The Congress party: Social democracy or family business?

Since its unexpected victory in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress party has led two coalition governments. Now, ten years later, the party finds itself in deep crisis. If nothing else, then at least the heavy defeats in the last round of assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi in late 2013 mean that the Congress enters the Lok Sabha elections with a considerable handicap.

The country is already in the grip of the pre-election campaign. What separates the parties and what are the major issues on which the parties will be divided? Corruption, inflation, unemployment, communalism and good governance will certainly be at the forefront of the campaign. Will there be something like a presidential debate between Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP; Indian People’s Party) and a challenger to the governing United Progressive Alliance (UPA), and the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress? Or can other parties and personalities play a major role in the election campaign, which would be a more accurate reflection of the diversity of India?

So far, the Congress and the Hindu nationalist BJP are the only national parties in India. However, particularly in the case of the BJP, they are limited in their reach, which does not extend to all parts of the country. All the other parties are, at best, regionally concentrated or, as is usually the case, represented only in a particular state.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, the "Common Man Party"), founded only in 2012 and currently the ruling party in Delhi, will contest the 2014 Lok Sabha election. AAP could cause existing assumptions, particularly in urban and semi-urban constituencies, to change significantly. The mantra of the ‘largest democracy in the world’ often obscures a realistic view of the Indian party landscape. Indian parties are very different from parties in Europe. There is virtually no democracy within a party, which is led by a kind of ‘political commander’.

There are around 120 political dynasties or political families in India. Elections are also an expensive affair with an estimated several billion Euros having been spent on the 2004 and 2009 Lok Sabha elections respectively. A not insignificant amount is accounted for by the illegal hawala money for the political class, some of which comes from (foreign) business deals involving kickbacks, an example being the import of weapons. This reveals the plutocratic and, to some extent, criminal elements evident in more than just a handful of actors in India’s democracy.

In a television programme, T.S.R. Subramanian, the former Cabinet Secretary, called politics the ‘biggest private business’. According to him, most of the politicians do not want reform and are not interested in change. Political instability and fragmentation The dominance of the Congress party that ruled independent India single-handedly for decades was broken back in the 1989 Lok Sabha election and certainly in 1996. Six Lok Sabha elections, which would normally cover a period of 30 years, were held between 1989 and 2004, testifying to the political instability at the time. A number of minority governments, the gradual decline of the Congress, the rise of the BJP, stronger regional parties and the obvious fragmentation of Parliament, sometimes with over 40 parties, led to the formation of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), a coalition of BJP-led governments that ruled from 1998 to 2004. Since 2004, the Congress has led the coalition governments of UPA I and II and is currently in power, but only with a fluctuating majority and with the help of outside support.

A brief review of the Congress Party INC

The Indian National Congress (INC) was founded in 1885. It is the oldest party in India and can of course look back on a number of changes in the course of its history. The party spearheaded the Indian independence movement and included eminent names such as Mahatma Gandhi, the advocate of non-violence; his adversary Subhas Chadra Bose who, with his Indian National Army (INA), formed an alliance with Japan and Nazi Germany to fight the British colonial power with the use of force; and Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the father of the Indian constitution and revered leader of the ‘Untouchables’ (who see themselves as dalits or the oppressed today) for whom he is virtually a god.

To these names we can add prominent politicians such as Jawaharlal Nehru, a towering and visionary figure who served as India’s first prime minister from 1947 to 1963; Maulana Azad, the education politician; and Sardar Patel, India’s first home minister, often also referred to as the ‘Bismarck of India’ because he forged a united India to create the Indian Union with an iron hand following Independence in 1947. In 1977, the old-Gandhian, Morarji Desai, broke the Congress party’s stranglehold on the government, which had been taken for granted despite the first setbacks in 1967. As the one who spearheaded a split in the Congress Party and who formed an alliance of socialists, peasant leaders and Hindu nationalists, Morarji Desai took over the office of prime minister following the Emergency (1975-77) imposed by Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, which proved so disastrous for Indian democracy. In 1980, the Janata Party had to give back power to the ‘Iron Lady’ who, until she was assassinated in 1984, celebrated her comeback as Prime Minister, having already ruled from 1969 to 1977.

Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, who served as prime minister from 1984 to 1989, is also part of the legacy of this great historical political movement that has encompassed a variety of groups. However, at a time of deep social and political crisis the movement is in danger of permanently losing its exceptional status in Indian politics. The Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, widow of Rajiv Gandhi, is now considered an experienced, if not always successful election campaigner. She is continuing the legacy of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. The Congress President is seen as the glue holding together a party that is by no means on secure ground and preventing it from disintegrating. She is now trying to pass the baton to her son, Rahul Gandhi, who, as Congress Vice President, will lead his party in the 2014 election campaign. Given the uncertainties that beset the Indian political scene, this is not, however, guaranteed.

