The party with a 137-year-long history is again on the road to regain its past glory. The Bharat Jodo Yatra led by Rahul Gandhi is perhaps the most ambitious political project launched by any political party in independent India. This Yatra on the one hand indicates that the Congress is going though a deep internal crisis and on the other hand it also symbolises the turmoil which the country is going through.
There was a time when the Congress was the dominant party, and not only reflected the diversity of the country but also was instrumental in reshaping an ancient civilisation into a democratic political system. The Congress in the 20th century was the name of the national consensus. It was the engine which not only successfully led the emerging nation towards Independence, but also transformed a feudal society into a modern existence. The construction of an ultra-modern Constitution and its successful implantation in a backward country was a humongous task but it was done with great finesse and an iron will against the might of the backward-looking conservative forces. India was too layered a society; it had too many cleavages with very obvious social fault lines, and the country going into chaos and ending up as a failed nation was a real possibility. But the collective wisdom and the inner resilience of the Congress belied the anxieties of the not-so-hopefuls and today India is looked at with respect in the comity of nations. But as is said, every success has a self-destructive logic; the Congress was no exception. Today it is on the ventilator, in need of fresh oxygen and a new “dream” to rejuvenate itself. The question is whether the Bharat Jodo Yatra will prove to be the Sanjeevani that the Congress seeks. What is sure, however, is that the Bharatiya Janata Party is definitely worried.
The Congress was formed in 1885. Till Gandhi took over the command of the party it acted as a pressure group within the British system, which used to accrue benefits for fellow countrymen through legislative means and the petition system. Though leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak tried to provide a mass base for the Congress, it was Gandhi who ignited the imagination of the common man and connected the party with the national cause. Gandhi was no ordinary leader. His experiments with non-violence and truth created ethical men and women who were ready to sacrifice anything for the country. Idealism was the staple diet for such people, and India got Independence thanks to them.
But it is true that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And the Congress became a victim of its own politics. The lack of a formidable Opposition in the first two decades after Independence afflicted it with many diseases which, over a period of time, resulted in the death of inner-party-democracy, exodus of strong mass-based leaders, erosion of its ideological moorings and dearth of any future plan. The leadership surrounded itself with sycophants and rootless wonders. On the other hand the BJP, inspired by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, very patiently built its castle brick by brick and ultimately succeeded in replacing the Congress system with its own. Today the BJP has a strong leader in Narendra Modi, a robust party structure, and is propelled by Hindutva and a vision for the future. One might disagree with its political narrative but it can’t be blamed for the lack of political will to transform the country which inspires a large section of society.
On the other hand the Congress for the last eight years has had no plan, shown no vision and seem to have lacked the killer instinct. Despite the presence of the Nehru-Gandhi family, the party was suffering from a leadership paralysis. There is a general consensus that Rahul Gandhi cannot lead the party. Opposition leaders have no faith in him, and out of desperation many top leaders have left the Congress for greener pastures. Today there are serious question marks over the very survival of the Congress. It is in this context that the Bharat Jodo Yatra is particularly important, as it is a make-or-break moment for the Congress. If it succeeds then it has a future but if it fails then only god can save the party. The party at the centre, that is the BJP, knows this; hence little wonder that it is leaving no stone unturned to discredit the Yatra. A virulent attack has been unleashed with even senior leaders like Amit Shah leading the pack. It is in this regard that the Congress has to be careful.
The BJP is aware of its weakness. It knows that the Congress has an all-India footprint and is the only party which can replace the BJP at the centre. Since 1984, it is only the BJP which crossed majority numbers in 2014 and 2019 but its vote base is vulnerable. In 2014 it had only 31% vote share which increased to 37% in 2019. On the contrary whenever Congress had a majority in Parliament it invariably had more than 42% votes. In 1952 Congress got 45% votes with 364 seats, in 1957 it had 48% votes and 371 seats, in 1962 it again had 45% and 361 seats. In 1971 it garnered 44% votes with 352 seats, in 1980 43% votes and 353 seats and finally in 1984 47% votes and 414 seats. The Congress vote share dipped below 40% only when the Opposition was united. In 1967 the Congress vote share and seats both dipped. Though it had 41% votes, seats came down drastically to 283. In 1977 when the Opposition formed the Janata Party it could win only 154 seats and vote share was reduced to 35%. In 1989 the united Opposition again unseated the Congress and since then it never touched the magic figure of 272.
I know politics is not only a game of arithmetic. Mr Modi has a different chemistry with voters — but as data shows, his chemistry has its limitation. In terms of popularity he is unparalleled in the North Indian Hindi-speaking states, including his home state of Gujarat, but beyond the Hindi belt, he has failed to enthrall the public. Even in the Hindi belt, Bihar is an exception. Mr Modi knows this and that is why the BJP desperately wanted Nitish Kumar in its fold. Now with Mr Kumar aligning with the Opposition, the BJP seems a bit jittery. And in Gujarat and most of the North Indian states like Rajasthan, MP, Chhattisgarh, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, BJP is entangled with the Congress in a one-to-one fight. Even in Karnataka, the BJP has a direct fight with the Congress. If the Bharat Jodo Yatra resurrects the Congress then the BJP will find it very difficult to retain the same number of seats in in these states in the 2024 parliamentary elections as it won in 2019.
As data shows, with the increased opposition unity index in 1967, 1977 and 1989, there is a definite decline in the vote share of the ruling party — which twice resulted in opposition replacing the Congress from the seat of power. In 2014 and 2019, the Opposition was fractured and the Congress was in disarray. If in 2014 people were angry with the Manmohan Singh government, then in 2019 people wanted to give Mr Modi another chance. But after 10 years of rule, Mr Modi will have to give account of his government. He has to report on the promises he made. Till now his government has failed to control rising prices and unemployment. The country is deeply divided on communal lines and India is consistently slipping on the democracy index. In this scenario, if the Opposition is united it spells trouble for the BJP. And if the Bharat Jodo Yatra is even partly successful, then the BJP’s trouble could be compounded manifold.
The writer is Editor, SatyaHindi.com, and author of Hindu Rashtra. He tweets at @ashutosh83B