Argument

India’s Congress Party Rises from the Dead

State elections gave new hope to a moribund party.

Indian Congress party supporters hold a party flag as they celebrate in Ahmedabad on December 11, 2018. (Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian Congress party supporters hold a party flag as they celebrate in Ahmedabad on December 11, 2018. (Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s been a dark four and a half years for India’s main opposition party, the Indian National Congress. After getting trounced in the 2014 general elections by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Congress headed into a protracted downward spiral. Its parliamentary tally shrank from 206 seats (out of 543 in the Lok Sabha, or lower house of parliament) to a paltry 44—not even large enough to qualify to officially lead the opposition. In state after state, the Congress seemed unable—and, often, unwilling—to halt the BJP’s electoral juggernaut.

By mid-2018, the Congress and its allies controlled just three state governments while the BJP alliance saw its tally swell to as many as 20. The Congress watched its ranks thin as high-profile defectors made common cause with rivals better situated to confront the BJP. The heir to the once-storied Congress dynasty, Rahul Gandhi, became the butt of every Twitter meme and WhatsApp joke—an erratic dilettante whose gaffes were as frequent as his long, unexplained trips abroad.

But the much-battered party sprung back this week, with unexpected victories in three state elections across the north Indian heartland—the last set of polls before next spring’s general election. With wins in the states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan—which collectively account for 14 percent of the Indian population and 12 percent of parliamentary seats—the Congress has struck a blow in the BJP’s own backyard.

Out of a combined 519 seats across the three states, the BJP won over 70 percent of all contests in 2013. This time, the tables were turned. In Chhattigsarh, the Congress won a three-fourths majority—winning the state for the first time and displacing a 15-year incumbent BJP chief minister. In Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, a sharp swing gave the Congress narrow majorities —though in Madhya Pradesh, it required the help of a few smaller parties. In the run up to these elections, much has been made of rising rural “distress,” fueled by a combination of low commodity prices, stagnant rural incomes, and farmer indebtedness. The data from the elections clearly show, as Neelanjan Sircar has pointed out, that it is precisely where farmers and agrarian workers make up a greater share of the population that the BJP’s fortunes fell the greatest. To add insult to injury, the Congress did not simply dominate in rural pockets, it also decisively won urban voters usually dedicated to BJP. For instance, in Chhattisgarh, the Congress won 45 percent of rural seats and just 25 percent of urban ones in the previous 2013 election. Five years later, the Congress won 75 percent of seats in both categories.

Continued rural disquiet spells certain BJP losses in the heartland when the country goes for nationwide polls in spring 2019. These states are predominantly rural, and there are limited policy instruments the government can wield in the next six months to boost farmer incomes or generate good-paying jobs. As a perceptive analysis in the Indian Express noted, the Modi government deserves high marks for building rural public works, ranging from roads to toilets. But the government has not been able to generate wage growth and may in fact have harmed it through the slipshod rollout of the nationwide goods and services tax (GST) and its draconian 2016 demonetization experiment (in which it abruptly invalidated 86 percent of India’s currency in an attempt to snuff out black money)—both of which have disproportionately impacted small and medium enterprises.

The Modi government’s inability to go to the hustings on the back of its economic performance—which was the prime minister’s calling card on the 2014 campaign trail, where he promised the advent of “achhe din” (good times) for the economy—has further muddled the BJP’s election narrative. Instead, the party has touted its efforts to curb corruption, enhance India’s social safety net, and deliver pro-Hindu social policy. It is not that voters do not appreciate these changes; the trouble is they don’t put food on the table.

The BJP also suffered large losses among Dalits and tribal people, two minority groups that collectively make up nearly one-quarter of the Indian population , a crucial demographic the BJP can scarcely afford to alienate, and that had shifted toward the BJP in previous elections. Across the three northern states, the BJP lost 120 of 180 seats constitutionally reserved for these communities.

