The INC Appraisal: Can the Congress Find Its All-India Relevance Again?

A Congress revival hinges on the party rediscovering its pan-India appeal and its ideological relevance.


After 10 years of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime, the 2014 general election saw the Congress’ influence diminish, with the party reduced to a mere 44 seats in the Lok Sabha, polling less than 20% of the national vote share. This was followed by a failure to win a single seat in the Delhi state elections in 2015, and then a rout in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections which saw the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coming to power with a massive mandate. 

While recent elections in other states have seen a revival of sorts for the Congress, the party has been accused of shifting the narrative further to the right by peddling “soft Hindutva” to garner votes. The Congress has dominated politics in India since independence, but what does the party stand for today? Can it be called a party that upholds democratic values and imbibes pluralism? 

This reading list assesses the Congress’ policies over the years, the issues that currently plague the party’s structure, and its relevance as an “all India” party. 

1) What Was the Congress’ Strategy?
Traditionally, the Congress has worked on the principle of an “acceptable consensus.” Anil Nauriya writes that post-independence, rather than focusing on territorial integrity, the Congress party built the idea of nationhood through an inter-communal consensus. Nauriya argues that the Congress only took up programmes which the influential sections of society or the masses could not have violent disagreements with.

Within these limits Congress policies could be recast, modified and redirected into another political alley. In the room provided by these limits, and also in the space and pressures created by the long-term effects of institutional changes brought about by manoeuvring within this room, Congress policies have evolved.   

Further, Nauriya contends that any party that aims to claim the position of a national party will also have to offer policies that can build an inter-communal consensus, and this is where the BJP has failed. 

If at all there is a need for an alternative cultural model to the one which was provided by the Congress, it is for one which will more fully reflect the best features of the diverse cultural traditions of India and undo the damage done by a twice-over cultural partition and impoverishment of the country. The need, therefore, is for deepening rather than shattering the inter-communal consensus. 

2) How Did the Congress Ensure Its Dominance? 

Praveen Rai and Sanjay Kumar argue that under Jawaharlal Nehru the Congress’ dominance was due to the fact that the party built a consensus by adopting right and centre-left ideology, thus denying opposing parties a political space to operate. Creating an equally strong leadership and party structure meant that there was no internal opposition to leadership. The ascendency of Indira Gandhi, however, saw power accumulated in the leader’s hands and damaged the strength of the party organisation. Her authoritarian decisions to maintain the single-party dominance of the Congress resulted in damaging the party rank and organisational structure.

The party at present does not have a strong leader and workable structure and its ideological agenda of leftist-welfareist policies for the poor has been hijacked by the BJP which is using it cleverly to position itself as the single dominant party in Indian politics. The Congress needs to rewrite its ideological agenda and open the entry gates of the party for people with rightist views within its broad spectrum of secular politics to counter the BJP surge in the country.  The party can revive itself by rebuilding the party organisation by repopulating its cadres with foot soldiers and flag bearers at the grassroots level and set up realistic goals to do a political rebound in the distant future.

3) Are the Congress and BJP Alike?

Zoya Hasan argues that there is no real difference in the neo-liberal policies and development agenda currently pursued by the BJP when compared to the Congress’ years in power. The main difference, according to Hasan, is that the idea of pluralism that accompanied the Congress’ neo-liberalism is currently absent in the ruling party’s social policy. 

The NDA’s neo-liberalism is more hardened which is apparent from their approach to environment and social welfare … By contrast, the UPA government’s neoliberalism was somewhat softened by a range of other social and economic policies which include the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Land Acquisition Act. These radical measures provoked huge opposition from the corporate sector. For the first time, Indian capital’s exclusive claim on India’s public financial resources and land assets was questioned on this scale. So far, the Modi government has not done anything of this kind or on this scale to annoy the corporate sector and business groups.

4) Can the Congress Be Considered a Bastion of Secularism?

Anirudh Deshpande writes that in its eagerness to denounce the BJP’s legitimacy as a "national" party, the Congress seems to have forgotten that it is largely responsible for the rise of Hindutva as a major political force in the country. Deshpande argues that if the Congress truly wishes to defeat Hindutva ideology, then it needs to be more self-critical about its role in allowing the emergence of the Hindu right.

There is a school of thought according to which the cynical Congress of the 1970s and 1980s is mainly responsible for the growth of contemporary communalism in India. Intellectuals of this persuasion would have us believe that before 1947 the Congress was a fairy queen of secular nationalism …  Even before independence the real commitment of the Congress to socialism and secularism, despite Nehru's vision, could never be taken for granted … the true opponents of the BJP would do well to realise that a centrist government led by the Congress can, at best, be a weak buffer against the social threat posed by the communal mentality. Therefore their attitude towards the emerging centre-left coalition can only be cautious and conditional. 

5) Who Does the Congress Represent Today?

For a party that once claimed to represent the country, the party now represents no one, writes Zoya Hasan. The middle and aspirational classes no longer find resonance with the Congress, and Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis now favour regional parties instead. Hasan argues that having come under attack from the right and other regional parties which seek to dominate the centre-left space, the Congress is defensive and more focused on protecting past achievements rather than forging new ones. 

After the 2014 Lok Sabha debacle the party leadership has not cared to draw up a road map for revival. After every defeat the leadership declared that the party would introspect on the reasons for the catastrophic defeats and revamp the organisation to meet the expectations of the people … It is obvious that the Congress is not serious about internal elections even though it is essential for the party to elect its leader and members of various decision-making bodies which it has not done for years … Rahul Gandhi has focused his political capital on the long-term project of trying to democratise and activate the moribund party organisation. His efforts have neither produced any discernible change in the organisation nor delivered a new crop of leaders. 

Read More:

  1. Uttar Pradesh: Signs of a Congress Revival? Mirza Asmer Beg and Suhir Kumar, 2009
  2. Charan Singh and the Congress | Badri Narayan and Tarushika, 2013
  3. Partition, Congress Secularism and Hindu Communalism | Anuradha Kumar, 2000
  4. Sandwiched Nehru: Religious Minorities and Indian Secularism | M Christhu Dos, 2018
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