India's Congress party politician Rahul Gandhi gestures while he addresses the party members and workers in Srinagar, on August 10, 2021 during his visit. Photo: AFP / Abid Bhat

JAIPUR – India’s Congress party is gunning for a political comeback as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fumble their handling of Covid-19, the economy and a disenfranchised countryside.

Modi’s popularity has taken a hit in recent months, peeling back some of the populist leader’s earlier Teflon aura and providing an opening for the opposition to regain recently lost electoral ground. Indian pollster CVOTER recently found those “very satisfied” with the prime minister’s performance had fallen precipitously to 37% from 65% a year earlier. 

The slippage owes partly to his government’s disastrous handling of a Covid-19 wave this year that at one point put India at the global epicenter of the disease, with news footage showing victims literally dying in the streets outside of overwhelmed hospitals.

India has recorded the third most Covid-19 deaths worldwide at 433,000, trailing only the US and Brazil.  

Meanwhile, India’s economy contracted 7.3% in 2020-21, its worst recession since independence as coronavirus lockdowns put millions out of work. The government is scrambling to revive growth through a massive US$1 trillion infrastructure program, but the damage done to millions of Indians’ livelihoods will take years to restore.

All the while, Indian farmers continue to campaign against three controversial laws passed at the end of 2020 that aim to modernize the sector but are widely perceived to favor big business over small-scale agrarians. Desperate protesters have literally died at demonstration sites, including outside of the capital Delhi.  

Congress is bidding to get on the winning political side of all these issues. Its leaders have taken to the streets, parliament and social media with renewed vigor to campaign on the BJP’s perceived failings and offer alternative approaches to the nation’s mounting problems. 

On Covid-19, former Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has recently noted he was among the first politicians to warn publicly of the dangers of the disease and effectively highlighted the government’s failure in handling the health crisis. 

Men stand near burning pyres of victims who lost their lives due to the Covid-19 at a cremation ground in New Delhi on April 26, 2021. Photo: AFP / Jewel Samad

In a February 2020 tweet that now looks prophetic, he wrote, “The Corona Virus is an extremely serious threat to our people and our economy. My sense is the government is not taking this threat seriously. Timely action is critical.”

More recently, in May, Gandi tweeted, “Shortage crisis of vaccine, oxygen & medical supply is real…unlike PM’s image.”

On the farm law issue, Gandhi traveled to Parliament on a tractor in July, a symbolic show of support for those protesting against laws he has said would not only damage the country’s food security but will also “break the spine of farmers.” He has said the laws are a “death sentence” for agrarians.

While the messaging has been pointed and strategic, it’s not clear yet the criticisms and critiques are necessarily resonating with ordinary Indians. Upcoming polls in Uttar Pradesh and six other states will put Congress’ popularity to the test.

Congress has suffered humiliating defeats to Modi’s BJP in parliamentary polls twice since 2014, when it won just 44 of 543 of Lower House, or Lok Sabha, seats. Its tally increased marginally to 52 while the BJP took 303 seats in 2019. The next Lok Sabha polls aren’t due until 2024, an eternity in India’s topsy turvy democratic politics.  

The thumping electoral losses marked a monumental setback for Congress, which has ruled India for more than 54 years in total since independence was achieved in 1947. The grand old party has struggled to contend with the BJP’s more populist and sometimes belligerent politics.

Political analysts chalk up Congress’ decline largely to unimaginative leadership that over time fell out of touch with the people’s pulse. Crucially, the some say stodgy party has lost touch with millennial and other young voters, a pivotal demographic in India’s largely youthful population.

At the same time, intra-party factionalism has meant party politicians spend as much time bickering and competing among themselves than against rival BJP politicians. That has been seen clearly in Punjab, where state-level Congress president Navjyot Singh Sidhhu is in open political combat with Chief Minister Amrinder Singh, also a card-carrying Congress member.

The lack of strong leadership (the party’s presidency is vacant) has in turn sown confusion about the party’s core ideology and stances. That has resulted in several shattering defections to the BJP in recent years, with key leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia from Madhya Pradesh and Jitin Prasad of Uttar Pradesh dramatically switching sides.   

But the BJP’s recent stumbles have appeared to reinvigorate Congress’ rank and file, with Rahul Gandhi leading from the front to exploit what could prove to be a short-lived moment of political weakness for the BJP.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters wear face cutouts of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a public rally at Kawakhali on the outskirts of Siliguri on April 10, 2021. Photo: AFP / Diptendu Dutta

On August 15, Modi unveiled a 100 trillion rupee (US$1.35 trillion) infrastructure-spending plan in an Independence Day speech he claimed would cut travel times, boost employment and improve industrial productivity, though without giving details. Modi made similar trillion-dollar budget promises in 2020 and 2019, the latter with supposed emphasis on public works projects.

So far Congress has stumped mainly on the BJP’s broken promises rather than presenting a detailed alternative plan. In recent speeches, Gandhi has raised the call for unity, both inside the party and among the opposition parties that collectively won 63% of the vote in 2019 but due to fragmentation and infighting in various constituency contests ultimately lost to BJP’s mere 37%.

“One major change has been Rahul’s aggressiveness. He seems much more mature and aggressive in his approach while taking on the Modi government on issues,” independent political analyst B K Jha said.

“People have started to take him much more seriously now. But for him there is still a long way to go,” said a Congress official on condition of anonymity. 

Rahul Gandhi’s political resurrection is not the only ray of hope for the party. His sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, 49, the general secretary of the All India Congress Committee in charge of Uttar Pradesh, is also rising in national stature. 

More strategically, perhaps, Congress is giving a key role to Prashant Kishore, a renowned political strategist whose national profile skyrocketed after he was credited for playing a key role in devising Modi’s and the then upstart BJP’s successful election strategy vis-a-vis Congress in 2014.

His then-innovative use of social media, political marketing and so-called “3D” rallies helped to redefine India’s electoral politics and give Modi’s party of old-school politicians a modern edge they never could have generated independently.  

Whether Kishore can spin the same electoral magic for the Congress at upcoming polls is unclear. There is no sign yet the age-old party has the appetite or inclination for a major rebranding exercise that veers from its historic and storied roots.  

Yet even with Congress’ recent spirited revival in challenging the BJP, some believe the party is destined to stay irretrievably behind the times. Sanjay Jha, a former Congress spokesperson, drew a pointed parallel between Congress and the BlackBerry mobile device in a recent Times of India article.

A vendor waits for costumers as he sells kites bearing images of Indian political rivals Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress party president Rahul Gandhi at a store in Bangalore in 2019. Photo: AFP / Manjunath Kiran

“Like BlackBerry in the smartphone industry, Congress once overwhelmingly dominated the political narrative in India. If BlackBerry in 2009 had 50% of the US smartphone market, Congress regularly won absolute majorities on its own in the Lok Sabha; its peak was 404 seats in 1984.

“By 2014, BlackBerry’s market share had nose-dived to less than 1% (with losses at $1 billion). In the same year, Congress was reduced to 44 Lok Sabha seats and WhatsApp, which initially appeared to be a poor third cousin of [Blackberry], got a whopping valuation of $19 billion from Facebook.

“Both remained adamant that all was well, and the slipping customer/voter mindshare, at worse, was a transient aberration. It would naturally fix itself. It did not. The Congress must aspire to be an Apple, pushing boundaries, forcing inventions, periodically rejigging its mammoth organization and recalibrating its storytelling,” the ex-Congress spokesman said.