On several occasions, veteran BJP leader LK Advani has underlined the importance of strong role of national parties (BJP and Congress) in central governance. He even discussed the idea with Rahul Gandhi during their short meeting at an airport lobby, by sharing his concern for depleting strength of BJP and Congress in national politics after the 2004 elections. That meeting took place years ago, but Mr Advani’s observations seem even more relevant today, specifically for Rahul Gandhi, who should seriously reflect on the role he should play as a de facto leader of the opposition. Congress, after losing two general elections in a row, and now having a handful of state governments across the country, seems to be in disarray. The party’s internal functioning has also suffered due to the lack of vision. The role that the Congress chooses to play now as an opposition entity will have a critical impact on its future, and to some extent, is important for the vitality of Indian democracy.
After 30 years of coalition governments at the centre, Indian polity provided clear verdict to one party in 2014 and repeated it in 2019 with conviction. Both verdicts were quite clear in assigning role of opposition to Congress. The last two elections have provided scattered opposition in parliament and notably reduced the strength of Indian National Congress. The party’s strategy to counter BJP in 2019 failed miserably, and could not even capitalise on whatever anti-incumbency the NDA would have faced. That said, even after reducing to 52 elected representatives in parliament, Congress is still considered highly relevant as a political entity, with national presence and an important voice in smooth functioning of democratic processes. It goes without saying that the efficiency and effectiveness of any democracy depends equally on contributions made by the opposition.
Without mincing any words, one has to admit that Congress under de-facto leadership of Rahul Gandhi has somehow not been able to provide credible and meaningful opposition in the last 7 years of Modi’s Government. This has been acknowledged by leaders within Congress and their current and former allies time and again. After closely reviewing Rahul’s leadership of Congress during challenging times, it seems top leadership of the Congress has lost intent to regain the political prominence they have enjoyed in the past. The disinterest that Congress now demonstrates in undertaking any kind of governance is bad news not only for the Congress but also for the overall health of Indian democracy.
Having been in power for more than 50 years, Congress has somehow never accepted the role of an opposition party with humility. They seem to find the people’s judgement as a punishment, behaving with contempt towards the legislative decisions of the ruling party, without realising that the verdict is given by the people of India, not by the winning party. I distinctively remember Late Rajesh Pilot making a strong appeal to his party leader during a Parliament discussion that Congress should start respecting the role of opposition, carry out its responsibilities with utmost integrity, and do not feel an ingrained detest for opposition role. Whenever they were defeated in elections, Congress has shown a tendency to support the political alliance from outside, to avoid the role of opposition and has governed from back door. On the other hand, Communist parties, BSP and BJP are best examples of how they have used opposition phases to communicate their idea of alternative governance model and ideology rigorously.
Series of incidents in last 6 years show that Rahul Gandhi’s actions and reactions against government have harmed Congress interest more. What is more worrisome is that Congress under leadership of Rahul Gandhi (de facto) seems to be losing its will and ability to govern nation at centre. The shoot and scoot politics of Rahul Gandhi without demonstrating a track record to convince people that he is a viable alternative, has assigned him to the role of a part-time commentator. He is often seen in two roles.
One, the juvenile temptation to support whatever protests are happening across the country. Two, roaming about as the host of a travel show and giving lectures like to the local population as a TedX speaker. His attendance in theParliament, number of questions asked, and debates participated in are way below the national average. What has hurt him more are the utterances that might suit a regional leader, but which do not befit the inheritor of a national party. Coming from a family and party of Nehru and Indira, his comments on Gujaratis in Assam were plain embarrassing. Even during his interviews, he talks in jargon that the populace cannot identify with. If he had some real-life examples to show from his constituency or four terms in office, people would have been easier to convince. Moreover, being a national party, it is expected to of Congress to have strong and consistent views on national security, internal security, sectarian issues, economic roadmaps and reforms.
Rahul’s recent state election speeches in Assam and Kerala, showed how amateurish he was pitting states and region against each other. He is repeating the same approach in Tamil Nadu, using identity politics to fuel distrust against North India and Hindi, which goes against the grain of Congress that Nehru and Indira led. What stands out is that now Rahul is diametrically opposite to Nehru on linguistic divisions and secularism, with the tie up with Badruddin Ajmal of AIUDF being a major setback. This approach might yield short-term returns, but defeats the very identity of Congress being a pan Indian force. It even makes life difficult for local congress leaders to drive their politics.
