A vendor sells kites bearing images of the Indian political rivals Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress' Rahul Gandhi at a store in Bangalore in 2019, when India was holding a general election. Photo: AFP / Manjunath Kiran

Victory is the only way through which a political party survives in the eyes of the public. But the biggest challenge faced by any political party is to keep the morale of its cadre or supporters if it loses an election. If the party loses successive elections, then it becomes very difficult to provide the cadre momentum to keep going for the next election.

That’s why leadership plays a very important role either in politics – or war. Alexander the Great summed it up: “An army of sheep led by a lion is better than an army of lions led by a sheep.”

India’s main opposition party, Congress, is going through a leadership crisis. It has lost 90% of the elections it has fought, including states, in the last 10 years.

Since the elevation of Narendra Modi as prime minister, the decline of the Indian National Congress has become rapid. The INC has lost state after state to the rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Modi. Despite the fact that Congress is currently in government in smaller states, the Grand Old Party is in survival mode. This has created a wrong perception about the party in the general population and among its supporters.

Deep structural problems

Unlike other parties, Congress is not a cadre-based party – it has ruled India for long periods because of its powerful leaders coming from one family, such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, and some other regional satraps. The party still focuses more on loyalism toward the Gandhi family as a benchmark to be a representative of Congress idealogy rather than believing in the values of Congress.

The party puts loyalism above meritocracy. So even a mediocre leader who is more loyal to the party will have more chances to exhibit leadership than one who is more meritocratic. So a perception is created in the young minds of India that the chances of growth are limited, despite strong belief in their core ideology.

Politics is all about perception. A positive perception makes a party, and a negative perception breaks a party. This is the reason the Congress party is not able to connect with young generations or new vote banks of India. Loyalism is a story of the past. Today’s people prefer meritocracy over loyalism.

For instance, a company cannot retain a culture where a non-performing employee is part of the organization just because he or she is loyal. Sooner or later the company will go down, as everyone in the organization will keep the focus on proving their loyalty rather than improving their performance.

In the same way, despite having great leaders, intellectuals, academicians, thinkers, bureaucrats in a political party, the INC has not performed to its potential, nor was it able to benefit from their expertise.

According to a report by the Association of Democratic Reforms, more than 220 electoral candidates left the INC to join other parties during polls held between 2014 and 2021, while 177 federal and state lawmakers quit the party during the same period.

Nearly 45% of MLAs (members of state legislative assemblies) who defected between 2016 and 2020 joined the BJP. Several stalwart leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia, Himant Biswa Sarma and Amarinder Singh who left the INC openly criticized the role of its high command. This has brought internal conflict out into the open.

What is astonishing is that Congress is yet to appoint a full-time president, all the more worrying given that the 2024 general election is quite near. It shows the level of professionalism of the party compared with its arch-rival BJP, which already has a leader and a vision for the 2024 election – of Hindutva. The main opposition party cannot survive just on the hope of anti-incumbency and sticking to old narratives.

Responsibility of opposition

Politics must be grounded on solving the problems of today. While a party may draw inspiration from the past, it must live in the present. The laurels of the past will not serve the present. The present is far more dynamic than the past ever was.

Any political party must live up to its cadre’s and the people’s expectations. The idea and space that Congress represents are vital for a strong opposition. But it must also understand its responsibility and duties toward the people of India as well as the aspirations of a billion people who may be looking for a better alternative. That’s the role of a responsible opposition, to provide a different vision than the ones people have.

Currently, Congress lacks the vision for a 21st-century India apart from its old narrative of a secular, plural, and diverse society. So the party has to take criticism from the front, at the same time as it needs to do proper introspection to remain consistent with current realities.

During the last two general elections in 2014 and 2019, there is no denying the fact that the INC was not able to communicate its vision and the importance of a secular, liberal, and pluralistic society to the voters. Whether that’s due to a lack of proper strategies or leadership, it’s up to the party to decide.

Introspection is the need of the hour. The time has come that opposition leadership and strategies need to be decided democratically, otherwise there is no point fighting an election in which the results are expected. More so, a party fights an election to protect and represent its ideology, not to protect its leadership.

If Congress cannot deliver on the principle of opposition, then it also doesn’t have a right to hinder other regional parties that have successfully represented the liberal ideology.

Follow Ravi Kant on Twitter @Rk_humour

Ravi Kant

Ravi Kant is a financial writer with a deep passion for technology and economics, and also covers international politics and cybersecurity. He has wide experience in the financial world and his analysis has been published in leading magazines such as Mogul News and The Indian Economist. He is author of the book Coronavirus: A Pandemic or Plandemic.