A Congress-mukt Bharat (Congress-free India) is what Mahatma Gandhi wished for, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in the Lok Sabha on February 7, 2019, suggesting that Gandhi had called for disintegrating the organisation.
“Congress-mukt Bharat is not my slogan…I am fulfilling the wish of Mahatma Gandhi," Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has popularised the phrase during its election campaigns across the country, said.
Cut to September 2021.
The 136-year-old Congress organisation faces the same problems — maybe more — that were stalking it two years ago.
A series of election losses has shattered the morale of the party cadre. Confusion over leadership and the road ahead has choked decision-making. Infighting keeps rearing its ugly head from Rajasthan to Punjab. To make matters worse, 23 heavyweight leaders calling for reforms in the party have dissented in public.
A Congress-mukt Bharat does not look distant — at least on India’s electoral map — with the party’s political footprints diminishing gradually.
The Congress, on its own, is in power in three states — Punjab, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. In three more — Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand — it is the junior partner in the ruling alliance.
And it is not just the BJP that poses a challenge to the Congress’s relevance. The Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), two key players in the opposition bloc, are looking set to grow at the expense of what is known as the “grand old party".
What unfolds in Delhi before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and whether the opposition could stitch up a rainbow alliance to unitedly take on the BJP is a different story. But, for now, the truth is Mamata Banerjee’s TMC and Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP are hurting the Congress — at times badly — in their pockets of influence.
It is no secret that the TMC and the AAP — buoyed by their election successes against the BJP in West Bengal and Delhi — want to expand. Both parties know this would give them bargaining chips and help them flex muscles at the national level, especially in the event of the formation of a rainbow coalition. This expansion seems to be happening at the cost of the Congress.
Both the TMC and the AAP are wooing Congress leaders to switch sides, while trying to grab the opposition space ceded by Sonia Gandhi’s party due to the desertion of popular faces.
Apart from the three states where the Congress is in power on its own, there are a few more, including Uttarakhand and Goa, where the party is still in a direct contest with the BJP.
It would be interesting to see how the AAP and the TMC strategise and how hard they push to become a political alternative in such states. While they might not be immediately in a position to win power, or even become the second place holder, they will certainly eye a chunk of Congress votes in these states.
The TMC Story
Elections in Tripura are due in 2023, but the TMC has already hit the ground running in the northeastern state ruled by the BJP.
While the Congress looks to forge an alliance with the Left — which was ousted by the BJP in 2018 — the TMC has given all indications that it wants to become the main challenger in the upcoming assembly polls.
The TMC is sending its big guns frequently to Tripura. Abhishek Banerjee, a parliamentarian and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew, has been blaming the ruling party for alleged attacks on TMC workers — just like the BJP has been going after the TMC over allegations of post-poll violence in Bengal.
As the TMC raises its political pitch, former Congress leader Sushmita Dev’s high-profile defection to the party could help bolster its northeast prospects, according to analysts.
“I am not going to say anything against the Gandhis. I got a lot from them. But I felt I could do my work better here (in the TMC),” Dev had told News18.com after switching sides.
Once upon a time, she was an integral part of former Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s core team. But lack of career progression in the Mahila Congress meant that the TMC had a relatively easier job to convince her to change loyalties.
Before Dev, it was former President Pranab Mukherjee’s son Abhishek Mukherjee who quit the Congress for the TMC. Abhishek Mukherjee did not have the best of equations with Mamata Banerjee. Hence, his inclusion in the TMC shows the party might not nit-pick in inducting a prominent face.
The TMC, it appears, is working at two levels. First, it wants to ensure that a section of the large number of leaders who joined the BJP before this summer’s Bengal elections returned to the party. It says it is in touch with some BJP lawmakers; four BJP MLAs, including heavyweight Mukul Roy, have already returned.
Second, it is eyeing leaders of other parties beyond Bengal. The Congress appears a good option in view of perceived infighting within the organisation and frustration among a section of its leaders. Moreover, the Congress and the TMC — which was born in 1998 from a split in the Congress — are ideologically close. A transition from the Congress to the TMC would be easier to manage.
At the same time there are indications that identification and inclusion of faces key to the TMC’s expansion plans would be high priority. An example would be Sushmita Deb, who analysts say could help the party in Bengali-speaking Tripura as well as in Assam.
Some Congress leaders from Delhi, Rajasthan and Maharashtra too are believed to be on the TMC’s radar. But the party doesn’t consider this strategy to be at odds with the idea of so-called opposition unity. “We are not poaching…We are a political party after all, and not an NGO," TMC Rajya Sabha member Derek O’Brien said.
The AAP Playbook
The AAP seems to be adopting a different strategy. Some of the prominent faces it poached from the Congress, such as Ajoy Kumar and Alka Lamba, have returned to their old party. Meanwhile, the AAP, unlike the TMC, is looking at recruiting at lower levels.
With an eye on the 2022 elections to the powerful municipal corporations of Delhi (MCD) — which are in the BJP’s control — the AAP is wooing Congress leaders at the grassroots.
And now that the AAP has decided to contest Punjab and Uttarakhand, where elections are due next year, it needs foot soldiers and is believed to have been searching for options from the Congress camps in these states.
The AAP is also looking for a Sikh face as its chief ministerial pick in Punjab, where a power tussle in the Congress is out in the open. It is in talks with some disgruntled Congress leaders for this.
“In these states, Congress leaders have the experience that can be helpful for a new party like ours. We want to enter those states where the Congress is in a straight fight with the BJP. Given the state of the Congress, which doesn’t seem to be in a mood to fight back, entering an arena without multiple parties is more attractive to us,” an AAP leader said on condition of anonymity, suggesting that his party is looking to grab chunks of the Congress vote.
The Congress downplayed the AAP and the TMC’s overtures. “We wish those who leave all the best, but some of us stick around in bad times,” Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said.
A few days ago, while speaking to the party’s social media team, Rahul Gandhi had made a similar pitch: “Let those who want to go, go. We don’t need them. We will fight back with those who are with us.”
Nonetheless, the Congress appears on a shaky ground when it comes to defections. It lost the most number of election candidates among Indian political parties in polls between 2014 and 2021, according to an analysis of affidavits analysed by the National Election Watch and the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR).
While 222 election candidates left the Congress, 177 MPs and MLAs parted ways over the past seven years. In other words, a total of 399 lawmakers and election candidates deserted the party. During this period, 115 candidates and 61 MPs and MLAs joined the Congress from other parties.
In comparison, 111 election candidates and 33 MPs and MLAs left the BJP during polls since 2014. But, unlike the Congress, the BJP gained more than what it lost. A total of 253 candidates and 173 MPs and MLAs joined the BJP in this period.
With the TMC and the AAP taking an aggressive posture, these numbers could worsen for the Congress, whose firefighters will definitely have their task cut out. The biggest challenge for the Congress would be to keep its flock together in the buildup to the 2024 elections.