What’s Next for the Grand Old Party?

For Congress, the election battle in Karnataka in May 2023 was a high-stakes battle between the ruling BJP and its arch-rival, the JD(S). The outcome set the tone for the Lok Sabha polls and is likely to impact the Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh scenarios. The Congress has awakened from ‘existential’ slumber and has begun to engage with the Opposition, betting big on the Bharat Jodo Yatra
By Arun Bhatnagar
  • Congress has lost two successive Lok Sabha elections. a decade was long enough to have analysed the diminishing interest of voters
  • While there are regional formations that can survive without a dynasty, conditions in the GOP are more complex
  • The public response matters the most in States where the Congress will again be in a direct electoral contest with the BJP
  • In Congress, the problems are real, ranging from organisational deficiencies to the capacity and capability of the Party President

In May, 2023, as Karnataka headed towards a high-stakes election battle, the challenge for the ruling BJP was to blunt the anti-incumbency against its only government in South India, a feat not achieved in the State by any Party since 1985.

For the Grand Old Party (GOP), namely the Congress, trying to dethrone its arch-rival in Karnataka was perceived as a step (after a victory in Himachal Pradesh in December, 2022) in the direction of resurrecting its political fortunes; the JD(S) fought to hold on to its turf.

The outcome can be said to have set the tone for the Lok Sabha polls and could have a direct bearing on Opposition unity. The myth of electoral invincibility has been all but blown away.

For the Lok Sabha elections, the chips will be down after the government-inspired euphoria over the G20 Presidency has subsided and the results of trials of strength in the relevant States are known by the close of 2023. That is when the action may be expected to really begin for 2024.

Effects of Yatra

The carpet-bombing by the BJP’s top brass in the electioneering in Karnataka probably prevented a virtual ‘rout’ (the party’s tally came down to 66 seats), while the Congress romped home to a landslide majority. This is more than likely to impact the Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh scenarios, also, perhaps, Rajasthan, even though that State is currently in the throes of rivalries within the GOP.

Things could change if self-goals are scored and the Congress will, of course, have to give a much better account of itself in terms of its administration being largely corruption-free in Karnataka.
There may be no South-North Divide, as such, in respect of voters’ preference and voters’ anger.
Following the overall impact of the Rahul Gandhi-led Bharat Jodo Yatra, the Congress has awakened from a form of ‘existential’ slumber and has begun to engage with the Opposition. It bet big on the Yatra; in the past, these have proved politically beneficial, such as for former PM Chandrashekhar and the Dr Murli Manohar Joshi – Narendra Modi Ekta Yatra in 1991.

The Congress won thirty-seven of the fifty-one seats in the seven districts of Karnataka through which Rahul Gandhi walked for twenty-one days during the Yatra. After the election results, he said, “Karnataka mein nafrat ka bazaar band hua hai, mohabbat ki dukaanein khulien hain…” (The market of hatred has closed in Karnataka, the shops of love have opened).

For the Lok Sabha elections, the chips will be down after the government-inspired euphoria over the G20 Presidency has subsided and the results of trials of strength in the relevant States are known by the close of 2023. That is when the action may be expected to really begin for 2024.

A veteran lawyer, Kapil Sibal, other loyalists and ex-royals (Amarinder Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia) bade farewell to the Party, not to mention Ghulam Nabi Azad who benefitted, over many years, from associating with successive Congress Prime Ministers. The departure of leaders is not new, going so far back, in fact, as 1948 when the Socialists led by Acharya Narendra Deva and Jayaprakash Narayan, no less, left, and even earlier.

Congress has been in the Opposition, having lost two successive Lok Sabha elections. A time-frame of a decade was long enough to have analyzed the diminishing interest of voters in Congress’ ideas. It ought also to have been realized that personal ‘charisma’ is becoming a ‘thing of the past’ and that while the BJP may only be running, albeit more effectively, the earlier welfare programmes – devised mainly by the erstwhile National Advisory Council (NAC) chaired, during 2004-06, in its first ‘avatar’, by Sonia Gandhi – isn’t it high time to have re-learnt the lessons of efficient welfarism and for the GOP to lay claim to a share of the credit?

The GOP has a trump card in its arsenal – the card of pluralism and secularism, which the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) has resorted to in West Bengal.

Resurrecting Its Political Fortune

After many years, a general feeling – possibly, still an undercurrent – is noticeable that the Congress should again be tried out as a governance option, keeping in view, inter alia, the mediocre performance of several regional parties. This can be a factor in 2024. On their part, the BJP have persevered in endeavouring to alter the discourse and revert to ‘parivarvaad’, time and again.

A Party-once at the centre of the Freedom Movement – surrendered its preeminent position, so much so that the BJP is being seen as the only embodiment of nationalism and nationalistic fervour.
While there are regional formations that can survive without a dynasty, conditions in the GOP are more complex and the Party could break up without the First Family. The exit from its ranks is symbolic of the wider processes at work in the direction of one-party rule.

