In its long history, the party has been written off many times but every time it emerged like a phoenix and came back to power. The slide began in 1967 when the party lost many states. After the 1969 split, Indira Gandhi emerged successful in the 1971 mid-term poll. After the defeat of Indira Gandhi in 1977, the party was written off, but it rose again in 1980 and continued to rule till 1989. After V.P. Singh challenged Rajiv Gandhi in 1989, there were apprehensions about its survival, but in 1991 Congress came back to power but could not retain power. In 1998, Sonia Gandhi took over amidst panic in the party that the Congress would perish.

When no one expected the Congress to succeed, Sonia Gandhi formed the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and captured power in 2004. After ten years of the UPA rule, the party faced its worst ever humiliation of getting just 44 seats in 2014, and in 2019 just 52 seats, in the Lok Sabha polls. Once again, the Congress is being written off. No doubt the party is going through one of its worst patches right now with an existential and leadership crisis.

The Congress has always performed well in states where regional strongmen were given the reigns of handling elections. Maharashtra and Haryana polls proved this fact in recent times. That said, is that enough for the party to remain relevant? From ruling the Centre and a majority of states in the sixties and seventies, the Congress has now been pushed into a corner with its governments in only five states. When the Modi government stormed in to power in 2014, many thought that the Congress would slowly recover but it has only declined further ever. The party has failed to gauge the mood of the public for its electoral success. The winning of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh last year was like an oasis. The party has witnessed gradual decay in its state units—be it West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, U.P, Bihar, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and now Delhi. Today, the Congress is ruthlessly criticised and mocked by people because of its determination to remain bonded to the Gandhi family.

The BJP has vowed to create a “Congress mukt Bharat”, but an opposition is not bad even for the ruling party in a democracy as Vajpayee used to say. One party rule is not what our constitution makers envisioned.

Some analysts argue that the collapse of the Congress as a national alternative to the BJP creates a political vacuum. It is not as if there is no base for the Congress despite the slide as Congress is the only national party with a national presence. Even in its worst defeat the Congress managed to get 19.6% of the national vote; about 117 million people voted for it in 2019. It must build on this base.

The decline of the Congress is its own making. Its dependence on one family, its high command culture, coterie culture, losing connect with the gross root level workers, lack of organizational structure, lack of communication skills, out-of-step with the aspiration of the voters and living in its old glory are all reasons for its decline. The Congress is bonded to the Gandhi family; both want to cling to each other. Moreover, the BJP has emerged as an alternative to the Congress at the national level while in some states the regional satraps have usurped the Congress space. Since the party is stuck with the Gandhis, it is for the family to fill up the leadership vacuum and to involve the party it to get back its space in politics. They must find the right formula to do this.

So, it is too soon to write an obituary for the Congress. The Grand Old Party is like an old Banyan tree and its roots are still there in many states. All that the party needs is a charismatic leader and a vote catcher who could reinvent and revive the party. Did not the then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair reinvent the Labour party and called it New Labour? It is time the Congress wakes up, reinvents itself in step with the present, defines its ideology, strengthen state units, face the challenge of regionalism and reclaim its lost space. It was an umbrella party at one time giving space to all shades of opinions and ideologies — the right left and the centre and despite many splits in the party it has survived so far. So there is no reason why it could not do so. (IPA Service)