The Congress ideology

The objectives of the social and economic policies (democracy, socialism, secularism), which were originally inspired by Fabian socialism and largely formulated by Jawaharlal Nehru, increasingly concealed the real interests of a democratically elected post-colonial ruling class. These interests rejected fundamental social and land reforms. Since the 1990s, more and more medium and large farmers were being represented in Parliament and were supported by the state in the form of subsidies. Helped by blatant cronyism, sections of the political class, top government officials and functionaries of trade unions linked to political parties were able to acquire privileges through the public sector.

‘Secularism’, i.e. the equality of religion, was repeatedly brought into play by the Congress in its confrontations with the BJP as its trademark in governance and socio-political convictions. The BJP, for its part, accused the Congress of dividing the population along religious fault lines, particularly between Hindus and Muslims. The Congress in turn accused the BJP of discriminating against Muslims.

Under the Licence Raj, a strong public sector and private companies were protected against international competition. However, the admission of financial failure spelt the end of this policy in 1991. By deciding on a liberalisation policy and on opening up the economy to foreign investors, the Congress under Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao (1991-96) and his Finance Minister Dr Manmohan Singh turned its back on “socialism” verbally, too, and acknowledged the primacy of the private sector in the economy.


The upper castes, though greatly reduced, especially in north India, traditional but disintegrating, the adivasis or the disadvantaged original inhabitants of the country (Scheduled Tribes/STs), the lower castes, including the ‘Untouchables’ (Scheduled Castes/SCs), as well as Muslims and Christians make up the large Congress vote bank. However, the Congress is no longer winning a disproportionate number of seats in the constituencies reserved for SCs and STs as has been the case for several decades. The party leadership has acknowledged that it must step up efforts to represent the interests of small farmers, landless workers, SCs, STs and religious minorities through employment schemes and social measures, if it is to stem further erosion of its social base. In 2004, and even more so in 2009, the Congress was able to win substantial support from the urban middle class vote bank. This seems to be changing drastically, one of the reasons being the rise of the AAP, which took away votes not only from Congress but also from the BJP in the recent Delhi assembly elections.

The so-called ‘high command’, i.e. de facto Sonia and her son Rahul Gandhi, and to some extent daughter Priyanka, along with a very small internal circle, has led to over-centralisation within the Congress. Accompanied by a clique surrounding the Gandhis, this has meant an almost complete lack of strong political figures in the individual states. In its present form, the Gandhi dynasty’s ‘family business’ is, on the one hand, dysfunctional; on the other, without this dynasty, the Congress is in danger of disintegrating into its individual parts, as once happened to the Indian socialists. Considerable skill is therefore required if Rahul Gandhi’s aim of democratising the party from within (a process that could also challenge his role) is to be achieved in the foreseeable future.

What does the Congress stand for today?

Will the Congress, increasingly led by Rahul Gandhi, have the strength to re-invent itself? Or does the existing Congress establishment threaten to nip all reform attempts in the bud? Rahul Gandhi has declared inner-party democracy and a greater voice for the party base to be his concerns and has been supporting this process for years in the party’s youth and student organisations.

As a rule, however, only the sons and daughters of political families assume leading positions. The upcoming election, with a likely defeat for the Congress, will perhaps enable Rahul Gandhi to more or less free the party from the existing establishment and to usher in a new generation with new objectives and methods. He has also declared war on corruption, no mean task in the face of the serious scams within the Congress and the Congress-led coalition.

A look back at 2009-2014

The second legislative period under the leadership of Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh started on a promising note with a very good showing by the Congress which won 206 seats in the 2009 election. The economy registered high growth rates which bottomed out only recently, not only because of the international financial crisis but also because of India-specific factors.

However, the government was rocked by massive scandals, some of which could be traced back to the term of UPA 1. The so-called 2G scam, i.e. licences being issued to companies in the telecommunications sector; contracts for the 2010 Commonwealth Games; and the award of licences for coal mining (Coalgate) are only a handful of the spectacular examples of corruption involving large sums of money at the highest political level. One of the primary causes of these scams is the unregulated party funding that results in illegal personal gain for the political class and promotes crony capitalism. 
On the other hand, the Congress, sometimes in critical debates with its own government, has pushed through legislation such as the Right to Education and the Right to Food in order to win the support of marginalised sections of the population and of those living just below or just above the poverty line. The body chiefly responsible for these rather populist initiatives has been the National Advisory Council led by Sonia Gandhi, a power structure that is virtually a parallel government.

The anti-corruption movement that attracted much media attention set the ball rolling in 2011 for the adoption of the Lokpal Bill under which corruption can be dealt with more stringently. The Bill was adopted recently mainly because Rahul Gandhi pushed for it.