Congress represents a counter force. Unless drastic steps materialise towards a turnaround, it could run the risk, in the longer-term, of being reduced to separate units, loosely federated, in States where it remains in contention.

The problems are real, ranging from organisational deficiencies to the capacity and capability of the Party President to measure up to the task of rejuvenating the grassroots cadre. The public response matters the most in States where the GOP will again be in a direct electoral contest with the BJP. Rahul Gandhi acknowledged the difficulties when he said that “… the fight is not between one political party and another… The media is not with the Opposition … because of pressure or the owners have a particular relationship…And a lot of people do not want to fight. It is easier to make peace…”.

The repercussions of the Pulwama revelations made by one who was – till quite recently – among the BJP’s very own, might eventually go away – notwithstanding the casualties involved – but the Ruling Party
will be vulnerable in 2024, if confronted by an Opposition Alliance that includes the Congress and a distribution of seats in which no constituent party is pitted against another constituent in any State.
An election, therefore, of the BJP (and allies) versus the Rest.

Public Opinion Matters

In a ‘Mood of the Nation’ survey conducted some time back, 69 percent of the respondents were reported to have identified issues connected with the economy as the biggest failure of the government; 57 percent believed that things would get worse or, at least, not improve. More significantly, 67 percent said their economic status had deteriorated after 2014; add to this, the 56 percent who think the unemployment situation is very serious. So far, the BJP have only had to contend with a disunited Opposition, which was apparent from the developments surrounding the last elections of the President (and Vice President) of the Republic. While the outcomes were not in doubt, it was obvious that the Opposition were incapable of ‘minimal coordination’.

Congress bet big on the Bharat Jodo Yatra; in the past, these have proved politically beneficial, such as for former PM Chandrashekhar and the Dr Murli Manohar Joshi – Narendra Modi Ekta Yatra in 1991

The point was not to win, it was to create a buzz. Given the fluid global environment, matters of concern to New Delhi could come to a head, sooner rather than later, in the external arena, in addition to domestic issues. Howsoever much of India’s foreign service mandarins may envisage a free and open Indo-Pacific, the actual dynamics that have been unfolding are quite different. Tensions with China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) haven’t eased, amid speculation that territory has been lost, accentuated by the Beijing-Islamabad Axis. The External Affairs Minister (EAM) seldom misses a forum to reiterate that the Sino-India relationship is going through an extremely difficult phase. Any deterioration of conditions along the LAC, in the coming months, involve a potential to affect the 2024 verdict.

Geopolitical Relations

When PM Modi and President Xi Jinping were face-to-face at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Samarkand (Uzbekistan) in September, 2022, there were no signs of a thaw in the troubled relations. At a photo-opportunity before the start of the first Session of the Summit, the two leaders were not standing anywhere close; at a later photo-opportunity, they were seen next to each other. It is unclear whether greetings were exchanged.

At the same time, the Chinese President has been engaging with Central Asian countries that have praised his statesmanship and draped him in medals. In the narrative projected by Beijing, the fanfare lavished on Xi reaffirms his position as a towering global leader and a source of stability in a turbulent world. He hosted a two-day Summit with leaders of five Central Asian nations (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) in mid-May, 2023, another initiative by Beijing to augment its influence in the Region.

The Summit – in the historic city of Xi’an on the ancient Silk Road – was the first of its kind since the inception of formal ties over three decades back. China has invested billions of dollars to tap natural gas reserves in Central Asia.

Separately, the Chinese Defence Minister, Li Shangfu, is believed to have told Pakistan’s navy chief, Admiral Amjad Khan Niazi, who was visiting Beijing, that their militaries, including their navies, should ‘expand into new fields of cooperation’ to bolster the capability of the two nations in ‘safeguarding security in the Region’.

For China, the access of Pakistan to the Arabian Sea is of key importance in the event of a maritime blockade in the Strait of Malacca, an 800 km stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula to the northeast and the Indonesian island of Sumatra to the southwest, connecting the Andaman Sea (Indian Ocean) and the South China Sea (Pacific Ocean). Pakistan, China and Afghanistan have agreed to forge closer economic ties by extending the Beijing-backed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan to more fully harness the country’s potential as a hub for regional connectivity.
Pakistan’s Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, his Chinese counterpart, Qin Gang and Afghanistan’s Taliban-appointed Acting Foreign Minister, Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi met at the 5th Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue in Islamabad on May 6, 2023.

Tensions with China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) haven’t eased, amid speculation that territory has been lost, accentuated by the Beijing-Islamabad Axis. The External Affairs Minister (EAM) seldom misses a forum to reiterate that the Sino-India relationship is going through an extremely difficult phase

In recent years, China has replaced the United States as the strategic partner of choice for Pakistan, which should be of anxiety to Washington D.C. when it offers largesse to Pakistan, hoping to wean the Islamic nation away from China.

