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The Decline of the Indian National Congress: India’s Loss, Modi’s gain

The Indian National Congress is on a path of implosion and waning prominence. Together, these extinguish any hopes of an opposition coalition that can match Narendra Modi’s populist, Hindutva machine.

Oct 11, 2020

It is no secret that Narendra Modi is a populist leader, his party — the Bharatiya Janata Party — is a party of Hindutva and the ideological right and is the antithesis of the Indian constitution’s promise of secularism. The BJP’s Citizenship Amendment Bill makes religion a basis for citizenship and a Feb. 2019 report from Human Rights Watch found that between May 2015 and Dec. 2018, at least 44 people — 36 of whom were Muslims — were murdered across 12 Indian states.
At such a time, India needs a resolute, capable and organized opposition coalition. As the Indian National Congress is one of two parties with a national reach, it would be the ideal leader of such a unified opposition. However, the party has floundered at the polls in the 2014 and 2019 general elections as well as in numerous state elections. Furthermore, the party seems to be struggling to navigate the dissonance between dynastic politics and instituting democracy within itself.
In 2014, India elected Narendra Modi as prime minister, an election that saw the BJP gain 166 seats and the INC lose 162 seats. This rejection of the Gandhi family has also coincided with Narendra Modi’s ascendancy. Having risen from the grassroots, Modi is the antithesis of Rahul Gandhi, whose birth into the Gandhi dynasty earmarked him for a political career. Modi has risen from a regional BJP organizing secretary to chief minister and, finally, to prime minister. Gandhi’s 16-year political career pales in front of Modi's 33 years, in substance and in volume.
Although Modi masterfully combined populism and Hindutva to win the 2014 elections, the astounding decline of the INC from its 2012 majority indicates that Indians rejected Rahul Gandhi as a potential prime minister. This conclusion has been further consolidated in the 2019 general elections, in which the INC won only eight lower house seats with Gandhi, again, at the helm.
Since Modi's 2014 election, the INC has even failed to turn major political faux pas by the Modi government — such as the 2016 banknote demonetization — into momentum. The demonetization was an issue that transcended caste, religion and gender and it could have been used to generate momentum for a competent opposition party. However, since then, the INC has only managed to flip three states: Rajasthan, Punjab and Chattisgarh. To make matters worse, INC President Rahul Gandhi lost the Gandhian stronghold and his parliamentary seat in Amethi during the 2019 general elections. The Gandhi family has nurtured and led the INC since its creation, whether it was Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajeev Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi. However, the newest generation of this dynasty — comprising Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi — has failed to steward the party since they were handed the reins in 2014.
If elections are a way to gauge the sentiments of a citizenry, the Indian electorate has overwhelmingly indicated to the INC that they will not accept their current leaders. This sentiment of nonconfidence has even surfaced within the INC itself. In Sept., 23 of the most senior INC members — members of Parliament, former chief ministers and national leaders — wrote to the INC president demanding a more democratic structure within the party. Their demands included internal elections for leadership roles, from the smallest state units to that of the INC presidency. This is the clearest evidence that factions have been formed within the party. With the leadership disregarding, without even momentary consideration, the request of the 23 members, the party seems to be on the path of eventual implosion.
The INC’s potential dissociation into two smaller parties would mark the death of any shape or form of unified coalition, in the short term, against the BJP. A new, broken INC would lose the reach, legitimacy and historic prominence the party has come to hold; most importantly, it would split the voter base further. These two smaller parties would also break the current United Party Alliance opposition into two, diminishing their political clout further. Smaller regional parties unhappy with this division may even switch alliances to the BJP, further strengthening it.
The INC has received a near consistent 19 percent of the votes in both 2014 and 2019, indicating that party continues to have a loyal voter base. The presence of such a stable voter bank allows the party to attempt to reinvent itself and pursue new voters. However, to do that, the party must ensure an honest, internal discussion between the two factions that yields a compromise between internal democracy and Gandhian patronage. A resolute, vocal and capable opposition is needed to protect our secularism, democratic culture and the sovereignty of our institutions, all of which have been continuously assaulted by Modi’s populist rhetoric. Without the INC mounting a true challenge to the BJP, the power dynamic in the country becomes increasingly unipolar. If this continues, India may see another term of Narendra Modi and future terms of his protégé and current home minister, Amit Shah. At the end of their leadership, the country may change beyond recognition.
If the INC fails to consolidate its vision, leaders and voters, it will lose powerful veterans and promising youth leaders and most importantly, the institutions and political culture it nurtured throughout Indian history.
Kunal Satpute is a contributing writer. Email him at
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