RIGHT ANGLE – Relevance of the Congress
At long last, the Congress party has elected a President. In the party elections that were held, Malaikarjun Kharge defeated Shashi Tharoor by a comfortable margin. It was said that the Gandhi-family would remain neutral in this election, but, in reality, it did not happen. Kharge was out and out the high command’s (Gandhi family’s) choice. So the result was a foregone conclusion.
Secondly, even though Kharge has been the elected president, he has made it clear that he would be guided by all the three members of the Gandhi family – Ms Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi. It means that whatever may be the situation, Ms. Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi will remain the supreme leaders of the party (Priyanka obviously will prefer to support her mother and brother from behind).
Thirdly, it has to be admitted that despite their many acts of omission and Commission, the Gandhi family is the rallying point of the Congress persons. Take the family away; there will be immense fighting amongst them. None of the other Congress leaders or factions will be willing to accept another’s leadership. Thus the Gandhis are the cementing factor in the Congress.
In other words, as things stand, the Congress cannot exist without the leadership of a Gandhi. So it is fair to assume that for as long as one can see, the Congress supremo in the country will be only Rahul Gandhi (given the fact that Sonia is ailing) for all practical purposes. Therefore, the more germane question is what is going to be the health of the Congress party under Rahul Gandhi.
All told, the Congress has been declining everywhere. How far this decline will be arrested by Rahul’s ongoing “padyatra” remains to be seen. From ruling 13 states in 2004, the Congress has got only two big states under its control – Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. And if the historical trends are something to go by, then the incumbent governing party loses in these states when elections are held. And elections will be held in these two states next year.
If at all there is any realistic chance of the Congress to control a major state, it could be Karnataka next year. The ruling BJP is fast losing charm in this southern state because of intra-party fighting and poor governance, ground reports suggest. And here, Rahul’s padyatra seems to have united the warring Congresspersons to wage a united fight when assembly elections are held next year.
Thus, seen over all politically, the Congress is far behind the BJP at the moment, both in terms of popular support and state governments under control. And then, there is the huge Modi-factor. Every survey made in recent times concludes that Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains the most popular leader of the country.
However, despite the sad situation that the Congress is in at the moment, it will be foolhardy to wish it away and say that come 2024, it will be either Modi vs. Kejriwal or Modi vs. Nitish Kumar. It will still be Modi vs. Rahul. The Congress is still the number two national party in terms of its presence and base in all parts of the country. In fact, India cannot afford to have a weak Congress. Any regional leader sans a national outlook or a Kejriwal whose national vision is based on freebie-culture (everything free or subsidized), cannot be an alternative to Modi and the ruling BJP.
Therefore, India’s future as a stable democracy depends on a healthy BJP and healthy Congress. If one of these two is a ruling party either by itself or in alliance with others, the other should be the principal opposition.
If the Congress party has not been able to revive itself in the last eight years, it is precisely because it is not playing the role of an opposition. Instead, it has reduced itself to be a party of obstruction. Just see the way the Congress leaders behave and shout in the two houses of Parliament when it is in session and the way it demands that the country must be run as per its wishes. This obstructionist behaviour loses voters of the party, not otherwise, in this age of live-television.
As any student of politics knows, the role of a healthy parliamentary opposition is essential for the sound working of democracy. In the absence of a vigilant opposition constantly on the alert and ever watchful of the government’s policies and actions, the ruling party will either be complacent and tardy or become arbitrary and autocratic. In other words, the presence of a strong opposition is an obstacle to despotism. Always ready to expose the wrong committed by the government and to bring to light its acts of omission and commission, a healthy opposition ensures that the ruling party can hardly afford to be negligent in the performance of its duty towards the country. It is in this context that Benjamin Disraeli had said that “no government can long be secure without a formidable opposition”.
Here, I find it is worth mentioning famous American political scientist Robert Dahl. According to him, there are four main functions of the opposition: forming an alternate government given an opportunity; influencing the public opinion on vital national and international issues so as not to allow the ruling party to become lukewarm about the country’s basic interests; exposing the ruling party of its failures to fulfill the promises to the electorate; and extending full support and cooperation to the government on occasions that threaten the very unity and integrity of the country, such as external aggression, internal armed rebellion and ethnic unrest.
