Is it all lost for India’s Congress party?

There is little doubt that the Congress will have to pay a heavy price for its blunder in Bihar, writes Amulya Ganguli for South Asia Monitor

Amulya Ganguli Nov 18, 2020

It’s a mystery why the Congress took the Bihar state elections so casually. Was it because it subscribed to the widely prevalent view a few weeks before the polls that the contest would be a cakewalk for India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and, therefore, there was no point in wasting time and energy on a campaign?

Or, when emerging young leader Tejashwi Yadav’s rallies began to draw large crowds, the Congress either felt that there was no need for it, too, to chip in, or that as the No 2 in the mahagathbandhan (grand alliance), it did not have as much of a stake in the contest as the No 1, which, unquestionably, was the Bihar-centric Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)?

Was there also a clash of egos between the first two parties in the alliance with the Congress being disheartened by the smaller crowds at their principal leader, Rahul Gandhi’s meetings compared to those at Tejashwi’s.

Otherwise, there is no explanation as to why Rahul should have addressed only three rallies while Priyanka Gandhi none at all when Tejashwi addressed more than 10 rallies every day on an average with as many as 19 on one day.

Congress disinterested as Rahul holidays

As if the Congress lack of interest was not enough, Rahul appeared to drive home this palpable indifference by holidaying in Shimla as the RJD has subsequently ruefully pointed out.

If anything, the photo-op of Rahul relaxing on the balcony of his sister’s house in the hill station has confirmed former US president Barack Obama’s reading of the Congress princeling’s persona as someone who lacks “passion” along with “aptitude”.

Instead of chilling out in salubrious surroundings,  Gandhi should have participated energetically in the Bihar campaign, especially when it became clear that the mood was not all in the BJP’s favour as was earlier presumed and that the mahagathbandhan had a fair chance of coming out on top.

Priyanka, too, should have joined the campaign if only to underline the possibility of taking on Yogi Adityanath in next door Uttar Pradesh as a chief ministerial aspirant in 2022. In any event, unless the Congress learns from the BJP’s habit of treating every election as if the party’s life depended on it, the 135-year-old “ancien regime,” as historian Alexis de Tocqueville described pre-1789 France, will display its signs of age even more prominently.

Curiously, the Congress’s insouciance vis-à-vis the campaign contrasted with the number of seats (70) it decided to contest for which, as the results showed with the party winning only 19, it was not prepared. Yet, if the party did entertain such an inflated notion of its presence on the ground, it should have canvassed in favour of the opposition alliance with greater gusto.

Tejashwi’s charisma

For the mahagathbandhan, Congress’s disinterest did not matter all that much because Tejashwi unexpectedly succeeded as a crowd puller. Besides, the Left fired on all cylinders, again unexpectedly. It is these surprises that the silent masses occasionally produce which make elections such exciting business.

Even as politicians tot up their caste- and community-based estimates and try to figure out how much their ‘welfare’ measures will benefit the ruling dispensation, the people quietly make up their minds about what they want.

From the 110 seats secured by the previously unfancied mahagathbandhan under an inexperience leader, it is obvious that the people wanted to change with hope rather than certainty in mind.

But the Congress’s vaunted ambition which had no basis in reality came in the way. Since the party’s local leaders must have had a fair idea of the ground situation, it should have listened to them and contested fewer seats, say, 40. But this was not possible in an organization that runs its affairs from a cloistered environment in the national capital and still deludes itself into thinking it is India's principal opposition party.

Blunder in Bihar will cost Congress

There is little doubt that the Congress will have to pay a heavy price for its blunder in Bihar. For a start, the Left will think again about aligning with it in West Bengal next year when they face the BJP. It is unlikely that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) will fare as well in West Bengal as the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) did in Bihar, but the Marxists may well believe that it will be better for them to fight on their own rather with a Congress which has exposed its weakness not only in Bihar but also in Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat by-elections that happened simulataneously.

In Tamil Nadu, too, the DMK will be warier than before to align with its former ally, the Congress, after the latter has shown that it can be a liability rather than an asset. After former chief minister Jayalalitha’s demise and the doubts about an AIADMK-BJP tie-up, the DMK can expect to return to power in next year’s assembly elections.

By the time these are held in summer, the West Bengal results will be out with the possibility that the BJP, though it may perform well, will not be able to unseat Trinamool Congress. Giving Congress a piggy-back ride, therefore, will not be the DMK’s first priority.

Can Congress recover lost ground?

The Congress’s best chance to recover lost ground will be the Assam elections which will follow those in West Bengal. Although the BJP’s pointsman for the Northeast, Himanta Biswa Sarma, believes that his party’s successes in Bihar and in the by-elections will have a “positive psychological” effect on its prospects in Assam, there are stirrings among the regional parties with the Assam Jatiya Parishad, which is backed by the powerful All Assam Students Union (AASU), and the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti taking an anti-BJP stand.

The Congress has welcomed this attitude while concentrating on teaming up with Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front to confront the BJP. But, to succeed, it has to play the game with passion, which it has failed to do till now. 

(The writer is a current affairs analyst. The views expressed are personal)

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