All of us have heard that story of a young man who lost his way on a back road in Maine. He pulls up his shiny car beside an old farmer sitting on the side of the road on his beat up tractor. The traveller in a cheery voice asks “Which way to East Vassalboro?” The farmer, looking out from under his weather-beaten hat, thinks for a long moment and replies “well son, you can’t get there from here”
When it comes to electoral power in India, Indian National Congress, the GOP of India, is that traveller asking the way to East Vassalboro from his shiny new car. It’s time some of us play the weary farmer and tell them they can’t get there from here.
I am already tired of saying this but INC is not surging, a few good Twitter swallows do not make a summer and with the economy showing early stages of recovery after the dual challenges posted by demonetization and GST implementation, electorally at least, INC is possibly at its weakest since independence. If the exit polls prove right and INC loses Himachal Pradesh in the elections this month, it will be essentially left with Punjab in North and Karnataka in South, its weakest national footprint ever. RW doomsayers can say what they wish, and if their saying keeps the BJP machine in the on mode, then more power to them, but the repeat of 2004 had never looked less likely than it does now. To get out of this rut, the GOP of India needs to resolve certain ideological dilemmas, address some long-festering issues and show willingness to take steps that would address the future. A short list is presented here.
Before the discussion about rebuilding the party can start in earnest, the party has two key decisions to make. One involves the Gandhi dynasty and how Congress wishes to carry on especially with the current dynast- Rahul Gandhi. Electorally the Gandhi scion has proved to be an ineffective campaigner. He has been given sufficient opportunities and the much talked about Rahul 2.0 version has failed to fire so far. Even worse, to continue reviving his image and to keep the impressions good, Congress is fast burning the credibility of many of its mainstream media supporters. The fact of the matter is, today any journalist writing how Rahul Gandhi is finally coming into his own, is viewed, if not with downright suspicion then with thinly veiled mockery. Even with some great foresight showed by late Mrs. Indira Gandhi in cultivating the ecosystem since late 1960s, the pool of journalists/ academicians/writers sympathetic to the Congress cause is not bottomless and the fact that the party is letting credibility of so many people burn is going to come back to haunt the party at some future date.
Second key decision involves the party’s ideological positioning with respect to culture, economics and nationalism. Over the last few decades the party, influenced by its own ecosystem, has drifted towards left to reach a point where since 2014, it has effectively ceded the nationalism and right wing ground to BJP pretty much without a fight. On economics, on the other hand, BJP has deftly occupied the pro poor space previously occupied by Congress. If Congress is convinced about its ideological leaning to the left, then it needs to change its default setting to opposition from wannabe rulers.
Congress also needs to understand the supporter demographic for themselves and for BJP to get their social media game right. For the last few months Congress seems convinced that once they catch up BJP on social media, catching up with them electorally would automatically follow. Nothing could be further from the truth. Moreover, the party’s new found obsession over social media overlooks one important difference in the construct of its own follower base. Unlike BJP, Congress doesn’t have many so called social media celebrities that don’t hold an official position within the party or with a publication sympathetic to Congress cause. The most common engagements between the two parties lately seems to happen between a RW social media celebrity (without any official standing )and a full time Congress functionary or a journalist in their own ranks. This is a big drain on the already beleaguered party’s resources that it can ill afford. With BJP office bearers often getting spared such confrontations, it is not difficult to see why BJP can open more fronts of offensive on social media. Till such a time that Congress does not have people like the RW social media celebrities in its ranks, it must continue to show strategic restraint in ignoring most of the offensive directed at it on social media.
The party also needs to ask itself if it would not be better off focusing on a few key assembly polls next year (retaining Karnataka and trying to flip either MP or Rajasthan) than addressing the Mission Impossible that 2019 looks right now. The beachhead won by BJP is so strong that any resources allocated towards 2019 General Election is likely to be a non-productive expenditure. Strategically, it would be far better for Congress to keep their 2019 campaign low-key and focused on local level, while nationally they build the organization that has steadily eroded since 2012 or so. It is a decision that would require great foresight and the political will-power and I genuinely wonder if Congress leadership, weaned on the nectar of appeasement politics, can see the immense gains from sitting this out.