I think, in India, no party is better suited to play these roles than the Congress in today’s India.
Two points are particularly noteworthy in this context. First, an effective opposition, while opposing various acts of omission and commission of the government, acts responsibly and suggests remedies and alternatives. In other words, it is vital that the opposition does not oppose just for the sake of the opposition. Its criticisms must be viable and responsible, since it is “government- in- waiting”.
Secondly, and this is a corollary of the first point, it is not the business of the opposition to obstruct the government; its purpose is to criticise, not hinder. As the longest ruling party of the country, the Congress should realise this better than others.
Viewed against this background, it is clearly understandable why in Britain, one hears of “Her majesty’s Loyal Opposition”. The leader of the Opposition in Britain not only acts as a public watchdog by keeping the actions of the Government under scrutiny; but he or she provides an element of choice for the electorate by posing as an alternative Prime Minister at the head of an alternative government. This is the reason why the British opposition leader maintains a “shadow cabinet”. In India, we may not have the system of a shadow cabinet, but the essence of the principles of a constructive opposition is as true of India as of Britain.
In the United States, the situation is quite different. There are many oppositions in the US between the Republicans and Democrats, but their oppositions to one another are little different than the ones we see in Britain or for that matter in India. Many a time the Congressmen of both the parties vote together against the Presidential proposals and oppose his actions, even though the President belongs to one of them.
In the United States, the opposition actions are organised through two major parties which act in cooperation and competition in the Congress. However, in India, we cannot imagine a situation when a Congress member can openly vote for and a BJP member votes against the policies of the Modi government.
In a sense, the Indian system is unique, different from even the one in Britain. Unlike in Britain where the politics is dominated by two parties – Labour and Conservatives – here in India we have hundreds of parties, as a result of which we have seen so many hung-Parliaments. In any case, in all the general elections held to Parliament so far, it is noteworthy that the ruling party has never received 50% of the votes polled. The nearest to the 50% mark has been touched only once in the 8th general elections held in 1984 when the Congress under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi got 49.6% of the votes polled. Predictably, he rode to power on a sympathy-wave, following the tragic assassination of his mother.
In other words, no ruling party in India can be arrogant enough to overlook the bitter reality that it is in government not because of the majority of votes that all Indian voters have cast in its favour but because of what I have written many a time – the non democratic first-past-the-post system.
The second striking feature to note in Indian elections is that until the advent of the hung-Parliament in 1989, there had always been the fact that though the ruling party got a minority of votes, the gap between it and the largest opposition was quite massive. As against the Congress’ 40-plus percentage of votes every time, the second largest parties happened to be Socialists (with varied names) with 10.6% and 12.4% votes in 1952 and 1957 elections, the then undivided Communists with 10 percent in 1962 elections, Jana Sangh with 9.4% in 1967 elections, the Congress (O) with 10.4% in 1971 elections, the Janata Dal with 19% in 1980 elections and the BJP with 7.7% in 1984 elections. In fact, in 1984, the second largest party in the Lok Sabha after the Congress was a newly formed Telugu Desam.
However, in recent years the gap between the ruling party (or principal ruling party) and the principal opposition party is not that huge. In 2014, while the NDA got more than 39% of popular votes, the share of the BJP was about 32%. Of course, the vote share of the Congress went down from 28% in 2009 to 19% in 2014; but still the 13% gap was respectable compared to the massive gaps between the victorious Congress and the second largest party in the past. Of course, in the 2019 elections, the gap between the BJP and Congress went up to nearly 20 percent, but still the gap between the ruling and principal opposition party was not as vast as it was until the 1990s.
In sum, the Congress cannot be said to be just like yet another opposition party like the JD (U) or Trinamul Congress or DMK or AAP. It is a special opposition party, which the BJP will ignore only at its peril. The Congress will always have the special capacity to bounce back strongly, provided it behaves as a responsible and constructive opposition party by talking of sensible and concrete alternatives to the policies of the government that it opposes, thus enlivening the Indian democracy.