The Congress once again failed to impress the voters. Rahul Gandhi as party leader failed to win back the lost support. The Congress won 44 seats in 2014, and could only managed 51 seats in 2019. The defeat in 2014 was a tragedy for the Congress, but in 2019 it’s farce.
There was a ray of hope for Congress in December 2018, when it won three state assembly elections. The party won three states back from the Bharatiya Janata Party in December last year. Congress lost badly in the Hindi belt of North India and in the South. It lost badly in eastern states. Congress failed to make inroads into Mahashtra.
Congress was the national force in Indian politics before the rise of BJP in 1990s. Congress was led by the charismatic and most powerful leaders like Nehru and Indra Gandhi. Rajiv Gandhi was the last leader of the congress who won two thirds of majority and a national landslide. It had, in every state, various opponents that represented state-level interests. That position in national politics, as the national pole in most state polities, has been taken now by the BJP. It has taken that position for one simple reason: its conception of Indian nationhood has fought and won a battle, over the past decade and more, against the Congress’ “Idea of India”.
It seems that Congress’s Idea of India has lost its appeal in the wider layers of Indian population. Congress is losing out to BJP on the ideology. Congress stood for secularism and pragmatic Indian nationalism: the notion that India is a bundle of contradictions, of competing group assertions, and it is the duty of the Indian state is to play an arbiter between them, to cover up and manage these centripetal and divisive forces through inclusion, representation and occasional preferential treatment. But this ideology is now losing out to the ideology of hatred of Sangh Pariwar.
The Congress ideology has been replaced at the national level by another ideology: not just that of the Sangh, but its version as refined by Narendra Modi. This conception is that India is essentially Hindu; India is a unitary civilisation, divided by the vestiges of countless invasions; India must eventually be strong on the world stage, and in order to be strong, it must embrace its Hindu identity and be united in mind.
This oddly European notion of national identity can be traced back to Savarkar and Golwalkar and even further, but under Modi, it has been refined to include the promise of social and economic mobility within the great Hindu umbrella, and that has made a crucial difference. Other identities are dangerous, by the BJP’s reckoning and Congress’s notion of India being constructed of multiple overlapping and argumentative identities must be replaced with that of a single one.
Dalits, OBCs, Bengalis, Lingayats, and even minorities must remember they are Hindus first if India is to progress. Modi’s idea of India’s future was that it should be strong, rich and Hindu, and that all three things would have to happen together or none of them would happen at all. And this, in a nutshell, is the dominant conception in national politics today.
The Congress has lost this election not because it failed to strike a few alliances, or because of the personality of Rahul Gandhi, or because it was poorer than the BJP and had fewer levers of influence. It lost because it has lost the ideological argument.
Congress could have win two or maximum three dozen more seats if it had formed the alliances with different regional parties. But it was impossible for it to stop the march of Modi and his allies to wards victory without having a grand alliance of all the opposition parties. The victory margin of BJP is so big that only a national grand alliance could have given a tough time to Modi. Congress lost the propaganda war. It lost the ideological war against Modi and Sangh Pariwar.
Many people in the mainstream media will argue now that Rahul Gandhi is the only problem. Sure, many people think he is uninspiring. His personality is not the problem. The problem is the ideas he stand for. We live in the age of right wing populism. We live in the era of Trump, Modi and Bolsonaro. This is not the era of Nehru, Bhutto, Allende and Kennedy. Rahul Gandhi looks unimpressed and uninspiring because his ideas are no more attractive and inspiring. And who would you replace him with?
There is no other leader in the Congress who can keep it united and restore its past glory. Can anyone imagine a single leader in the Congress who, as a national leader, would have been able to withstand the waves of 2014 and 2019? Indira and even Rajiv represented the dominant strain of Indian nationalism. Sonia and Rahul represent an increasingly weak and vanishing version. Some things are beyond personality.
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