A readout of the US Department of Defense (when Rajnath Singh had been in talks with his American counterpart) made no mention of India’s worries on the F-16 package pledged to Pakistan, leaving New Delhi to swallow its disappointment and demonstrating that if India can keep friends in various camps, so also can Washington D.C. oblige a non-NATO member, like Pakistan. Such support also emboldens China to continue to block the blacklisting of terrorists.

That India lacks ‘hard power’ has been acknowledged by the RSS chief who said that if India had been adequately powerful, it would have stopped the Ukraine war.

The pursuit of ‘multi-alignment’ has given India considerable diplomatic space in the ongoing conflict but this may not be sufficient for New Delhi to seek playing the role of a ‘mediator’ which, incidentally, is already being eyed by Beijing; a special envoy, Li Hui, who is China’s representative for Eurasian affairs and a former Ambassador to Moscow, was sent to Ukraine and Russia in an effort to help arrive at a political settlement.

At present, India does not have the material resources to match the extent of China’s economic and military potential. What the Government needs to ensure is that its refusal to criticise Russian aggression and the increase in its import of Russian fuel is not interpreted as a pro-Moscow approach.
As things stand, New Delhi will have to continue to struggle in order to find some manoeuvring ground in the emerging nexus between Russia and China. There are reports that the United States and China have renewed high-level engagement with the American NSA, Jake Sullivan, meeting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo Member, Wang Yi, in Vienna. The Sullivan-Wang channel appears to have set the stage for the visit of the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Beijing.

For India, the vital question could become:

‘Where precisely would a possible US – China’s rapprochement in the future leave New Delhi’?

Fitch Ratings have lowered their 2023-24 GDP growth forecast for India to 6 percent, from 6.2 percent, citing headwinds from elevated inflation and interest rates, alongwith subdued global demand.

The 75th Year of Independence afforded an opportunity to take stock of the progress in different spheres. Politicians, academicians, writers, artists, even bureaucrats, received their due but science and scientists were largely ignored.

Nitish Kumar’s manoeuvres are being perceived as a breath of new life in non-BJP politics. He has declared that if an Opposition Front of non-BJP parties came to power at the Centre in 2024, it would accord ‘special category status’ to all backward States

The people can no longer be expected to rest content with speeches and slogans of achievements and ancient greatness; they must avail the chance to critically examine and assess the successes and failures. Science, scientific literacy and scientific research have a critical role to play in delivering a better future.
Against many odds, the nascent Republic of India went ahead in 1950 as a unified democratic country – a remarkable achievement at the time that owed much to the early leadership: Rajendra Prasad, Sardar Patel, Rajaji, Maulana Azad, Nehru and their associates. The democratic practices developed into traditions.

And yet, even as growing numbers of Indians have been experiencing the fruits of freedom, this is still a minority. Freedom for the few is seldom sustainable; unless the teeming millions also experience the freedoms, these might remain a fragile dream, carrying social and other implications of wide-ranging magnitude.

Coalition Politics

Nitish Kumar’s manoeuvres are being perceived as a breath of new life in non-BJP politics. He has declared that if an Opposition Front of non-BJP parties came to power at the Centre in 2024, it would accord ‘special category status’ to all backward States. During a visit to Bihar, the Telangana Chief Minister made an announcement about ‘free water and electricity’.

Looking back to the late Chaudhary Charan Singh’s risky moves in Uttar Pradesh six decades ago, one may recall how this unleashed a momentum that led to the unravelling of the Congress citadel. At this point in time – with the next Lok Sabha polls not distant – is it too far-fetched to envision a ‘comparable polarisation’, a coming together of disparate constituencies, that could result in the kind of anti-system coalition that shook the authority of the then Prime Minister?

As it happens, experienced leadership exists in the Opposition ranks, including the Congress, in Maharashtra, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Delhi, Bihar and elsewhere. The Ruling Party realises that it cannot ignore the resentment attributable to unemployment and inflation. In a fluctuating situation in which the BJP aspires to become the only dominant Party (like the Congress of old), it is conceivable that a broad-based Opposition Front (not necessarily led by the GOP, who may well have higher numbers) may also reach close enough to a winning coalition.

Arun Bhatnagar

Arun Bhatnagar was formerly in the IAS and retired as Secretary, GOI. He attended St. Stephen’s College, Delhi in the early sixties. After retiring as Secretary (Personnel & Training) in the Union Government in 2004, he worked with the National Advisory Council (NAC) and, later, as Chairman, Prasar Bharati, New Delhi. He has had postings in the President of India’s Secretariat and in the Indian High Commission,
London. Bhatnagar’s earlier Book, ‘India: Shedding the Past, Embracing the Future, 1906-2017’, was well received as a historical narrative.

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