Sunday, October 20, 2019

In India’s election, ailing Congress Party is unlikely to find its miracle

  • >> Mujib Mashal and Hari Kumar, The New York Times,
    Published: 2019-05-22 10:39:23 BdST

FILE PHOTO: Rahul Gandhi, President of India's main opposition Congress party, speaks after releasing his party's election manifesto for the April/May general election in New Delhi, India, April 2, 2019. REUTERS

For much of India’s history since independence from British rule, the Indian National Congress dominated the country’s political scene. Even when its decline began, the party still maintained power. After all, it was the party of towering independence leaders like Mohandas Gandhi.

Then came Narendra Modi, helping sweep the opposition to a resounding victory in 2014. Congress, with just 8% of the seats in Parliament, was crushed.

Five years and much soul-searching later, indications from the latest parliamentary elections suggest that India’s once-dominant powerhouse will have to lower its ambitions of returning to its old glory anytime soon.

Despite early predictions that the country’s economy would become an electoral liability for Modi, exit polls this week after the close of voting indicate that the Congress party’s showing might not improve much from that devastating low. Even the most restrained polls have Modi returning to power for five more years, either as part of a broader coalition or in a majority government by his Bharatiya Janata Party and its partners.

The Congress party’s attempted rebound has been complicated not just by Modi’s enduring appeal — Indian stocks rose on his favorable exit polls — but also by smaller regional parties that are fighting intensely for a larger share of the political pie.

Zoya Hasan, a political scientist and professor emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, said that while the Congress party had hoped for a strong showing it could rebuild around, it could be years before it is anywhere near as strong as it was after its last electoral victory in 2009, when it won 38% of the contestable seats in Parliament.

“I would not conclude that it is impossible for the Congress to come back,” Hasan said, “although in this election it seems unlikely.”

Any gains the Congress party does make are likely to be because of disappointment in Modi’s economic policies. Farmers have suffered, and Modi has struggled to create jobs as unemployment rates rise.

His time in office has also been marked by the rise of Hindu nationalism threatening the diverse nation’s fragile fault lines.

The Congress party has long cast itself as embracing India’s diverse population, particularly Muslims and other minority groups that Modi’s party, known as the BJP, continues to alienate. In its campaign manifesto this year, the party appealed to those who have struggled economically under Modi, promising cash transfers to the poorest 20% and waivers of small loans to farmers.

Much of the work of rebuilding the party rests on the shoulders of Rahul Gandhi, 48, the Congress president who is the fourth generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family to lead the party.

His great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the first prime minister of independent India and had a large hand in shaping the republic. Both his grandmother, Indira Gandhi, and his father, Rajiv Gandhi, served as prime ministers and were assassinated.

Rahul Gandhi has been slow in making his own mark on a party that has lost its way, and he took the reins in 2017 at a particularly demoralizing time.

Modi had handed the party its most humiliating defeat three years earlier by playing up its various corruption scandals. The party leadership came off as weak and lacking direction.

But Congress regained some energy in December when it won elections in three states considered bellwethers for this year’s parliamentary contests. It was a sign that perhaps Modi’s popularity had faded, creating an opportunity that the Congress party could exploit. Gandhi, along with his sister Priyanka, has been zigzagging the country trying to do just that.

Rahul Gandhi is seen here as a mostly likable figure even if his softer personality can make him come across as a lightweight compared with Modi. So on the campaign trail, Gandhi tried to adjust by relentlessly focusing on Modi’s weaknesses, particularly the economy.

But he also acknowledged that Congress is not in the same position it was before, though it is trying to present itself as a party that can heal divisions.

“Change requires a transition. You can’t just suddenly turn around, snap your fingers and expect change. There’s a transition underway in the Congress,” Gandhi said last week in an interview with Outlook India.

“As an organization, the Congress has a deep connect with India. Yes, we are chaotic, but we listen — even to our opponents,” he said, adding that the BJP and its allies “don’t listen; they think they know the answer.”

Gandhi is up against a dominating prime minister with a strong cult of personality. Modi is a powerful orator, promoting his narrative as a self-made man who rose to the top from modest beginnings as a tea seller.

In contrast, Gandhi, who studied in the United States and Britain, is seen by some as the face of the elitism associated with his party. Modi and the BJP mercilessly fan the perception that Congress leaders are disconnected from the public.

“Whenever there is a crisis in the country, Rahul moves to Italy,” Yogi Adityanath, a Modi protégé who is the chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, said at a recent campaign rally. (Gandhi’s mother, longtime Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, was born Italian.)

Among potential voters, the perception of the Congress party as a family enterprise lacking vision has stuck. Among the country’s Hindu majority, the party has struggled to shed its image of appeasing minority groups, such as Muslims, at their expense — which fits right into Modi’s narrative as a champion of Hindu nationalism. In response, Gandhi has been seen frequenting more Hindu temples.

With exit polls predicting another term for Modi, many have accused the Congress party of focusing on its own recovery rather than working with other parties to defeat him.

“It’s a blue-eyed party that has never worked at the grassroots level,” Sonu Agarwal, 46, a gym owner in the city of Lucknow, said of Congress. “It is self-serving.”

Even among voters leaning toward Congress this time, many said it was less because of what the party offered and more out of fear of how intolerant Modi’s politics has made India.

“I don’t love them,” said Preea Kumar, a communications professional from Mumbai, said of the Congress party. “It’s just that they are a better choice today if we wish to remain a secular, democratic country.”

Complicating the party’s hopes of returning to its old strength is that its decline has coincided with the rise of smaller regional parties.

In 2014, those parties together won about half the popular vote and 40% of the total seats in parliament. Congress won only seven seats more than the top regional party, making it more of a leading small party than a coequal power with the BJP.

Much of the decline of the Congress party and the rise to power of the BJP is attributed to mistakes made by Gandhi’s grandmother, Indira Gandhi.

She alienated senior party members, who saw her as an entitled dynast and left to join the opposition that subsequently became the BJP. The Congress party criticizes Modi today as acting increasingly authoritarian, but Indira Gandhi was the only Indian prime minister to declare a state of emergency, dissolve Parliament and jail her opponents.

AK Verma, a retired professor at Chatrapati Shahu Ji Maharaj University in Kanpur, said Rahul Gandhi had made a populist pitch in the recent campaign, highlighting a BJP corruption scandal and promising voters jobs and a minimum income.

But he has struggled to connect with the public in a way that could reverse his party’s fortunes.

“I do not feel very significant trust in Rahul’s appeal to the people,” Verma said. “The most dangerous thing for the top leadership is when people do not take you seriously.”

c.2019 New York Times News Service