Shikha Mukerjee | Congress’ main challenge is burden of expectations

The Asian Age.  | Shikha Mukerjee

Opinion, Columnists

The victory has unsurprisingly created a dilemma that has become quite routine for the Congress

Congress workers holding the party flag celebrate the party's win in Karnataka Assembly elections, outside Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru, Sunday, May 14, 2023. (PTI Photo)

After its decisive victory in Karnataka, the Congress Party now has to live up to the expectations it has raised. The win is as much an unequivocal verdict against Narendra Modi’s vision of “One Party, One Nation, One Leader” and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s conviction that its organisation can convert anti-incumbency into a renewed mandate, as it is an endorsement for the Congress as the alternative in Karnataka.

The victory has unsurprisingly created a dilemma that has become quite routine for the Congress. The crisis as it unfolds reveals the indecision that is inevitable when the authority of the party’s high command and confidence in its solutions has eroded to the point that chief ministerial hopeful D.K. Shivakumar on his way to New Delhi declared his intention was not to back stab and blackmail, by which one can assume he meant the party and his rival. The indecision over who should be chief minister also made the Congress vulnerable to extra political pressure, from the Veerashaiva Lingayat seers, a section of Muslims represented by the Karnataka Waqf Board chairman Shafi Sadi writing to Mallikarjun Kharge stating their terms of support for the biggest test of the rejuvenated party in the 2024 general election.

These claims openly made are symptomatic of the erosion of authority of the Congress’ central leadership. This was true for the times when Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi held the presidentship of the party. It is turning out to be true now that the Congress has an elected president in Mallikarjun Kharge.

Despite its pompous description, the high command seems to have very little capacity to put down insurrections or punish insurrectionists. The festering five-year war between Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan, which has reached yet another crisis point, following the younger leader’s dharna, padayatra and now ultimatum is confirmation that the high command’s writ does not run in the state. The high command’s pitiful state was evident when it was held to account by the G-23, a group of senior party leaders who demanded an overhaul starting with a strong democratically elected leadership.

The Congress as an election fighting outfit is the first responsibility of the party president and the high command, whoever the persons on it may be. While the Congress has revealed a formidable strength in its unexpected ability to convert the disadvantages in Karnataka of rival factions, caste-based politics, religious community loyalties and an educated population into a winning strategy, it must reflect on how this astute political manoeuvre can be replicated.

One probable reason was that the party reaped the dividend of an organisation that was battle ready despite the rivalries between Siddaramaiah, D.K. Shivakumar and M.B. Patil, all of whom kept their bit of the party organisation fighting fit after the party lost power. In Rajasthan, the organisation is battle ready for much the same reason as the two rivals have worked in parallel to keep their turf under control through the war that has been going on for years.
It is now Mr Kharge’s job to figure out how he can convert this weakness into strength. Unless he can do so, the Congress faces almost inevitable defeat in the forthcoming state Assembly elections.

Finding the mantra to settle warring leaders and get them to work for the larger goal of winning the election is what the Congress really needs. It has warring leaders in almost every state; in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh where it is the ruling party and faces anti-incumbency and the ugliness of the internecine conflict; as well as in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and even West Bengal.

The other lesson that the Congress needs to learn is how to play host to important defectors, disgruntled over candidate or constituency selection by the authoritarian BJP high command, as it did in Karnataka. Till now, it has been the party that haemorrhaged most, with large-scale defections that have debilitated the organisation. It cannot afford to lose the investment in made in building up leaders by declaring like an offended debutante, if they want to go, we will not stop them.

Of equal priority is the much more difficult task of developing a winning ideological narrative to take on the BJP and its outsize leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In Karnataka, Mr Kharge pulled off a stunning ideological finesse by going all out “secular” with a promise to ban extremist religious outfits like the Bajrang Dal and the Popular Front of India. The “Bajrang Bali” campaign blew up in Mr Modi’s face and powered the Congress to power with 135 seats.
To escape the trap of the BJP hardening its overpowering right-wing Hindutva majoritarian politics that virtually cancels the commitment to secularism required of political parties by the Constitution, Mr Kharge has to follow through on the Karnataka strategy.

The less obvious bit of the Karnataka strategy is the careful utilisation of Rahul Gandhi and the control over what he said. That ought to be replicated. After years of serving up Rahul Gandhi as a sacrificial offering to challenge Mr Modi’s carefully scaled-up persona and make it an easy target for the BJP to regurgitate its practised tirade, the Congress now has a leader who is familiar with the masses. The Bharat Jodo Yatra has transformed the scion of the so-called “Shahi Parivar”, now a branded “anti-national”, into a very different icon.

Regrettable as his occasional facetiousness may be, not least being his recent tweet “I am Invincible” and “I am unstoppable” after the victory in Karnataka, the party has an asset that it can weaponise to counter the BJP, between now and the general election in 2024. Rahul Gandhi is now a mass mobiliser. Harvesting the surge of enthusiasm that he can create into votes is the responsibility of the party organisation.

The Congress has three main tasks: to focus on state-specific issues for Assembly elections without losing sight of the larger context; to market its ideological commitment to economically progressive, pro-poor, secular, liberal values and government policies; and to beat the anti-incumbency legacy that it is being made to carry by Narendra Modi and the BJP’s line of 70 years of bad governance. The trick may lie in trying to focus on the almost 10 years of Mr Modi’s rule because elections are also a verdict on the performance of the ruling government.

Instead of being distracted by sentiment, what the Congress Party needs most is to focus on winning and confidently deliver that message to voters.