Post debacles in two consecutive general elections, the Congress party seems to be in terminal decline across the nation. If the defeat in 2014 was seen to be the nadir, a similar result in 2019 indicates that resurgence cannot be achieved through superficial means.
The BJP’s stellar rise from the fringes to the mainstream over the decades through sheer perseverance and, the hegemony it has established over its rivals today demonstrate how a single-minded focus on core ideology and its propagation can pay off in the long run.
The Congress faltered on this count from the latter half of the Indira Era. From being an umbrella party that upheld Nehruvian Secularism and Gandhian Socialism, the Congress got reduced to a dynastic and opportunistic party filled with skillful career politicians with no allegiance to any ideology.
Time and again, we have witnessed influential politicians breaking away from the Congress to form breakaway parties and succeed. Lack of organization at the ground level for the Congress is among the major reasons enabling it.
Although many people imagine the BJP to be over-centralized with Narendra Modi and Amit Shah calling the shots today, it is not entirely true. The BJP is just one part of the behemoth called the Sangh Parivar.
At the ground level, in virtually every part of the country, the Sangh has people working either in coordination with the leadership or in individual capacity actively propagating their ideology and worldview.
It is a decentralized system wherein the various units of Sangh Parivar work both in tandem and independently to take forward their message to the masses. Sometimes we see these organizations clashing with each other but those clashes rarely affect the BJP.
It is not just the method of propagation that is varied but also the actual content of the message. What a Swayamsevak tells a Mumbai-based automobile engineer isn’t necessarily what another Swayamsevak tells a cattle herder in Bihar. The BJP’s success in tailoring and customizing its message depending on the socio-economic and caste backgrounds of its intended recipients is indeed noteworthy.
With such tactics, the BJP and the Sangh overcome the regional, caste and class barriers very effectively without diluting its core ideology.
This is why an election defeat alone does not become a body blow for the BJP and that brings us to the question of what the Congress must do to compete with the BJP. What is needed is a lasting solution that strikes at the very heart of the Sangh Parivar. And that can only be achieved by taking on its core ideology.
This means that Rahul Gandhi has the onerous task of charting a brave new course for the Congress. One which involves the building of the Congress organization from the grassroots and shaping an inclusive ideology that appeals to the masses and fits with the traditional ethos of the Congress. The effective dissemination of this ideology through smart messaging is imperative to appeal to the youth and other demographics.
In 2003, Y S Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR), the late Congress leader and later Chief Minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh, undertook a massive 1470 km long walkathon, Praja Prasthanan, visiting and connecting directly with the masses in Andhra Pradesh— particularly the farmers in rural areas who depended on land. It kindled a life-long connect between them and YSR went on to win two successive terms as Chief Minister before his untimely death.
This has been successively replicated by his 46-year-old son Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy in divided Andhra Pradesh after sitting out in the cold for 9 years to take his party YSRCP to a stomping victory both in the Lok Sabha and the Assembly elections. Calling it Praja Sankalpa Padayatra, Jagan Mohan is said to have walked 3650 kms over a period of two years to connect with the people.
These padayatras are no innovation. They merely retraced the steps of Congress leaders from its pre-independence days when the party’s tall leaders worked on the ground rubbing shoulders with the peasants, listening to them and organizing them on a political platform.
What Mahatma Gandhi and his colleagues in the Congress did in Dandi, Kheda, Champaran shook the foundations of the mighty British empire.
Without a strong organization, the party will struggle no matter what and that is why it is imperative for leaders of the Congress led by Rahul Gandhi to start afresh.
Through a combination of liberal politics and rural ground-level activism, the Congress can create for itself an issue-based national platform to counter the Sangh Parivar. This can slowly gather steam and lead to a more direct confrontation with the ideology of the Sangh in the longer term.
Siddaramaiah, the Congress satrap in Karnataka, chose the very same approach in the 2018 Karnataka Assembly elections when he combined local indigenous liberalism and Karnataka regional pride to counter the BJP’s campaign of nationalism and Hindutva. Despite not winning a second term, Congress managed to retain their vote share and succeeded in preventing the BJP forming a government in the state.
If the Congress can pass on their message of liberal pluralism through an active cadre of trained youth and a fortified organization in the hinterlands, it can succeed in disarming the BJP and gradually relegate the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva ideology to the fringes where it really belongs.