India’s Congress Party Is Still in Decline

Veteran politicians are defecting for regional parties or even the ruling BJP, further undermining the country’s democracy.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and , a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and Stanford Law School.
Former Indian National Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi (center) arrives to address a rally against inflation in New Delhi on Sept. 4.
Former Indian National Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi (center) arrives to address a rally against inflation in New Delhi on Sept. 4.
Former Indian National Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi (center) arrives to address a rally against inflation in New Delhi on Sept. 4. SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images

At the end of August, veteran Kashmiri politician Ghulam Nabi Azad announced that he would leave the Indian National Congress, the country’s main opposition party, to form a political party of his own. In his letter of resignation, he lambasted Rahul Gandhi, the political scion who despite resigning as Congress party leader in 2019 still wields considerable clout. Azad accused him of refusing to consult with party stalwarts on major decisions while empowering a group of “inexperienced sycophants” to run the party.

Azad’s departure is just the latest sign of growing resentment among the Congress party’s ranks. Azad follows three other senior Congress politicians—Kapil Sibal, Amarinder Singh, and Jyotiraditya Scindia—who have recently defected for other parties. Their resignations come on the heels of an August 2020 letter from 23 senior party leaders to Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi—Rahul Gandhi’s mother—to express their unhappiness with the leadership and the hollowing out of organizational structures within the party.

The Congress party has been waning since 2014, when it lost to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the national stage, followed by defeats in state elections. In 2019, the BJP surged while Congress won just 52 out of 542 contested seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s Parliament. The party continues to suffer at the polls: So far this year Congress has lost seats in four of five state legislative assembly elections. Despite these losses, the Congress party has been slow to restructure. To put it bluntly, the party that ushered in India’s independence now appears to be in terminal decline.

At the end of August, veteran Kashmiri politician Ghulam Nabi Azad announced that he would leave the Indian National Congress, the country’s main opposition party, to form a political party of his own. In his letter of resignation, he lambasted Rahul Gandhi, the political scion who despite resigning as Congress party leader in 2019 still wields considerable clout. Azad accused him of refusing to consult with party stalwarts on major decisions while empowering a group of “inexperienced sycophants” to run the party.

Azad’s departure is just the latest sign of growing resentment among the Congress party’s ranks. Azad follows three other senior Congress politicians—Kapil Sibal, Amarinder Singh, and Jyotiraditya Scindia—who have recently defected for other parties. Their resignations come on the heels of an August 2020 letter from 23 senior party leaders to Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi—Rahul Gandhi’s mother—to express their unhappiness with the leadership and the hollowing out of organizational structures within the party.

The Congress party has been waning since 2014, when it lost to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the national stage, followed by defeats in state elections. In 2019, the BJP surged while Congress won just 52 out of 542 contested seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s Parliament. The party continues to suffer at the polls: So far this year Congress has lost seats in four of five state legislative assembly elections. Despite these losses, the Congress party has been slow to restructure. To put it bluntly, the party that ushered in India’s independence now appears to be in terminal decline.

Unfortunately, the problems that afflict the Congress party are deep-seated. Beginning during the tenure of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the 1960s and 1970s, its organizational apparatus has withered, loyalty to the party leadership has taken precedence over ideas, and sycophancy has become rife within its ranks. The Congress party’s ongoing disarray bodes ill for the future of India’s democracy. It leaves a wide void in the political opposition, allowing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP—with its substantial parliamentary majority—to easily rebuff any challenge to its policies.

The Congress party’s current dysfunction traces as far back as Indira Gandhi’s first term, from 1966 to 1977. Indira Gandhi assumed office after the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri, who had succeeded her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, as prime minister. The key Congress power brokers assumed she would be pliable; to their surprise, she played hardball, going as far as splitting the party in 1969 when the old guard stood in her way. Nehru nurtured the party’s grassroots, encouraged dissenting views, and held periodic elections for party positions. Indira Gandhi ended these practices, centralizing power in New Delhi and relying on a small group of advisors with little tolerance for internal opposition. These choices led to the resignations of several senior leaders of the party, many of whom formed their own regional parties.

After Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, she was succeeded by her son Rajiv Gandhi, who initially showed some interest in party reform. In a famous speech marking the party’s centenary in 1985, Rajiv Gandhi lashed out at the “self-perpetuating cliques” within the Congress party and called for critical reforms, including reorganization, a return to the party’s early ideology, and outreach efforts that would make the party relevant to the masses. Despite this call to arms, Rajiv Gandhi ultimately backed away from reform efforts when faced with opposition from within the Congress party. The organizational atrophy that began under Indira Gandhi continued.

Then, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, and the Congress party struggled to identify a successor. P.V. Narasimha Rao eventually emerged, leading the party and India from 1991 to 1996. After the Congress party lost the 1996 national elections, Sonia Gandhi—Rajiv Gandhi’s widow—orchestrated a takeover and has remained at the epicenter of the party ever since. Sonia Gandhi initially proved an adept leader, building a stable, cross-party coalition that pulled off surprising national victories in 2004 and 2009. However, like Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi consolidated power with the ultimate intention of transferring control to her son, Rahul Gandhi.

Sonia Gandhi ensured that her son would encounter minimal opposition from within the party, but she could not protect him from his own shortcomings. Although he was not yet formally the party leader, the BJP took the opportunity to portray him as a complete political novice. In 2014, Rahul Gandhi unofficially led Congress’s defeat in the national elections, with the BJP taking an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. Immediately after the loss, Rahul Gandhi disappeared from view: He skipped several of the Congress party’s most important events, including the farewell to outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the party’s 130th Foundation Day events later that year.

Although the Congress party lost several state elections over the next few years, Sonia Gandhi’s plan nonetheless went ahead. Rahul Gandhi was officially named head of the party in 2017, two years before national elections. When the party lost again in 2019, Rahul Gandhi resigned as its leader, but his mother stepped in again as interim president, with the COVID-19 pandemic extending her term. The Congress party has now been ruled by either Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi since 1998; during this period, its executive committee has abandoned internal elections in favor of appointments, further concentrating power within the Gandhi family.

Amid the leadership struggles, the Congress party has failed to offer a viable ideological alternative to the BJP. In recent years, Congress leaders have not consistently maintained the party’s commitment to secularism. They have not offered a blueprint for India’s economy that clearly differs from the current government’s, and they have not bluntly confronted its efforts to squelch civil liberties. The Congress party is in organizational disarray: Its leadership is bereft of ideas, and nepotism has hobbled the emergence of newer, more imaginative leaders. As a result, it has eroded its own ability to stage a political comeback.

The Congress party’s eclipse undermines India’s democracy: No other entity can fill the void as a viable national opposition party. And other than criticizing BJP policies, the Congress party has failed to articulate a compelling and differing political vision. Furthermore, the overall opposition remains fragmented along regional lines. Success has been limited to particular states, such as that of the Trinamool Congress party in West Bengal, and even regional parties now find themselves under the BJP’s anvil. The ideological and organizational disarray of the Indian left has put Modi’s party in an even more advantageous position. There is now no alternative to its leadership, and unless the Congress party can forge a working coalition with various regional parties, the BJP’s dominance will remain unchallenged.

However, as the Congress party continues to disintegrate, the leaders who quit are likely to turn to the BJP or to these opposition movements at state and regional levels, further weakening the prospects for a national opposition. Azad’s new party is likely to focus on contesting elections in Indian-administered Kashmir, where a vote could take place next year, after the formerly semi-autonomous region’s reorganization by the BJP in 2019. The Congress party has rarely enjoyed much more than a toehold in Jammu and Kashmir, but Azad’s departure will further undermine its tenuous standing there.

In response to Azad’s resignation, the Congress party announced that internal elections for a new party president would be held next month. But it’s not clear whether control of the party will actually transfer outside the Gandhi family, as several senior party officials are once again recruiting Rahul Gandhi to take the reins. Furthermore, the party hasn’t committed to a transparent process, and party reformers have expressed concern that they might not know who is eligible to vote. A new battle for control will pit Gandhi family stalwarts against reformers, including the remaining members who signed the dissenting letter in 2020.

Whatever happens, the next leader of the Indian National Congress will not only have to repair a divided and disorganized party, but they will also contend with a difficult political landscape. With the BJP ascending at the national level and increased competition from state and regional parties, whoever takes charge of the Congress party will face an uphill battle.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University Bloomington.

Dinsha Mistree is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and Stanford Law School. He also teaches in the international policy program at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

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