A message was doing the rounds on whatsapp, a day before the Delhi poll results—“Dilli maen sab se sukhi Congress party hai, naa jeet ki chinta, naa haar ka bhaiy”. It was circulated by Congressmen watching the drama unfold, with exit polls showing a victorious AAP and the BJP continued to maintain in a show of super confidence that they would bag 48 seats.
When the results came, giving 62 seats to AAP, and 8 to the BJP, Congressmen celebrated the defeat of the BJP, and some are known to have even distributed ladoos. The BJP’s rout offered comfort to many in the Congress. For the AAP had managed what the Congress used to do in the not too distant past.
The Congress’ devastating showing in Delhi—zero seats and 4.5% voteshare, half of what it had mopped up in 2015 assembly elections and one fifth of what it had got only 9 months ago in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections–—did not come as a surprise to many.
It is hardly a secret that the party organisation has been in shambles. Factionalism has afflicted the party in Delhi for many years, and it continues unabated even after the party’s unprecedented defeat (PC Chacko blaming Shiela Dixit for the decline on the party).
After the golden years of the Shiela Dixit rule between 1998-2013, the party was headed by several Congress chiefs, but none of them—Aravinder Singh Lovely, Shiela Dixit again though by that time she was ailing, Ajay Maken or Subhash Chopra—were allowed enough time or a freehand to turnaround the party. Though the party was defeated in 2013, mainly due to the scams which had hit UPA II, Shiela Dixit had enjoyed enormous goodwill of Delhiwallas. What makes Delhi a greater tragedy for the Congress is the strong organisational presence the party had here not so long ago.
It is possible that the Congress did not put its best foot forward deliberately in Delhi 2020—there are unconfirmed stories about AAP’s poll strategist Prashant Kishore persuading Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra to rein in their party—so as to prevent the BJP from winning seats because of a division in the anti-BJP votes. This time the Muslims themselves did not allow their vote to be split and opted lock stock and barrel for AAP which was best placed to defeat the BJP. In 2019, they had preferred the Congress—which led to its 22% voteshare—in the hope that it may emerge as the king pin of a national anti-BJP coalition.
The point is not what the Congress could not do in February 2020, for, by then, the battlelines had been drawn between the BJP and the AAP. The point is what the Congress failed to do during the last 5 years, when it had the chance to strike, and there were many opportunities to do so—when the AAP split right down the middle three weeks after its runaway “67 member” success in Feb 2015, or when the centre put impediments in the AAP’s way, leading to ugly spats, or when Kejriwal himself made so many mistakes.
But for the Congress, it remained “business as usual”. On the other hand, by his sheer grit, Kejriwal literally rose from the ashes once again, to claim a landslide victory for a second time. He had badly lost the municipal elections in 2017 and was relegated to number three position in 2019.
What is true of Delhi today was also true of other states, and large ones at that, like UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu which the Congress had lost. The point, again, is not that the party lost these states, but that India’s Grand Old Party could never regain them over the decades. The party went on to lose Orissa, once its stronghold, and Assam and the entire northeast to the BJP, and more recently, it even became the number four party in financially important Maharashtra it once dominated. And it has shown no signs of moving towards a plan to turnaround the situation in Bihar, West Bengal or in UP, where elections are due over the next two years.
Anger is simmering in the Congress, understandably among the younger leaders, who have 20-30 years of public life ahead of them, and who see the shutters coming down. The older Congress leaders may not want to take risks,and hope that one day the [party will win by default if Narendra Modi starts to lose ground.
It is not surprising that Sharmishtha Mukherji, spokesperson of the Congress (and daughter of former President and veteran Congress leader Pranab Mukherji) should erupt after the Delhi results. She took umbrage at P Chidambaram’s tweet “saluting “ the people of Delhi for defeating BJP, and asked if the Congress had “outsourced the task of defeating BJP to state parties?”
If the reasons for the Congress’ woes were to be summed up, they are essentially two fold. One, and this is hardly a secret, the Congress has becoming a flabby, drawing room party and Congressmen and women have forgotton to work hard and work amongst people. This writer remembers one of the first rallies addressed by Rahul Gandhi in UP, in Phulpur. Soon after the meeting ended, the Circuit House where the entire brass of the Congress had camped, was empty within an hour of Rahul leaving, there was no one to take stock of how the meeting had gone, no one to put a followup plan in place.
Two, while the Gandhis have played a stellar role in the Congress’ growth, today they are neither able to connect at the popular level, nor strategise and steer the Congress effectively. Has the time now come for the Gandhi family to take a backseat and allow others to take charge and lead from the front?
One is beginning to hear voices now,and this should worry the Congress brass, that the Congress is “becoming a party of the past”.
Politics brooks no vacuum. Others will slowly or not so slowly fill the space once occupied by the Congress, and many Congressmen and women may well seek greener pastures, if given half a chance. AAP will want to spread its wings in other states, and the party may welcome established leaders from other groups in its fold in different states.
India is witnessing the rise of a new leadership at various levels, and its early days to predict how it is going to pan out politically. The difference Kejriwal and his team, Manish Sisodia, Gopal Rai, Sanjay Singh, Atishi Marlena or Raghav Chaddha will be able to make to Delhi but also the role they ultimately play on the national stage. Or how Chandrashekhar Azad will galvanize the Dalit community. Or the impact young India, exercised about the principle of equality in the context of the amendment to the citizenship law, will come to have. Or the leadership that is being thrown up from amongst the Muslim women who have never come out on the streets but who now are in the vanguard of the anti-CAA/NRC protests.
The inescapable question however is this and it remains unanswered: How will Congressmen and women themselves reclaim the Congress Party and impart it vigour and health again?
The author is a senior journalist and political commentator.