Priyanka Gandhi speaking in Uttar Pradesh in 2012. Photo: The Times of India
Priyanka Gandhi speaking in Uttar Pradesh in 2012. Photo: The Times of India

Martin Luther King was once quoted as saying, “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”

Consensus-building is one of the most important attributes of leadership. The ability to convince others of one’s ideas and vision tells a lot about the character, determination, and personality of a person.

A leader doesn’t focus on where everyone is going and then jump to the front of the line to lead. On the contrary, a leader chooses a destination, convinces others of the merits of taking the trip, shows them how they can get there, and then leads them on the journey. But if a leader fails to do it successively, then it puts a question mark on his leadership ability.  

India’s main opposition party, Congress, is going through a similar leadership crisis. On March 10, five state assembly election results came like a cyclone for the Indian National Congress. The Congress party lost in all five states – Uttarakhand, Manipur, Uttar Pradesh, Goa and Punjab.

These state assembly elections were considered the most crucial since the 2019 general elections. It was considered a semifinal before the nation’s next general election in 2024. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was fighting a huge anti-incumbency battle in four of the states over farm laws, poor handling of the Covid-19 second wave, and rising inflation. Congress had an excellent opportunity to show its strength.  

Congress failed to counter Modi’s narrative

Congress brought in a new face for the state assembly elections. Priyanka Gandhi, daughter of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, was given the mandate to lead the party’s campaign instead of Rahul Gandhi.

The stage was perfectly set for the Gandhis to prove her leadership as the ruling BJP was facing serious anti-incumbency sentiment. She started her campaign from Uttar Pradesh, the largest and most politically crucial state of India.

Despite the fact that Priyanka Gandhi addressed 209 election rallies and roadshows in Uttar Pradesh, the most by any top leader in the state, the party won just two seats out of 403 in UP.

Apart from Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, there was a direct fight between the BJP and Congress in Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa, where the BJP was in power. But the story was more or less the same; the BJP defeated the INC convincingly in those three states, while an emerging party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), defeated the Congress government in Punjab.

These results signal the endgame for Congress as a principal opposition party.

An alternative political narrative is now emerging that regional parties like the AAP and Trinamool Congress (TMC) could be the main challengers to the nationally ruling BJP. Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP has now wrested two states from Congress and is already staking a claim as the main challenger to the BJP in the future.

So why do the voters no longer want to consider Congress as even the principal opposition party in the future?

In my previous article “India’s Grand Old Party is in survival mode,” I categorically pinpointed the deep structural problems of Congress such as the culture of promoting loyalism over meritocracy and lack of accountability in the organization. But the key thing to note is that they hardly have even a proper strategy to counter the opposition’s narrative.

In any democracy, leaders are not made on entitlement. They are chosen based on current performance and support of the people, whether in a ruling party or principal opposition. So a leader can get only one chance to be a challenger to the throne, or in certain exceptional cases, two chances.

But Indian democracy is a rare exception where irrespective of the result, the opposition challenger to the throne remains the same, that is, members of the Gandhi family. It’s a hypocritical thing to accept for any voters in any democracy, especially in modern society.

This has been a major roadblock in establishing the credibility of the opposition. More so, the bigger question is, does the Gandhi family have a divine right over the Congress party and Mahatma Gandhi’s values? If so, then it’s a dynast party, which always puts family interests over the national interest, as claimed by Modi.

Dynastic politics is near its end

Politics is all about narrative. The stronger the narrative, the better the chances of an election win. A strong narrative is built on consensus among the masses. The leader who builds a strong narrative is always a winner, irrespective of odds.

Since the elevation of Narendra Modi as prime minister, the decline of the Indian National Congress has happened rapidly. This is because Modi’s entire politics was based on opposition to dynastic politics. It has become a differentiating factor.

He has categorically said in his election rallies that dynastic politics is the “biggest enemy” of democracy as it gives rise to a new form of “dictatorship” and burdens the country with “incompetence.” During the campaign for his first term in 2014, he would often call Congress president Rahul Gandhi a shehzada (prince) and himself a chaiwala (tea seller), easily relating himself to millions of poor Indians.  

Modi has upended the political order by cleverly tapping into his humble beginnings to craft a compelling tale of an outsider taking on the political establishment made up of elites. The reason behind the huge support bases for Modi and Arvind Kejriwal is that they are outsiders and have no political lineage. Modi labeled the Gandhi family as the root of dynastic politics in India, which believes in having a divine right to rule irrespective of the result.

From a voter perspective, Modi’s narrative looks quite strong and easily relatable to the current situation. Despite successive failures in elections, none of the members of the Gandhi family has taken responsibility nor resigned from their current position. This is not acceptable in any democracy or in any society that believes in democratic values.

This is a serious strategic mistake on Congress’ and the Gandhis’ parts. They are simply playing into Modi’s hand. It suits the kind of politics he does, where he labeled the Gandhi family as a firm believer in dynastic politics and that it has no respect for democratic values.

The Gandhis are trapped in Modi’s strong narrative, and that’s why irrespective of the situation, the outcome of elections is in his favor. The Gandhis are no longer vote-catchers for Congress.

The party can be revived only if the Gandhis pull back and shed their sense of entitlement. It would send a strong narrative to Indian voters that Congress doesn’t do politics based on entitlement rather than performance as claimed by Modi.

Until Congress counters Modi’s narrative smartly, the party’s performance will more or less remain the same. A win in the 2024 general election will be highly unlikely for Congress until the narrative changes.

Ravi Kant is a columnist and correspondent for Asia Times based in New Delhi. He mainly writes on economics, international politics and technology. He has wide experience in the financial world and some of his research and analyses have been quoted by the US Congress and Harvard University. He is also the author of the book Coronavirus: A Pandemic or Plandemic. He tweets @Rk_humour.