Rahul’s standing with left-sponsored protest in JNU campus showed his myopic political acumen – he might have managed to embarrass government for a week, but revealed his poor understanding of left aligned student wing ideology, who propagate freedom for Kashmir, provide support to Naxals movements, paint our forces as oppressors, and ridicule Hinduism practices openly. It has become permanent ignominy for Congress, with court implicating student leaders for anti-national actions. Would Rahul have handled the matter any differently if he was in power? Would he have supported separatists and Naxalism? Most likely no. By standing with such groups, Rahul just comes across as a disruptive force, not a constructive one.
Rahul again stepped on the wrong foot by circumventing support to government post-surgical strike and Balakot air strike, which forfeited national security issue to BJP. Having been at the Centre for the longest time, Congress knows sensitivity of security related discussions in public, but they pushed a narrative detrimental to India’s interest. Such naïve reactions are not welcomed by Indian voters.
The stance of Congress on abrogation of Article 370 was also inconsistent (in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha) and against the expectations of people at large, which costed them, specifically in North India. Congress under Rahul could not manage to lead any big movement for any issue or against government decision(s) meaningfully, the last to their credit is revocation of the Land Acquisition act. Later on, they have lost energy to lead any movement, but half-heartedly supported multiple protests across country such as anti-CAA, anti-triple talaq and anti-farm laws. The key question is why Congress has not led these protests from front? Congress’ reluctance indicates that somewhere leadership knows on these issues they cannot mobilise ground support, so better to join left sponsored protests against government. Poorly calibrated decisions to join forces against CAA and farm laws showed Congress’ inconsistencies towards policy issues and economic reforms, which are today of key value to resurgent young middle-class voters.
Somewhere, Rahul’s understanding of opposition role is limited to criticising government, ignoring two critical elements – providing alternative idea governance, and building a strong party to channelize the support during elections. Perhaps Rahul can look inwards and learn from Delhi CM, how he went all out criticising Delhi Government under Late Sheila Dixit, but also build strong party cadre and shared alternative model of governance convincingly.
Coming to the internal health of Congress party, today they are running government of their own in only 3 states independently and 1 state in coalition. Rahul’s biggest test about his approach being an opposition leader would be, 1) how well he is taking along his own party leaders and cadre, 2) other opposition parties and lastly, 3) opposition and new voters. With all vague belligerence against government and institutions Rahul’s Congress lost 170 MLAs to other opposition parties between 2016 and 2020 based on ADR report. They have lost more than 30 seasoned leaders across states to oppositions parties.
While losing veterans like SM Krishna, Satpal Maharaj, Vijay Bhahugana, Rao Inderjit Singh and P C Chacko can perhaps be attributed to generational shift and Rahul focusing on bringing in ‘new blood’, if one has to play his advocate, but the exit of young leaders such as Jyotiraditya Scindia, Hemant Biswas, Ramdayal Uikey and Prema Khandu indicate serious mess within Congress. In all likelihood, this is a strong indicator that Rahul’s politics and agenda is not working on ground, or is not connected to ground level issues. The recent emergence of G23 group comprising senior Congress leaders, seeking internal coherence on important decisions and bringing in mechanism to elect leaders is another embarrassing turn of events.
It is interesting to note that BJP faced the same scenario after two consecutive defeats in 2004 and 2009, when the unrest within party increased and desertion in rank was quite visible. But BJP promptly fixed the issue at the top and brought in new leader (Nitin Gadkari) from outside Delhi to put house in order before taking on government. While there still has been exodus of leaders such as Yashwant Sinha or Shourie, it is not as debilitating as the exit of Jyotiraditya Scindia that considerably weakened Congress in Madhya Pradesh.
In upcoming elections Rahul should reflect that Congress is playing second or third fiddle in most states, relegated to the back benches, while once they were ruling those states. The neglect of party at grass root level strongly indicates that Rahul’s Congress has lost the will to govern India again.