With one of his most scathing attacks on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government, Rahul Gandhi sounded the poll bugle for the 2019 general elections during the 84th plenary session of the Congress party in Delhi recently. The session, the first since Mr. Gandhi’s elevation as the president of the party, witnessed several Congress leaders taking jibes at the Modi government’s record on corruption, economic mismanagement and deteriorating social harmony among groups. Mr. Gandhi also candidly admitted his party’s failure to live up to people’s expectations during the last few years of UPA-II, and promised a new Congress where there would be no distance between the leadership and party workers.
A real alternative
Notwithstanding the sound bites that followed the plenary, what is the significance of Mr. Gandhi’s speech? After all, the plenary of a party, especially the one just before the general elections, is an important platform for the leadership to interact with party workers and provide them with a clear message to take to voters.
While Mr. Gandhi’s speech may have worked for the party faithful, it did not offer either party workers or voters a vision for the future. With power in only three States, and less than 50 seats in the Lok Sabha, the Congress is facing its worst crisis. More than leadership and organisation, it is facing an ideological crisis. What does the party stand for, and what differentiates it from others? Does anyone know? The Congress criticises the performance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but so do many others. The Congress projects itself as a secular and plural party. But so do many others. The Congress is for the poor man. But which party in India is anti-poor? The Congress is against corruption. Is there a party in India that favours corruption? The electoral plank of the Congress appears to be quite simple — vote for us because the BJP is bad for the country, and we used to govern, so we can govern again. Is that a real alternative? With the BJP, at least voters are aware that it stands for hard nationalistic and majoritarian politics which differentiates the party from the rest.
Need for an ideological vision
Some would argue that Mr. Gandhi highlighted the problems with the Modi government, promised voters that his party will focus on development of all, and, finally, vowed to preserve social peace and communal harmony in India. But this is not an alternative ideological vision. First, criticism of the incumbent is not an electoral vision. For many decades in independent India, the Congress’s performance in government was severely criticised by many but that criticism was never enough to overcome the TINA (there is no alternative) factor. It is also not enough to enthuse citizens to vote for a party unless the electoral strategy is to make a large segment of voters feel that the current situation is so bad that the ruling BJP has to be voted out. Also, is the Congress sure that it will benefit from a negative campaign?
Second, at the plenary, the Congress leadership stressed development for all. Development is what political scientists term a valence issue. Valence issues are issues on which a vast majority of voters have similar views. In other words, all Indian citizens would like development, the reduction of poverty, and an improvement in the conditions of rural (and even urban) India. Taking a contrary position would lead a political party to committing electoral hara-kiri.
Third, Mr. Gandhi stressed the inclusion of marginalised sections of society into the decision-making elite. This could, perhaps, form a part of an alternative ideological vision for the Congress, but the party has always been ambivalent about accommodating the marginalised. As Kanchan Chandra has pointed out, the Congress’s failure to incorporate the rising aspirations of lower castes into its fold was one of the main reasons leading to the formation of State-level parties. It may be difficult for the Congress to pursue this strategy because at this point in time the ‘marginalised’ groups in many parts of the country have their own State-level parties.
Why is it important for the party leader to articulate an ideological vision? Leaders who embody particular ideologies are better placed to hold the party organisation together. They are also able to better motivate party workers and vote mobilisers who work for the party during election time, helping in increasing the turnout and thereby giving party workers an incentive to be aligned with the leader.
This plenary was the occasion for Mr. Gandhi to articulate his vision for India, chart out a strategy for Congress’s revival and signal autonomy to state units to figure out tactics to get battle ready for the 2019 elections. Instead he chose to focus almost all his energy on criticism of the BJP and Mr. Modi, and ended up proposing merely a tactic, not a strategy. The Congress’s plan for 2019 as outlined in the political resolution is rather straightforward – to prevent the fragmentation of anti-BJP votes, the party would be open to alliances with like-minded parties without claiming leadership.
A contest of ideas
Elections are not only about sharing the spoils of the office, they are also a contest of ideas. These ideological visions, often opposing, act as a framework for leaders to chalk out long-term strategies to realise their vision. This also gives their followers and party cadres the conviction to persuade voters and fulfil the immediate objective (of winning elections). There is a reason why some leaders manage to take advantage of a crisis and turn it into an opportunity, while others fail to realise that an opportunity was knocking on the door.
Pradeep Chhibber is currently visiting the University of Barcelona; Rahul Verma is with the University of California, Berkeley; Harsh Shah is an alumnus of the University of California, Berkeley