Defeats in the assembly elections

There are a number of explanations for the Congress debacle in the latest round of assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi. The BJP’s good balance sheets in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh prompted the voters to endorse the respective governments for the third time in succession. Although the Congress gained votes, the BJP also added to its tally. In Rajasthan, the BJP gained around 12 per cent primarily because of the inefficiency of the previous Congress government and the scams. Even welfare schemes that were launched relatively late could no longer get the voters around.

The BJP also benefited from the anti-incumbency factor as regards the Central Government, not least because of high food prices and corruption in recent years. The Modi factor, particularly in Rajasthan, certainly also contributed to the BJP’s successes, as did infighting and factionalism in the Rajasthan Congress.

In Delhi, India’s capital city, the rise of the AAP led by Arvind Kejriwal decimated the Congress which, with just eight seats, was virtually reduced to a nonentity. However, AAP prevented the BJP from gaining votes, despite Modi’s six appearances. Even though it gained seats, the BJP in fact lost 2 per cent of the votes as against 2008.


Who are the major rivals among the parties and who are their most important target groups? Personalities, seat and coalition agreements, along with an extremely high financial outlay (apart from ideological positions that are not particularly pronounced) are important factors in identifying a victor in a straightforward first-past-the-post system based on the British model.

At the moment it looks as though a return to power for the Congress is extremely unlikely if not virtually impossible. Finance Minister Chidambaram sees the Congress in the role of an outsider. The BJP, with very few allies, is the current favourite to win the race. A ‘third front’ could also build the future government with outside support. That this scenario could still change cannot, however, be completely ruled out. The few months left before the Lok Sabha elections are a long time in Indian politics.

In this context, the role of the AAP is probably not an inconsequential one. The party addresses, above all, the dissatisfied urban middle classes who, having withdrawn from Indian politics, are now re-engaging with their aspirations. AAP is also gaining considerable support from the lower classes and slum dwellers. Should the minority government led by Arvind Kejriwal hold together in Delhi and should its performance produce some positive results, the party can certainly be expected to become a pan-India political force, which will take votes away primarily from the Congress and from the BJP. However, there is increasing discord within AAP and it remains to be seen whether the party can retain its original élan.

European ideologies with their clear demarcations are only partially applicable in India. The terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ are not really viable. The generation of Indian socialists is extinct. There is no genuine social-democratic party even though, given the socio-economic conditions on the ground, including the widespread poverty, another social-democratic space certainly exists.

In ideological terms, the Congress sees itself as a left-of-centre party in Indian politics, a party that at least pays lip service to the concerns of disadvantaged segments of the population. A few years ago, it organised an international conference where the question was raised of whether the Congress could represent or build some kind of Indian social democracy.

However, Mani Shankar Aiyar, member of the Rajya Sabha and former cabinet minister believes, that a number of politicians in the Congress only pursue their own material interests, are responsible for corruption and would shift significantly away from the original goals and values of the party. The writer Chetan Bhagat calls on Gandhi to ‘allow the heads of those to roll who have ruined the Congress.’

In the time remaining until the elections, will Rahul Gandhi succeed in freeing himself of the significant anti-incumbency factor against the Congress and the few parties allied with it and in drawing up a new vision for the immediate future? Or does the party first have to spend some time in opposition for it to address the pending inner-party reforms and to develop new priorities in its programme?

Rahul Gandhi’s speech to the delegates of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) on 17 January 2014, revealed a new and far more aggressive style with charismatic elements that had hitherto remained hidden. Observers called it a ‘mix of Kejriwal and Modi’.

Union Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia referred to the model of inclusive growth, propagated by Rahul Gandhi, which, according to Gandhi, must, above all, ‘deal with the broad sections above the poverty line but below the middle class threshold.’ Scindia underlined Gandhi’s determination to radically change the existing system.

Whether this rhetoric, accompanied by a countrywide publicity campaign highlighting the successes of the Congress and the UPA 2 government, will genuinely translate into a change in course can only be answered by the voters. Prashant Bhushan, a leading AAP figure, does not see the Congress as a serious contender for power. ‘The people are not ready to forgive the Congress.’

Sonia Gandhi’s conscious decision to abstain from declaring her son a prime ministerial candidate, is intended, on the one hand, to avoid having Rahul Gandhi fall into the trap of a presidential and probably unequal debate with Narendra Modi. On the other hand, this decision is also an expression of the party’s intention to be open to post-election alliances – this can also imply a ‘third front’ with outside support from the Congress – in an attempt to prevent Narendra Modi from becoming Prime Minister under any circumstances.
One thing is certain – in its current form, India’s oldest party is no longer in step with the times. It requires a root-and-branch reform if it is to continue playing a vital role with any chance of success in a rapidly changing India with its immense challenges, which include the environment.

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