By Ahmad Adil
NEW DELHI (AA) - Coinciding its 137th foundation day, experts in India say that the country’s oldest political party, the Indian National Congress -- now in opposition over the past seven years -- needs a better organizational setup and young leaders to return to power.
Founded in 1885, as the first modern nationalist and secular movement in South Asia, Congress marks its foundation day on Tuesday. Over the past 74 years, since India became independent, the party has ruled the country for 54 years, with its six leaders becoming prime ministers.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Ajay Gudavarthy, an associate professor at India’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) said people still view the secular Congress as a political alternative to ruling rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party, backed by ultra-Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
"Congress has to bring a new vision of welfare, better organizational methods, young leaders and begin more like a mass movement and not just a political party to come back to power in 2024,” he said.
The secular party has received electoral setbacks since it was ousted out of power in 2014, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led BJP. Its president, Rahul Gandhi resigned in July 2019, owning the responsibility of second defeat at 2019 polls. Since then, the party is headed by his mother Sonia Gandhi.
Gudavarthy said the party’s fortunes had started declining after it opted for “neoliberal reforms" in the 1990s.
"They implemented neoliberal economic reforms but continued with a social democratic vision of inclusive nationalism and secularism. The dissonance between these perspectives is at the heart of its decline," he said.
- Struggling to bring perspectives together
The expert said the party has been struggling to bring these two perspectives together, which gets reflected in its lackluster campaigns.
In contrast, the BJP supported the neoliberal vision, without the baggage of socialism and matched its philosophy with majoritarian and muscular politics.
"It is also true that Congress returned to power in many big states, including Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra," he said, adding that it remains the only prominent national party other than the BJP.
Currently, the Congress is ruling in the provinces of Punjab, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh, while in two other states Maharashtra and Jharkhand, it is in the ruling coalition.
Other than electoral losses, internal squabbling has also cost the party its fortunes.
Recently its senior leader and former Chief Minister of Punjab Amarinder Singh resigned and formed his party ahead of elections in the state.
Niranjan Sahoo, a senior fellow at Observer Research Foundation think tank said the party was experiencing predicament at multiple levels.
“The oldest party lacks the leadership to lead the party in the 21st century. It is caught up in the dynasty trap where the Gandhi family led by Sonia Gandhi and the family loyalists are caught up in time wrap," he said.
Two years ago, 23 senior leaders of the party in an open letter had demanded sweeping organizational changes.
Further, Sahoo said the party’s top leader Rahul Gandhi has shown little pollical skills as compared to Prime Minister Modi. The BJP steered by Modi and his deputy Home Minister Amit Shah has built well-oiled election machinery.
The expert said the financial condition and lack of reforms within the party and missing initiatives to bring new talents to bring dynamism have affected the party.
The BJP targets Congress quite often for promoting dynastic politics. In the 74-years of its post-independence history, a member of the Gandhi-Nehru family has held the top post in the party for 63 years.
"It is speculated that Rahul Gandhi will become party president again, while his sister Priyanka Gandhi will lead the charges in the province of UP (Uttar Pradesh)," said Sahoo.
- Challenges ahead
Experts also say it may be challenging for congress to regain full ground in the 2024 general elections.
"It is very difficult to predict whether the Congress would emerge as a strong force in 2024," said Sahoo, adding that, unlike state-level elections, the national elections are mostly decided based on leadership and party's appeal on larger issues.
But the Congress leaders say that their party will regain its old glory.
Shama Mohamed, a senior leader of the Congress and spokesperson said the party will gain strength. She said the five provincial elections ahead of the general elections will give clear answers, while agreeing that there are "ups and downs, and issues in the party".
"If you look at the by-elections recently, we have won in Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh. It is the propaganda by the government machinery along with a section of media, which has built this narrative for the ruling party and prime minister of India,” she said.
She also rejected the notion that there was a leadership problem in the grand old party.
"She (Sonia Gandhi) is doing a wonderful job and is there always to sort out the issue. It is Mr. Rahul Gandhi who has been taking almost all the important issues...If our party is not good enough or what we say is not good enough, then how are these happening. The prime minister is listening to the Congress, which is the principal opposition party in the country," said Mohamed.