The Indian National Congress
It is not difficult to define success in electoral politics; it is measured by objectives. There are, broadly, two objectives. If you are in play for power, then you count the number of seats you have won. If you are in play for growth, then you compare vote share, and check whether the graph of popularity is headed north, south or remains flat. Thus, Congress considers the general election of 2009 a success because it won 205 seats, and led a stable government; and 1989 a failure when it got only 197 MPs and had to sit in opposition.
If you examine these results in terms of vote share, you might be—at the very least—perplexed. In 1989, Congress got 39% of the vote and failed. In 2009 it got 28.55% of the vote and succeeded. This is partly explained by spread. In 1989, the Congress was in contest for virtually every seat in Parliament; two decades later it had shrunk substantially and needed allies. But the trick, if you are bidding to win power, is clearly to maximise the success ratio within a catchment area rather than to stand everywhere in an election and end up sitting nowhere in Parliament.
The interesting phenomenon taking place now is that both the catchment area and the success ratio of Congress are in continuing decline. Of course the party can delude itself with false analysis, but that does not really get you much further than the cold comfort of commentary. The difference between analysts and politicians is that the latter respond solely to ground reality. Number juggling is chicken soup for cheerleaders.
One would imagine that Congress would be most confident in a state where, as opposition, it is in a theoretical position to exploit anti-incumbency. But in a state like Chhattisgarh, Congress is crumbling. Ajit Jogi, who is without doubt the most effective of Congress leaders, has rebelled and seems to be on the verge of setting up his own, regional, party. There is speculation that he might only be threatening the high command, but that is probably even worse news for Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, who run Congress as a fiefdom. Even two years ago, it was the high command which threatened regional leaders guilty of indiscipline, not regional leaders who accused their Delhi chiefs of poor judgement.
Why is this happening? The obvious answer is that the transition of authority from Mrs Sonia Gandhi to her middle-aged son is stuck in uncertainty. Mrs Gandhi clearly wants to hand over the baton, but the party is not confident that the baton will be steady in the grasp of the heir. Neither Mrs Gandhi nor Rahul Gandhi has any programme for Congress revival beyond waiting for anti-incumbency to take its toll on non-Congress governments. This is a policy of stasis.
The first and most important imperative for any opposition party seeking power in a time when development has become the highest priority for the voter is to offer an alternative set of economic policies. Strangely, even this thought does not seem to have occurred to Congress leaders. Their only strategy is a relentless, and rather over-loud, attack on anyone and anything. You can get passing mileage out of decibels, but voters want to know what options you have to offer. For all the rhetoric on the coating, democracy, in essence, remains a rational business. Screaming for the sake of being heard is irrational.
Perhaps this has also been induced by the fact that the anti-incumbency is just not happening. Opinion polls done on the second anniversary of the Narendra Modi government confirm that the Prime Minister’s personal popularity remains extremely high. There is a visible economic revival, reflected not only in statistics but also in the popular mood. And in states like Madhya Pradesh, a long-serving Chief Minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, continues to pummel Congress in by-elections. Facts force most Congress leaders to retreat into silence, and take what comfort they can in helpless inertia.
But all leaders will not remain inert. Ajit Jogi is only the most recent prominent Congress leader to say that he has had enough. Congress has split in most of the Northeast, including Assam, and Uttarakhand. In some states, Congress leaders remain where they are only because they have nowhere to go. Ajit Jogi sees a better future for himself alone than as member of a party that once held sway across the country.
The current of an ebb tide runs below the surface, but that does not make it any less turbulent. Those Congress leaders who believe that nothing is amiss because the surface is seemingly placid, might find solace in delusion, but that is an unhappy epitaph.