Even before this week’s poll results, there have been growing signs that the cakewalk the BJP once expected in 2019 is turning into a dogfight. Despite undertaking significant legislative and regulatory economic changes during its tenure, such as implementing the GST and ushering in a new bankruptcy code, the Modi government has failed to deliver steady growth or to stimulate job creation.

India’s fractured opposition, whose internecine squabbles prevented the consummation of a common front in 2014, began showing signs of working together in order to save their own skins. In a series of key by-elections, opposition parties put aside their differences and joined hands to defeat the BJP. This May, the Congress struck an opportunistic postelection alliance with a smaller regional party in the southern state of Karnataka in a successful, last-ditch effort to keep the BJP at bay.

And a year ago, Rahul Gandhi formally assumed the presidency of the Congress Party, replacing his mother Sonia Gandhi in the job after years of “will he or won’t he” speculation. While Gandhi’s charisma pales in comparison to Modi’s, he has proven far more consistent, diligent, and effective since assuming the top job. Furthermore, incumbency in India is a double-edged sword: unlike in many advanced democracies, incumbent members of parliament (MPs) are more likely to get tossed out of office than retained. The BJP’s asset of electoral dominance, therefore, counterintuitively poses an electoral liability.

The state elections reveal that the ruling party is surprisingly vulnerable. The BJP’s 2014 electoral triumph was largely concentrated in the northern Indian heartland. Three-fourths of the BJP’s parliamentary seats come from just eight states in the region—including the three where it just lost power—and if the results are replicated in six months’ time, the BJP stands to lose 27 seats in these three Hindi belt states alone.

Before this week, many regional opposition parties had expressed concerns about the Congress’s ability to serve as the core pillar of any anti-BJP coalition in 2019. For now, many of these doubts have been quelled, if not totally quashed. As alliance negotiations get underway for 2019, these results will increase leverage with regional players. They also demonstrate that Rahul Gandhi can captain a winning side—about which there had been grave doubt, even among party insiders. In the Hindi belt, Gandhi campaigned ferociously but also gave space to the party’s regional chieftains to establish their own profiles—a notable shift in a party that’s previously been reluctant to look outside its ruling clan.

The BJP’s political allies are also growing restless. Earlier this year, a key regional ally governing the state of Andhra Pradesh exited the ruling coalition after its demands for greater fiscal transfers were spurned. Just this week, a regional chieftain in the northern state of Bihar resigned from the Cabinet and pulled out of the BJP alliance, stating that “it is unfortunate that the government’s priority is not to work for the poor and oppressed, but to fix political opponents by hook or crook.”

Yet make no mistake, this election still remains the BJP’s to lose. Modi enjoys unrivaled popularity on the national stage; opinion polls show his favorability continues to dwarf that of Gandhi and a bevy of regional satraps. The BJP wields impressive organizational and financial advantages that give its electioneering operations a leg up over its rivals; even Congress politicians readily admit that their party is short of funds, with plans afoot to launch Kickstarter-like campaigns to crowdsource donations in the absence of major financial support from “India Inc.” The BJP has also shown an ability to ruthlessly deploy state power to put the squeeze on its political rivals. Just this past week, the respected governor of India’s central bank resigned under pressure from the government to relax limits on lending by troubled public-sector banks and greenlight a government plan to apportion some of the bank’s reserves for its fiscal priorities. Now, with its hand-picked successor in place, the bank could take steps to do the government’s bidding.

After the state elections results were announced, the Indian historian Ramachandra Guha tweeted, “The only law of Indian politics is that there is no law of Indian politics.” Undoubtedly, the rough-and-tumble of Indian democracy is not for the faint of heart. Bitter rivals become friends overnight; opposition parties which taunt the government for its populist ploys then campaign against them, promising even greater populism; and opponents of Hindu nationalism discover religion while mocking those who wear it on their sleeves. But no democracy can indefinitely defy the laws of political gravity. “It’s the economy, stupid” has become a mantra for democratic societies across the world. Why not in India?

Milan Vaishnav is a senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is co-editor of the recent book, Costs of Democracy: Political Finance in India.  @MilanV

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