In the immediate aftermath of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s macabre assassination on May 21, 1991, as his Indian National Congress Party scrambled to anoint a new leader, I had asked a top party leader why he would not stake a claim. His response was both candid and instructive. He tapped on his stomach and said, “No fire in my belly for that.”
Thirty-one years later the same can be said of the entire Congress Party when it comes to making electoral reclamations and shaking up the way it maintains a status quo about which one of the Gandhis should helm it. The overwhelming sense one gets from the party, even sitting 10,000 miles away from the action, is that it expects the Indian electorate to come around of its own volition to its worldview without the Congress leadership, particularly Rahul Gandhi, doing much to make that happen.
It would have been easier to explain its political sloth as flowing from its leadership’s sense of entitlement; the idea that the party is a natural ruler of a country that is so layered in its plurality and therefore sooner or later the voters would return to it. Unfortunately, the malaise appears much deeper than that. It seems to have lost fire at its core.
A few days before his assassination I had asked Rajiv Gandhi if he feared his party ever losing its relevance or pan-India standing. He was a bit surprised by the question coming as it did in the midst of intense electioneering. He smiled as if the prospect was improbable but answered it anyway. “Not if we stay faithful to the party’s core philosophy of pluralism, social welfare and keep it as a mass movement,” he said. It was a thoughtful response but not the kind that would make its way into a news story. Some three decades hence that improbability is staring the Congress in its eyes and part of the reason is that it has lost its competency as a mass movement as pointed out by Rajiv Gandhi.
Purely to provide the backdrop to that comment, Rajiv Gandhi soon set out for election campaigning whose first phase was on May 20, 1991, for 211 parliamentary seats. The day after the first polling day, that is on May 21, Gandhi was assassinated, throwing the election into chaos.
The rest of the polling was postponed until June of that year. By the time the election was completed, of the 521 million eligible voters, some 276 million, or 53 percent, cast their vote. Contrary to the expectations of the Congress sweeping the election on a sympathy wave created by Gandhi’s assassination, the party won 232 seats out of the 487 seats it contested. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) managed to win 120 seats out of 468 seats it contested.
It was analyzed then that in the 211 constituencies that went up for voting before Gandhi’s assassination his party did not perform particularly well. It was at best average performance. But post-assassination it managed to leverage much of the national sympathy and win a decent number of 232 which was not remarkable. One has to bear in mind that barely seven years prior the Congress had won a monstrous parliamentary majority notching up 404 seats out of a total of 514 in 1984. That was attributed the massive sympathy wave in the aftermath of the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
In 2022, barely two years before the next parliamentary elections, the Congress Party under the diffused and often conflicting leadership of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra adding a third dimension to it, is down to just 53 seats in the current Lok Sabha or the lower chamber of parliament. Whether it can at least double that number to about 120 or so and possibly deny the BJP an overall majority remains a big question mark. The party’s current attitude of “If you build, he (they) will come” is unlikely to work in the face of an unvarnished and unabashedly aggressive attack on it by the BJP generally and Prime Minister Narendra Modi particularly.
It takes no great political intelligence to point out that a tumultuous democracy like India desperately needs a credible national counter to Modi’s BJP. The Congress still has the ability to reinvent and reemerge as that national counter. Perhaps part of the solution is to yet again build up a mass movement around its ideological convictions. The country needs a centrist national alternative to the avowedly right of center and nationalistic BJP. It is possible that Modi knows that despite his and his party’s assertion that India must be “liberated” from the Congress.
However, as of now it does not appear as if Rahul Gandhi or his sibling Priyanka could achieve any significant reinvention in time for 2024.
The impression one gets from afar is that the Congress Party would have no problem truckling under the BJP juggernaut. One important indicator would be the results of the state assembly elections in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Manipur, and Uttarakhand expected sometime in early March. In particular, the outcome in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP continues its sway under an often-cavalier Chief Minister Adityanath, would be crucial since Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has staked her prestige on it.
Any major upset in Uttar Pradesh that props up the Congress Party with an impressive number of victories could push the BJP on the defensive. However, that is a big mountain for the Congress Party to climb considering it is seemingly adrift right now.
On the BJP side, there are clear signs of hubris having built up, especially as manifest in many smug proclamations of its dubious success in governance, by Prime Minister Modi and his proxies. It is nobody’s case so far that the BJP is headed for any serious existential challenge in 2024. However, if the Congress manages to shake up the BJP’s overall majority in that parliamentary election, a great deal of the aura of invincibility hovering above Prime Minister Modi might slip or fade.