The last two issues that the party needs to resolve deal with the message and currently they are doing a mess of it.
I have written elsewhere that the opposition at large needs to engage BJP on economy rather than culture and in the last few months at least the Congress has shown some willingness to engage BJP on the economic fallout of demonetization and GST and any gains the party makes in elections must be chalked down to this willingness. However, an important difference in cultural politics and economic issues is that in the latter merely stating that your opposition has bungled is not enough. You have to build a convincing case that given a chance you can do a better job than them. When Modi made this case in 2014, he had 13 years of track record as the Chief Minister of Gujarat on his resume. With Rahul lacking similar credentials, and with UPA-2’s legacy of many scandals like 2G, Congress needs to identify at least one state where their economic policies are showing results. Unfortunately, Karnataka, the easiest place to show such win, is involved in identity politics over non-issues like Hindi Signboard in Metro stations and Tipu Jayanti celebrations. Currently, Congress does not have a single role model of economic prosperity and good governance to build their case around. Each uptick in the economy and every good news from hereon will only compound these woes for Congress. Their leader’s immature attack on India’s quantum jump in the ‘ease of doing business’ rankings by world bank is not helping their case either.
Culturally, Congress’s broad anti-Hindutva rhetoric is hurting them from two sides. Firstly, with Narendra Modi’s focus increasingly shifting to economic and development issues, the far cultural right, if left alone, could become disgruntled enough with BJP to stay home on polling day. But Congress warriors slaughtering calf in Kerala and its spokespersons posting wife’s eating and drinking photos on Karva Chauth, is ensuring these people continue to support BJP.
Secondly, there is an even larger group of people (this writer included) who doesn’t identify with the cultural war rhetoric coming from both sides. If Modi government falters on development, some of these people can be ripe for a switch, but then again many of these people are Hindus and the constant anti Hindu rhetoric coming from Congress leadership as well as journalists leaning towards them, makes any discussion of switching allegiances nearly impossible.
Here is where the ecosystem of academicians and journalists and writers is coming back to haunt Congress. Reading the discourse in mainstream as well as social media one gets the feeling that this ecosystem has become the tail that is wagging this dog for now. Most of these people enjoy tenured positions that don’t require them seeking validation from general public. Their sense of entitlement means the 2014 verdict, in their view, remains a mistake committed by the public at large and they have not spared any opportunity since then to express their contempt/hate towards the common people for this verdict. If there is one thing electorate hates, it is being insulted for expressing their opinion through ballot box. At this point in time, Congress would do well to ask itself if the so called Lutyens’ are not past their sell by date. Many issues taken up passionately by this group do not have mass appeal and by letting them appropriate the party messaging, Congress is increasingly appearing as a boutique party catering to some exclusive crowd of fief intellectuals. By distancing itself from these hard left leaners, the party can allow itself to drift towards the centre/right position from where it can mount an offensive against BJP.
Lastly, Congress needs to seriously reconsider their thoughts about the Gandhi dynasty from past and ask itself if it would not be better off ridding itself of some of the past baggage. When it comes to nationalism, Congress finds itself in a ludicrous position where it reminds every one of its leaders who fought for independence in the past but mock the ordinary people with nationalist sentiment in the present discourse. For any party to have national appeal, nationalism is a default setting in the discourse and it is shocking how easily Congress has ceded this ground to BJP.
Equally problematic is the party’s love for former Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi, the only PM of independent India to impose emergency on one hand, and its constant fear mongering of Modi ushering in the emergency days on the other. For this rhetoric to find traction, the party needs to distance itself vocally from the emergency era government and that means an unconditional acknowledgement of the greatest infringement on democracy committed by one of its most iconic figures from past.
If you thought taking a ‘put up or shut up’ kind of decision for Rahul Gandhi is going to be a hard pill for the party to swallow, then abandoning one of their most beloved icon from past is akin to performing amputation of a limb. But soon the party may realize it has no other option.
The gangrene is spreading fast.