gandhi family, to the exclusion of other potential leaders, has exacerbated internal dissent and stymied the emergence of a dynamic, broad-based leadership.

The departure of key allies from the INDIA bloc, such as Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, underscores the fragility of the Congress’s current political alliances. Kumar’s exit is symptomatic of a broader disillusionment among regional partners, who perceive the Congress as increasingly insular and ideologically rigid. This alienation is further compounded by the Congress’s perceived shift towards leftist ideologies, which clash with the more centrist or right-leaning inclinations of many regional parties and voters.

The Path to Relevance: Ideological Recalibration and Strategic Alliances

For the Congress to regain its political footing, a profound ideological recalibration is imperative. The party must transcend its entrenched leftist moorings and adopt a more inclusive, centrist approach that can accommodate a spectrum of ideological perspectives. This entails a nuanced articulation of secularism that resonates with contemporary Indian sensibilities, which are increasingly shaped by a resurgent cultural nationalism.

Moreover, the Congress needs to forge strategic alliances with regional powerhouses by demonstrating greater flexibility and a willingness to cede space in the interest of a broader anti-BJP coalition. The success of the UPA-I and UPA-II governments was predicated on such pragmatic alliances, which now need to be revived and strengthened.

Rahul Gandhi’s Leadership: Opportunities and Challenges

Rahul Gandhi’s leadership is at a critical juncture. His recent efforts to mobilize grassroots support through extensive yatras and direct engagement with the electorate are steps in the right direction. However, these initiatives must be backed by a coherent vision and a compelling narrative that can galvanize public support. Gandhi’s ability to articulate a clear, forward-looking agenda that addresses pressing issues like unemployment, economic inequality, and social cohesion will be pivotal.

In addition to policy articulation, Rahul Gandhi must also address the organizational malaise within the Congress. Revamping the party’s internal structures to promote meritocracy, enhance transparency, and empower regional leaders is essential. This organizational overhaul should be complemented by a concerted effort to attract and nurture young talent, thus bridging the generational divide that currently plagues the party.

The BJP’s Dominance: A Daunting Challenge

Countering the BJP’s dominance presents a formidable challenge. The BJP, under Modi, has not only consolidated its political base but has also entrenched itself deeply within the socio-cultural fabric of India. The construction of the Ayodhya Ram Mandir and the implementation of a caste census are strategic moves that further reinforce its appeal among key voter demographics.

To effectively counter this, the Congress must present a robust alternative that transcends mere opposition. This involves articulating a vision of inclusive development that addresses the aspirations of both rural and urban India. Policies that foster economic growth while ensuring social justice, coupled with a strong stance on safeguarding democratic institutions and civil liberties, can offer a compelling contrast to the BJP’s governance model.

The Road Ahead

The Indian National Congress is at a crossroads. The party’s historical legacy and its foundational principles of secularism, social justice, and inclusive development remain potent, but they require reinvention to resonate with contemporary India. Rahul Gandhi’s leadership, while fraught with challenges, also presents opportunities for renewal and resurgence.

To reclaim its relevance, the Congress must undertake a comprehensive ideological and organizational transformation. By embracing a centrist, inclusive vision, forging strategic alliances, and reinvigorating its leadership cadre, the party can hope to mount a credible challenge to the BJP’s hegemony. The journey ahead is arduous, but with strategic foresight and resolute action, the Congress can aspire to once again shape the political destiny of India, preserving its democratic ethos and cultural diversity. 

Debashis Chakrabarti

Debashis Chakrabarti is an international media scholar and social scientist, currently serving as the Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Politics and Media. With extensive experience spanning 35 years, he has held key academic positions, including Professor and Dean at Assam University, Silchar. Prior to academia, Chakrabarti excelled as a journalist with The Indian Express. He has conducted impactful research and teaching in renowned universities across the UK, Middle East, and Africa, demonstrating a commitment to advancing media scholarship and fostering global dialogue.

One thought on “Can Indian National Congress Bounce Back? – OpEd

  • July 2, 2024 at 12:25 pm
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    The Indian National Congress (INC) is a dead horse, and no amount of flogging it would restore its life. It should be consigned to history.
    During much of the time INC was in power since independence, it ruled but did not govern India. Practicing appeasement politics, both at home and abroad, INC harmed national interests e.g. by dividing the population on religious and sectoral basis, pursuing inept economic policies, implementing cowardly responses to encroachments on Indian territory by foreign powers, a timid behavior in the conduct of international relations and many more. In short, India was not taken seriously THEN in global politics.
    However, during the relatively short period that the BJP has been in power, India has achieved impressive economic growth, implemented a stout- hearted national defense and security policy, developed indigenous resources to become a global leader in science and technology, institute a proactive foreign policy to safeguard India’s national interests and able to punch at its weight internationally, and more. Unlike before, the rest of the world is taking India very seriously now.

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