The Congress deserves two cheers for recovering from being down in the dumps in 2014 to a position where it is believed to be posing a credible challenge to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
Earlier, the Congress had won several by-elections in Karnataka, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh to show that it has been able to pick itself up from the floor. Its success in forming a coalition government in Karnataka, although the BJP emerged as the single-largest party, is also a feather in its cap.
What is intriguing about these outcomes is that there has been no evidence that the Congress has succeeded in rejuvenating its customarily lethargic organisational structure or that its leaders have been able to present themselves as genuine hopes for the future.
Neither Rahul Gandhi nor the party’s leaders in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka are seen by the average voter as being capable of ushering in a new era of progress and prosperity.
All that they have been able to do is to present themselves as alternatives to the present ruling dispensation in Karnataka and the three northern states. Yet, that achievement has been enough to make the Congress more confident than before.
The apparent reason for the self-assurance probably has less to do with wide popular approval for the Congress than with the affliction of the anti-incumbency factor for the BJP.
If the Congress is benefitting from the BJP’s discomfiture, it means that the party has been largely able to overcome the damaging taint on its reputation as a result of the multiple scams and the government’s policy paralysis which brought it crashing down four years ago.
It is not that public memory is short, but the experience of some of the government’s present inadequacies are stronger. Among them is the continuing joblessness, whose impact is perhaps all the greater because it was the promise of a buoyant economy fostering employment which was behind the BJP’s success in the last general election.
Along with unemployment, it is possible that the dismay among the middle-class caused by the troubles affecting well-regarded institutions like the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has been damaging for the BJP.
The realisation that the BJP is no longer on as strong a wicket as before appears to have made the Hindutva camp led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevek Sangh (RSS) revive the temple movement and even assert that it will not hesitate to start the kind of agitation which marked the movement in 1992-93 if construction work does not immediately begin on the temple.
The BJP so far has been reticent on its intentions — the party is probably waiting for the results from the three BJP-ruled states, as also of Telangana, before revealing its hand — but how the Congress will respond if a bill on the temple’s construction is brought before parliament is unknown.
The uncertainty is due to the fact that the Congress’s recovery has been accompanied by instances of back-sliding such as playing the “soft” Hindutva card which has brought the party close to the BJP, as in the Sabarimala episode in Kerala.
Like the somewhat hazy stance on secularism, the Congress’s economic outlook is also unclear with Rahul Gandhi’s emphasis on loan waivers for farmers suggesting that the party remains stuck in the old populist mode which was the hallmark of the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC) which hobbled Manmohan Singh’s economic reforms.
It was Narendra Modi’s promise to continue the reforms which was behind his victory. And it is his backtracking, presumably under pressure from protectionist saffron outfits like the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and to counter Rahul Gandhi’s “suit-boot ki sarkar” jibe, which is one of the reasons why the BJP is now on the back foot.
But if the Congress wants to re-establish its image of the immediate post-independence years as a modern, secular party, it will have to stop playing footsie with Hindutva or don the NAC’s crypto-communist cap.
Any gains it is making at the moment is almost entirely due to the BJP’s failings on the economic and social fronts, where the misery caused by the lack of jobs and agricultural distress has been compounded by the violent antics of the gau rakshaks and targeting of minorities via the erasure of the Muslim names of towns.
But except for the Congress’s diehard supporters, a return to the NAC’s “socialism” minus secularism will not be a welcome development. To gain wider support, the Congress will have to reiterate its commitment to both economic reforms and secularism.
The party’s leaders and spokespersons will also have to display sobriety and grace while referring to their opponents — attributes which are singularly absent in the latter, who appear to revel in vitriol.
Unless the Congress marks itself out as completely different from the BJP, it will be difficult for the party to project a clear alternative to the BJP’s quasi-religious politics with is focus on widening the Hindu-Muslim divide and the erosion of institutional autonomy.