It is my belief that the Indian National Congress is in a state of long term decline. It has been in that state since at least 1984. I do realize that when one speaks of trends that last 32 years, one runs the risk of making pointless predictions like the one that says that in the long run, we are all dead. In this post, I will explain why it isn’t meaningless in this case, and why my claim is probably true.
In the First Past the Post (FPP) system, the party in the first or second place is weaker than it looks, while the party in the third place is stronger than it looks. That is because the First and second place parties are like Vali in the Ramayana, who had the boon that in hand to hand combat, he would gain half the strength of his opponent. Because the two parties are alternatives to each other, voters who are disappointed with one party will choose the other regardless of whether they like the other party all that much in the first place. Ambitious politicians will tend to choose to join the first and second parties as long as ideology doesn’t matter to them. A party in the third place may get fewer votes than the number of actual supporters because many of them vote for the first or second place parties so as not to waste their votes.
Another way of putting this is that as long as you are in the first or second place, you have time and the force of inertia on your side. You can exist in a state of structural weakness for many election cycles till something forces you into the third place. The third place is disastrous for a party on its way down, while it is great for a party on its way up. Many voters supported the party on the rise, but didn’t vote for it because they didn’t realize it had a chance. They will now decide to vote for it the next time.
This next time though is 5 years away, and the party has this time to keep up and build further momentum. Or lose it. The party on the rise doesn’t have the force of inertia on its side.
The above discussion partially explains both the longevity of the Congress and its slow decline over so many decades. It is difficult to dislodge someone from the first or second position whatever their structural weaknesses. Also, 32 years seems long, but it isn’t all that long when time is measured in election cycles.
What I have started above is a law that is true of all FPP systems. In India, the additional wrinkle is that it is a federal country where politics happens at the state level. It is well known that even parliamentary elections in India are determined by state level politics. This fact leads to two contradictory points.
First, the process of decline I have outlined above has to happen state by state. It has to lose its first-or-second party status and get relegated to third party status in sufficient number of states for the Congress to truly go into oblivion.
Secondly, no, not really. The raison d’être of the Congress is that it is a national party. It cannot survive for long as an aggregation of its state units, no matter how structurally strong the state units are.
Is there a role for a national party in a country where all politics happens at the state level? If the answer to this question is no, it’s not just the Congress, but also the BJP that’s in trouble. A strong state leader always has incentive to leave along with his or her state party, as the evidence of the NCP, TMC and YSR Congress can attest.
If the answer is to be yes, the national unit of the party has to bring something to the table, and that something must relate to the electoral fortunes of the state unit. The state party doesn’t need help when it is in a strong first or second place, but it does need nurturing when it is in the third place and rising, or rescuing when it is in the second or third place and failing.
Let me list some ways in which the national unit of a party can justify its existence and how the Congress measures up.
1. National popularity of its leadership
The days when the popularity of national leaders was the only thing that mattered are long gone. These days, a popular leader can make a difference at the margins. The Congress hasn’t had popular national leaders since the days of Indira Gandhi. The BJP has done better – it has had Vajpayee and Modi so far.
The Congress used to have an ideology; it doesn’t have one anymore. The BJP does. The he party’s ideology gives it an organizational identity and unity that makes it difficult for individual state leaders to stake out on their own. It also sustains the state units during those long periods when they are in the wilderness, either struggling to build it up or struggling to recover from a setback. It is true that this ideology also limits the party’s reach, but there is no denying that it gives the party a certain organizational coherence.
3. Career path and bench strength
The national party can provide a career path for ambitious state level politicians. If it does, that would be one good reason for state leaders to stay with the party. Neither the Congress nor the BJP is great at this. We must remember that Modi’s ascent to the leadership of the BJP was the exception rather than the rule. But the Congress is hopeless on this count. The supreme leadership of the party is reserved for the Family, no popular leader is allowed to join the national leadership and even state level popularity makes the Family uncomfortable.
The bench strength argument is kind of the opposite of the career path one. When the party isn’t doing well in a state, the national party could provide a bench where competent state leaders can be parked while waiting for good times to return, or plan for an assault back on the state. The BJP is reasonably good at this; the Congress is very bad.
4. National organization
When the state unit is in trouble, revolting or needs some kind of help, the national leadership needs the ability to marshal resources to intervene. It needs an organization with reporting lines independent of the state units. To have credibility, these organizations need to be inclusive enough that the state units don’t treat them as outsiders.
