By Harihar Swarup
The Bharat Jodo Yatra will culminate on January 30 in Srinagar with a flag hoisting ceremony at Srinagar on the anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. By then, the yatra which began on September 7, 2022 would have traversed the length of the sub-continent from Kanyakumari to Himalayas. The yatra has undoubtedly enthused the Congress cadre and imparted new life in the party which was deemed incapacitated. More importantly, it has replaced the earlier ‘Papu’ image of Rahul Gandhi’s with that ofa mature individual and a creditable political leader. His image of removing hate and introducing love between communities in the nation has marked, igniting much debate in social media. Even Rahul Gandhi’s detractors agree that the difficult Yatra has earned him the respect and support of the people in areas where it has passed. Attempts by BJP leaders to criticize the Yatra and Rahul Gandhi have not achieved much success.
The seminal question is whether the Yatra can bring electoral success for the Congress. While senior Congress leaders have said the aim of the Yatra is not to capture power, there is little doubt that unless this happens, the goal of social harmony would be difficult to achieve. This is because the Congress is the largest opposition party in the country with a footprint in regions—out of 403 Lok Sabha seats it contested in 2019 general elections, it won 52, came second in 196, and obtained 19.5 per cent of total votes.
The Congress is main Opposition party in 12 states—Punjab, Assam, Karnataka, Kerala, Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Goa, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland. It is in direct contest with BJP in seven states—Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand, which account for 102 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats. Regional parties do not have significant presence or strength at the national level. Without a rejuvenated and transformed Congress, the opposition can not hope to dent the BJP’s fortunes in these states in 2024 polls.
The AAP won just one seat in the Lok Sabha in 2019 and was ranked third in most of the constituencies. The TMC won 22 seats in 2019 compared to 34 in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections: the TRS won nine of 17 seats in 2019 compared to 11 in 2014. Opposition parties by not supporting / aligning with the Congress, where it is the major opposition force, will divide the anti-BJP votes. However, it is doubtful whether the Congress is capable of being the fulcrum of opposition unity against the BJP in 2024. A party in decline since 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress has three key problems:
First, centralization of power, and decision making at the top: second, organizational weakness; and third, lack of unity. Despite the election of a non-Gandhi as party president, the high command culture and the presence of the Gandhi family still continue—as a result of which decisions are taken at the top and local leaders are ignored. Elections to the Congress Working Committee have not been held for nearly 25 years, the last being in 1998. Organisationally, the strong federal structural of the party was destroyed by Indira Gandhi in the 1970 through centralization and personalization of power, creating a pyramidal decision-making structure. With the abandonment of the principal of representation, Congress committees and party offices were filled by appointment rather than through election. Centralization of power led to dismemberment of the party at the grass roots.
Without a clear line of leadership, factions have emerged that have destroyed the internal unity and coherence of the party. During the immediate post-independence period, factional group provided the building blocks of the party ensuring a measure of internal democracy. Over the years, factionalism has weakened the party, leading to loss of power .Being in office does not help, the party remains divided in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh between contending groups over the chief minister’s post. The G-23 groups of senior leaders — who following a series of elector defeats, demanded organizational reforms and an exclusive and collective decision — making system– have further divided the party.
The Yatra cannot reform the party. Yet there is urgent need to do so as the Yatra does have a political thrust evident from the Congress inviting 21 likeminded political parties to joining the collective event in Srinagar. With the grand finale, the Congress hopes to make the Yatra conclusion rally a show of strength of the Opposition. The Trinamool Congress, Janata Dal (United), Telugu Desam Party, CPI-M, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Samajwadi Party and BSP are among those invited; the AAP has not been invited. But the prospects of Opposition unity of the opposition parties uniting along with the Congress have many hurdles to cross. (IPA Service)