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The paradox of Congress’s rise

Updated on: 08 July,2024 08:29 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Ajaz Ashraf |

Despite witnessing a resurgence in the Lok Sabha polls, the Grand Old Party’s leftward shift will compel it to downscale its ambitions in certain states for the sake of the Opposition unity

The paradox of Congress’s rise

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi consoles the family member of a victim of the Hathras stampede, in Pilkhana village, Aligarh, on July 5. Pic/PTI

Ajaz AshrafThe Congress faces a paradoxical situation: the party’s rise in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections has given it a perch to fly high, yet, for the sake of the Opposition unity, it must downscale its ambitions in certain states, where it must put on the backburner its expansion plans. It must be prepared to play second fiddle in the Opposition symphony in pockets of India, a status difficult to accept for a party with a memory of being in power for decades.

This paradox has emerged because of Rahul Gandhi’s efforts to redefine the Congress ideology. For instance, during a Lok Sabha debate last week, he challenged the Bharatiya Janata Party’s interpretation as well as politicisation of Hinduism. This comes on top of his persistent demand for conducting a Caste Census and distributing government jobs to different categories of social groups—the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the Other Backward Classes—in proportion to their share in the population.

Gandhi’s Congress can now be said to represent the Hindu Left, as opposed to the Hindu Right, the ideological space the BJP occupies. Pithily, the Hindu Left seeks to redistribute power—political, economic, and cultural—equitably among castes, and socially diversify the Indian middle class, which the upper castes dominate. The Hindu Left, unlike the Hindu Right, is accommodative of religious minorities.

The Congress abandoned the Hindu centrist position after it tired of waiting for the upper castes, once the party’s mainstay, to return to its fold. Gandhi’s embracing of the Hindu Left is, in effect, a search for a new social base for his party. It is hard to tell to what extent he will succeed, but the ideological shift he effected created a remarkable cohesion between the Congress and regional outfits, the original proponents of Social Justice, in the recent bruising election campaign. It was decidedly a factor behind the Congress and the Opposition’s improved performance. 

This has birthed a paradox: in the electoral gains of the Congress lies the possibility of the Opposition alliance destructing, to the advantage of the BJP. Take Uttar Pradesh, which punctured the BJP’s inflated balloon, courtesy of the alliance between the Samajwadi Party and the Congress. Akhilesh Yadav distributed election tickets among an array of backward classes and segments of Dalits, dispelling the impression that his party is primarily the party of the Yadav caste.

Yet the social alliance Yadav cobbled might not have been effective in the Lok Sabha elections, where the issues at stake are national in nature, in contrast to caste having a local salience. Gandhi and the Congress have a national personality. His endorsement of the demand for a Caste Census neutralised the unfair portrayal of Social Justice as parochial and casteist. It was now projected to represent the legitimate quest of subaltern groups, including the Muslims, to alter the political reality skewed in favour of the upper castes—and Hindutva—nationwide.

But any attempt of a confident Congress to forge a base among subaltern groups will pose a mortal threat to the SP, which barely exists outside Uttar Pradesh. It will not countenance its support base being poached by the Congress. The Grand Old Party will have to choose between sacrificing its interests and keeping intact the existing political bulwark against the BJP in Uttar Pradesh.

What applies to Uttar Pradesh also does to Bihar and Maharashtra. In both these states, the Congress will come a cropper fighting alone. In alliance with others, it will have to downsize its ambitions to expand—and fight just a fraction of the 88 seats Bihar and Maharashtra together have.

Essentially, then, the Congress will have to replicate the Tamil Nadu model of alliance in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra. The Congress-Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam alliance, stable since 2004, is based on the principle: ‘You [DMK] rule the state, I [Congress] rule at the Centre.’ In Tamil Nadu, the Grand Old Party is not allocated a lion’s share of Lok Sabha and Assembly seats to contest in. Yet the DMK’s support for Gandhi as the Opposition’s prime ministerial face is assured. It is this principle the Congress must persuade its allies to accept.

By curbing its instinct to expand where its allies are strong, the Congress can turn its focus on the states where it is locked in a bipolar contest with the BJP. Look at these figures: the Congress’ vote share in Madhya Pradesh was 27 per cent behind the BJP’s in 2024, 11.6 per cent in Chhattisgarh, 11 per cent in Rajasthan and 30.5 per cent in Gujarat. It was a distant third in Odisha, with a vote share of just 12.5 per cent.

In these states, the SCs, STs and OBCs constitute 80 per cent or more of the population. It is them the Congress can rally through its Hindu Left ideology, but not merely by promising the expansion of reservation, which, regardless of the quantum, cannot have a sweeping impact. The Congress needs to initiate socio-political movements on issues materially beneficial to the subaltern castes. This is hard work. It presupposes that the Congress should not mistake improvement in the 2024 elections for victory, as it seems to be doing, and become overbearing.

The writer is a senior journalist and author of Bhima Koregaon: Challenging Caste

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