It is possible to describe the performance of the Congress in Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) elections as a political debacle. The party has performed badly in terms of securing council seats; serious internal crisis has effected the organisational credibility of the party; many leaders, including senior congressman like Arvinder Singh Lovely have left the party; and, even the leadership of Gandhi family is seen as a political burden.
This persuasive reading of the inevitable ‘decline’ of the Congress has given an opportunity to political pundits to suggest ‘what is to be done’ and ‘what not’ by the Congress to face the Modi-led BJP wave.
These simplistic, closed and categorical analysis of the Congress’ defeat, however, do not answer a larger question – what is specific about the Congress as a political party that makes it distinctive in competitive electoral politics, especially in the 2010s and in what ways is this distinctiveness fading away, at least in the MCD?
AAP’s Internal Woes Didn’t Benefit Congress
It is worth remembering that the Congress played a key role in the trifurcation of MCD, dividing the local body into three parts namely – East Delhi, South Delhi and North Delhi. This division did not favour the Congress even in 2012 elections (though the party under Sheila Dikshit had been ruling the state for a long time). The BJP comfortably won in all the three MCDs.
The emergence of the AAP changed the political arithmetic at the local level. It comfortably appropriated the conventional techniques of Congress politics and rebranded them in the name of ‘Aam Aadmi’. However, AAP’s internal problems and its subsequent electoral performances (especially in Punjab) were seen as a ‘ray of hope’ by the Congress supporters in Delhi.
But it was not going to be an easy task for the Congress precisely because of Modi-led BJP’s rise as a national political force. The election campaign of the Congress also underlined this fact.
The party, it seems, was actually fighting for the second position in MCD. The electoral results also show that the Congress won two types of seats: The party gained in those areas where it was in direct contest with the AAP; it also secured a comfortable victory where the Congress candidates were powerful and had personal credibility among the electorate.
Congress Fighting for Second Spot is Not Defeatism
Some characteristic features define the kind of politics as is being embraced by the Congress. Competitive electoral politics, we must remember, does not entirely depend on winning and losing a particular election.
Congress’ strategy to fight for the second position as a party, therefore, cannot be called defeatism of any kind. As a political organisation, the party is in a state of flux: Many leaders are moving out, and the leadership of Sonia-Rahul is being attacked.
In such a scenario, it is understandable that the party should conserve its energies for future.
After all, the politics of opposition is a relatively relaxed job, especially when the BJP is keen to function both as a ruling party (to run the country) as well as an opposition force (to secure 2019) at all levels of polity!
Secondly, the distinctiveness of the Congress should also be seen in relation to its deep professionalism. Congress has been a professional political party. As a matter of fact, it was the Congress that introduced the idea of winnability in Indian electoral politics, especially in the post-Nehru era.
Congress Needs New Kind of Professionalism
Being a centrist party, it was possible for the Congress to shift towards an electorally favourable equilibrium – either move towards Left (to reiterate pro-people ideas, such as Garibi Hatao!) or shift towards Right (to reclaim its status as a natural heir to nationalism).
This political professionalism worked perfectly well in an ideologically driven electoral politics. The Opposition forces – CPI, CPM, SP, BSP on one hand and the BJP on the other, did not pose any challenge to the Congress’ distinctive electoral professionalism in the 1990s.
But this is not the case now. The BJP, despite adhering to the ideology of Hindutva, is trying to focus on the winnability aspect as well. In fact, Hindutva is being used as an overarching framework to redefine development, economy, politics and culture values – in rather professional ways.
Congress, as it appears from the recent MCD elections, is trying to adjust with this new form of political professionalism.
(The writer is assistant professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, and Rajya Sabha Fellow 2015-2016. He can be reached @Ahmed1Hilal. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)