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OPINION | Congress Needs a Vote-Catcher to Plug Erosion in the Ranks, Nehru Throwback Won’t Work Anymore

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The first priority for the Congress should be to resolve the current leadership cirisis and to reinvent its identity as a credible alternative to the BJP.

Why is the grand old Congress party facing mass erosion of its legislators and workers?

The events in Karnataka, where 16 Congress legislators resigned and plunged the government into crisis, and in Goa, where 10 of its 15 legislators switch over to the ruling BJP, show the mistrust in the party, which is almost imploding. The erosion seems to be unabated.

It all began soon after the party suffered humiliating defeat in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections; the Congress got just 52 seats, barely improving its worst-ever tally of 44 in 2014 polls. Following that, 12 of 18 Congress lawmakers decided to shift to the ruling TRS in Telangana.

All these developments show that Congressmen have lost faith in the party, which is facing an unprecedented leadership crisis after Rahul Gandhi resigned as party chief, owning responsibility for the Lok Sabha defeat. Several office-bearers, including some general secretaries and national secretaries besides PCC presidents owning allegiance to Rahul Gandhi, have resigned. More resignations are likely to follow. Such levels of erosion was not seen even after the 2014 polls. But with such a vacuum at the top, it is only to be expected.

One is reminded of the 1997–98 situation when Sitaram Kesari was the party president. There was unprecedented erosion in the party, which was checked only after the entry of Sonia Gandhi. She took over the reins of the party in March 1998. Though the Congress did not improve much in 1998 and 1999 elections, Sonia at least became the first woman Leader of Opposition. She became the glue not only for the party but also for the allies. She was able to mobilise the opposition to take on the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP government, resulting in a victory in 2004 elections, and surprisingly held onto it in 2009. Declining to become the prime minister, Sonia ruled through her nominee Dr Manmohan Singh for 10 years.

Ironically, Sonia, who checked the erosion in 1998 and revived the party, is currently helplessly watching the existential crisis. The Gandhi magic is not working anymore though all the three Gandhis — Sonia and her children Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi — are prominent functionaries of the party. Sonia is the Congress Parliamentary Party leader, while Priyanka is the general secretary.

It is not surprising that the Congress party is facing erosion in its ranks given that it isn’t able to lure voters. Its dream of improving its tally in the 2019 polls after winning Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in 2018 came to naught.

To the dismay of party managers, the BJP did extremely well in all the three states in the Hindi heartland, staging a revival within six months of humiliating defeats in Assembly elections. This was because the Congress was complacent in the newly conquered states, while the BJP went all out with the help of the parent organisation, the RSS, in improving its tally. Of the 65 parliamentary seats in these three states, the Congress managed to retain just three, virtually giving a walkover to the BJP. The Congress party’s bright spot came from the south and Punjab.

Secondly, with such existential crisis, Congressmen, who could smell defeat, realised that it was time to look for better prospects elsewhere. They looked around and found the BJP was marching forward, while the Congress was almost becoming a regional party. Not surprisingly, the BJP was willing to receive the deserters with open arms.

Thirdly, the party is collapsing like a pack of cards because it has lost its strong base. What happened in Telangana, followed by Karnataka and Goa, might encourage more defections and soon spread to Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and other states where the Congress governments are fragile. Congress leaders are making a beeline for the BJP in Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand, which will vote in the next few months.

Fourthly, the Congress has lost a majority of the social groups to regional parties and the BJP, which has also grabbed the middle class. The party now depends on the shrunken vote bank of minorities and a section of SC/STs.

The challenge for the leadership is to arrest this erosion as the Congressmen have lost hope in leadership. What the party needs is a charismatic vote catcher. The first priority is to resolve the present leadership crisis. Secondly, it has to find its identity once again to reinvent itself and come up with programmes to attract young and aspirational voters. The Congress chanting the past glory of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi does not inspire the young voters any more. To revive, the Congress should be able to prove that it is the credible alternative to the BJP.

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