As an analogy, consider the Indian Civil Service or the Army. These organizations report directly to the Union Government. It would be disastrous for the army to comprise of units reporting to state governments. It would be equally disastrous if the army recruited only from a particular region of India. For example, if there is some disturbance in Tamil Nadu and the state government is unable to keep the peace, the people of Tamil Nadu may be thankful for the presence of the Indian Army, they may also prefer that in that instance, depending on the nature of the disturbance, the soldiers who come in are not natives of the state, but there nature of the reception will be very different if the Army is, in general, considered to be an outside force that has come in to impose the will of the rulers in Delhi and clueless about local conditions.
The BJP has such a central organization. The Congress hasn’t had that experience since 1969. When the national leadership of the INC intervenes in a state, it’s usually treated as a bunch of out of touch jokers.
5. Law of averages
We’ve seen four reasons why a national party may justify its existence, and none of them applies to the Congress. To explain the continued existence of the party, we must fall back on the argument by inertia, or the simple fact of presence. The Congress is present in a larger number of states than the BJP is. We have already seen the strength that comes from being the first or second party regardless of your organizational strength. The national leadership of the Congress has exploited this very well. It has in fact prevented the state leaderships from getting too strong, because then they will be at risk of leaving. But as long as they are present, they contribute Lok Sabha seats, which is what the National leadership wants.
Take concrete examples. Perhaps Gujarat, Rajasthan, MP, etc. are permanently lost to the Congress in the sense that they will never form state governments there. (I don’t necessarily agree with that assumption, but let’s go with it for argument’s sake.) Does the national leadership care? Why should it? As long as they are the second parties in those states, the difference in terms of Lok Sabha seats is small. Add to this all those other states where the Congress is present but the BJP isn’t, and you soon realize that the INC has a 50seat- advantage over the BJP on average. These 50 seats aren’t enough to get the Congress a majority, but in most elections, they are enough to form a government with the help of other parties most times.
6. Coalition building ability
It is commonly claimed that the BJP’s ideology makes it less able to attract coalition partners than the Congress’. There is little evidence for that. The real reasons are the law of averages and the weakness of the Congress. I explained in point #5 why the law of averages gives the Congress an advantage in the number of seats. Potential coalition partners know this, so they naturally gravitate towards the party that will give them a better shot at power. The Congress then uses the partnership at the Centre to insinuate itself into coalitions at the state level, where, by virtue of being the junior partner of a regional party, it saves itself from the fate of a third party on its way down. Its coalition partners support the Congress because they know that it will never be a threat to them in their states.
I have used the present tense to write about points 5 and 6, but there are indications that the Congress may have lost those two advantages. The advantage of presence is durable, but once it is lost, the Congress doesn’t have the ability to get it back. Coalition building ability is dependent on the Law of averages working in the Congress’ favour, and if coalitions don’t work out, the Congress will be wiped out from states where it is in third place.
Political commentary after 2014 has used the electoral map of India to make the point about the Congress’ impending demise. But a party doesn’t die because it has lost an election, or even because it has lost a lot of elections. The tipping point for the Congress might have been when it lost undivided Andhra. It didn’t just lose elections in the two states, but destroyed itself so thoroughly that it effectively no longer exists there. Undivided Andhra has 42 Lok Sabha seats. As long as the Congress was present, its advantage over the BJP was 21-0. Now it’s gone down to zero.
It may soon go negative. The Shah-Modi team has been on a relentless quest to expand the BJP footprint and knock out the Congress from one state after another. Some of these attacks may succeed while the Congress may be able to fend off some of them, but I think that it is safe to say that there will be no counter attack. The best the Congress can hope for is that they survive these assaults long enough till age catches up with Modi or Shah, or the BJP governments become unpopular, our the party develops internal dissension, giving the Congress respite from these assaults. There will be no revival of the Congress the way the BJP was revived.
The Congress has faced many electoral defeats in recent times. After every defeat, op ed columnists have repeated their calls for the party to revive itself by looking outside the Family for leadership.
These calls lack coherence. Leaders don’t show up just like that. The way to find out if they deserve leadership is to have a contest for leadership. The Congress no longer has the capacity to survive a fight for leadership. If there is a leadership challenge, the party will splinter or split down the middle.
No leader can do a hostile takeover of the party. A friendly takeover is only slightly more conceivable. We can conceive of a situation where the Family continues to hold de jure leadership while quietly letting a more competent leader take over the party. This though would require the Family to go against every instinct they have displayed on the past three decades. I don’t see that happening.
Most importantly, leaders usually don’t have “reviving the party” add their primary mission in life. Their goal is usually something on the lines of “Become Prime Minister of India”. For Modi, reviving the BJP was the path of least resistance to reach his goal. For an ambitious Congress leader who wants to be Prime Minister, attempting to revive the party is a futile distraction from his goal. It is likely to take less effort to just walk out and form your own party. This fact alone is enough to ensure that there is no chance of the Congress ever getting a revival.