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India’s Lost Opposition
India’s Congress party is having a moment. Will it be enough to unseat Modi?
Rahul Gandhi’s nationwide mass mobilization program couldn’t have been more fortuitously timed.
In September, Gandhi—the leader of India's opposition Congress party and scion of an Indian political dynasty that has given India three prime ministers—began a foot march across India. By the time the 4,000-kilometer-long nationwide “Bharat Jodo Yatra” (“unite India march”) wound its way to its conclusion in the country’s northern Kashmir region last month, Gandhi received another boost: a Wall Street short-selling firm accused one of India’s richest men, Gautam Adani, of accounting fraud and “pulling the largest con in corporate history.” The report sent stocks of Adani companies into free fall, wiping over $100bn off their market value and drawing increasing scrutiny to the close ties between the billionaire and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Adani affair, and the apparent vindication of Congress’ relentless charges of cronyism against Modi’s government and his BJP party, has put a spring in Gandhi’s step after his mega march. For years, Gandhi has been drawing criticism for his lackluster presence on the national stage: the quality of his leadership, coupled with his dynastic position at the head of the Congress, sharply contrasts with Modi’s self-made image. Now, Gandhi’s supporters believe the arduous trek from India’s southern tip to its northern crown has struck a chord with voters—the march drew enormous crowds throughout its five months—and negated the BJP’s branding of him as an unserious politician. With ten state elections slated for this year, and the next general elections due in 2024, an upbeat Congress is looking to the march to revive its fortunes. But even Gandhi’s new energy may not be enough to breathe life into his sclerotic party. Without substantial changes to the creaking party organization, hopes for a Congress revival may be premature.
For five decades after leading the country to independence in 1947, the Congress party dominated India’s politics. Much has changed since then. Wracked by a series of corruption cases, economic mismanagement and policy paralysis in its final years, the Congress has looked rudderless out of power. Losing state after state, its relevance at the federal level has shrunk drastically. Internal tussles between the old and the new guard close to Gandhi have led to a series of desertions of top and mid-ranking leaders, worsening the stasis. His critics blame the party’s reverses on his reluctant leadership. Today Congress is a withered political force and a weakened organization, fading rapidly since the arrival of Modi on the national scene and ceding its position as the default party of governance to the BJP. The Congress now controls just three of India’s 28 states and less than 10 percent of seats in the directly elected Lower House of Parliament.
As the Congress receded over the years, regional parties in many states filled the political space it vacated. In the decade before Modi won the general elections in 2014, the Congress ruled India at the head of an alliance of such parties. In the years since, some regional parties have successfully staved off the BJP in their respective states. Now, they are reluctant to grant the 137-year-old Congress its historical default leadership role in the coming charge against Modi.
Decades of ceding ground to regional allies in return for support at the federal level has robbed the Congress of the ability to charge its weak state units, limiting its ability to contest local elections on its own steam in much of India. In October, the party held a much-awaited internal election to rev up the organization. It even gave the party a non-Gandhi chief—albeit one close to the Gandhis—for the first time in 25 years. But not much else has changed. In the states where the Congress is still relevant, its local units continue to be riven by factionalism, and in states where it has faded, there isn’t much evidence of the party stirring back to life, or even trying to. Three state election results declared yesterday saw the BJP retaining power in two states and joining the ruling alliance in the third, small regional parties faring well, and the Congress still underperforming.
Also read: The Slow Death of Gandhi’s India
Then there is Modi’s strength. A year away from the election, Modi still towers over his rivals. His politics of ultranationalism mixed with muscular Hinduism has perceptibly moved Indian politics to the right. His personal popularity, the BJP’s deep pockets (the party is the prime recipient of electoral funding), its well-oiled party machinery, grass-roots reach, control over a servile media and governing institutions such as the Election Commission and law enforcement agencies all give him an air of invincibility.
Modi has also been cementing his grip on power through a carefully cultivated cult of personality and suppression of dissent and civil liberties. Last month, after the release of a BBC documentary highlighting Modi’s role in religious violence in Gujarat state in 2002, tax authorities launched a 60-hour raid on the BBC’s India offices. Last week, a Congress spokesman was dramatically deplaned and arrested for merely misnaming Modi’s middle name. Discrimination against minorities, especially Muslims, is rising in an increasingly brazen project to remake India’s secular republic as a Hindu majoritarian state. Lynchings and open calls for genocide of Muslims are now fairly routine. So is the brutalization of Muslim lives by state governments controlled by the BJP, for example the new trend of bulldozing Muslim homes on the pretext of unproven criminality and the targeting of Muslim men in interfaith relations on charges of “love jihad.”
As a result, the stakes are extraordinarily high for next year’s elections. India has already been falling rapidly in democracy rankings since Modi’s rise to power. Sweden’s V-Dem Institute now considers it a “electoral autocracy.” Modi’s critics fear that one more term for him will irreversibly alter India’s constitutional inclusivity and destroy its democracy.
Despite Modi’s seeming political might and his legislative strength in Parliament, however, the BJP’s sweep over a politically diverse India is far from complete. Though the party holds 56% of the seats in the Lower House, it secured just 31% of the votes in the 2014 election, and 37% in 2019 when Modi was re-elected. (India’s first-past-the-post system can exaggerate moderate performance as thumping wins, an effect accentuated by votes being fragmented by a multiplicity of parties.) In terms of percentage of total voters—factoring in the number of voters who did not exercise their franchise—the BJP’s popular support likely comes down to about 25 percent. That is to say: three-quarters of Indian voters remain unmoved by the politics of Hindu supremacism, or Hindutva. And even among the quarter who vote for the BJP, many do so not principally because of animus toward Muslims but simply because they see Modi’s BJP as a better custodian of state power than ineffectual parties like the Congress. Viewed in this light, Congress’ parlous state is more a function of its weak party organization, infighting and the failure to spot, retain and nurture talent, rather than a purported wave of Hindutva.
At the regional level, the BJP today controls 16 of the country’s 28 states—yet in half a dozen of those states, the BJP came to power not by winning elections, but by engineering enough legislators to cross over to its side through inducements and intimidation, often defecting from the Congress itself as a result of its own weakness, rather than the BJP’s appeal.
By spotlighting the ho-hum economy, as opposed to the roaring powerhouse that Modi had promised, and talking about inflation, unemployment and cronyism, the Congress is attempting to make the most of the moment. Gandhi’s march for unity might well have been a powerful ideological statement against Modi’s divisive politics, as the Congress claims. And Modi’s ideological Hindutva may have less purchase among voters than it has in the national conversation. But these factors are not in themselves a fix for the enfeebled state of India’s largest opposition party. Gandhi’s tireless march does not make up for his tired party. His movement, however successful, doesn’t solve this central problem, and until it does, the Congress can’t hope to break India’s march toward illiberalism.
Debasish Roy Chowdhury is co-author of To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage To Despotism.
Editor’s Note: The piece has been updated to indicate that Indian police raided the BBC offices last month, not this month.
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