A Structural Crisis

The Decline of Congress

Abhinav Borbora

Every debacle of the Congress party since 2014 has been followed by a recurring pattern. Leaders of the party come out with a plethora of promises and strategies that are intended to revive performance of the party. Subsequent political developments relating to the party have vindicated this stance. Its performance has persistently dwindled and instances of success continue to be remote and a matter of exception. The sterility of the approaches suffer from the same bias. They are elitist in nature. The approaches that are being posited by leading Congress leaders for reinvigorating the party are negated by the inherent limitation imposed on account of socio-political positions occupied by these leaders in the party. An analysis of the structural logic through which the party currently operates would rather provide a more salient account of its downturn.

The Congress operates through a system of Personal Rule, led by members of Nehru-Gandhi line at the Apex, which rests on twin foundations constituted by different categories of personnel through which the Apex perpetuates its rule on behalf of the party. Today, this foundation of the Congress is constituted on one hand, by what would be referred here as Factions. This comprises of two segments of personnel. There are Sub-Families which are hereditarily organised units of political power that occupy different levels of the party structure. The Sub-Families exist in a subordinate relationship to the Apex family and subserve it by reinforcing its own personal rule at different levels of the party network. The other segment is composed of Co-opts. It includes senior leaders that have been well assimilated to accept and propagate the prevailing operational logic of the party. And their position in the party is made (perhaps as incentive) largely dissociated from their public performance. But the legacy of the Congress has always attracted assertive and credible first generation leaders into its fold. Chandrasekhar, Mamata Banerjee and Himanta Biswa Sharma, N Biren Singh are exemplars of this proposition. Such leaders, owing to their largely autonomous origins, add new vitality to the party as they represent and express non-establishment voices. The party greatly benefits from this but after some time the presence of this autonomous section begins to challenge the entrenched interests of Factions through their non-status quoist manoeuvres. Their capability to resist co-option after a certain stage further accentuates this challenge. The autonomous segment therefore poses a threat to Factions and the Apex. This triggers a crucial move to check the growth of freethinking individuals in the party that have non-conformist propensities. However this cannot be overtly pursued. As a party operating in a liberal polity, it inevitably needs to mainiam the rhetoric of internal democracy and equality. Thus, while equality and mobility remain enshrined, preference shifts towards political personnel compliant to the prevailing logic, who are inducted as well as patronised. Such leaders constitute the other foundation of the party. These are individuals with less than mediocre abilities with little autonomous rational faculty to play a larger role. This segment would be referred as Acquiescents. These twin foundations—Factions and Acquiescents together constitute a Coterie which mediates the linkage between Apex leadership and the electorate. There are innumerable Coteries that intermediate the functioning of Congress party. The nature and context under which Coteries operate could explain the downturn of the party.

Coteries are monolithic structures having Caste like attributes. Like Caste, these structures are perpetuated due to the expediency it offers to the constituting personnel. Being positions of privilege, Coteries are thus inimical to change that tend to disturb the status quo. And by the same logic, Coteries are averse to restructuring this prevailing logic of the party on which its existence rests. This ultimately results in a situation where the imperatives of maintaining privilege, expediency and survival lead Coteries to develop narrow sectarian interests that distort the General Will of the organisation in relation to the Society. Therefore, a disjuncture emerges between the general development of the Society and the responsiveness of the party to the demands imposed by the former.

Manifestation of such tendencies are scattered across the party corpus. The Pradesh Congress of Assam is also not an exception to this trend. Few years ago, the party conducted a primary election to choose its candidate for the Gauhati Lok Sabha. The first three winning candidates registered grand victories in terms of votes. But the same candidates were rejected by the voters with spectacularly dismal margins when they faced the electorate in 2014 and 2016 respectively. Their commanding vote shares within party found no resonance amongst the actual electorate. This substantiates the hypothesis that such elections are not expressions of choice by unbounded party workers but competitions among coteries to install their own members in crucial party positions leading to overlooking the general will of the organisation with regard to society. The process does not stop there. Rather unsuccessful candidates like them are almost very easily accommodated in key party positions. In fact a clear expression of this assertion could be found by observing the Vice Presidents of APCC. Of the 22 Vice-Presidents, while 2 have contested and won elections, 11 are such who have been rejected by the voters in elections. Despite this they occupy the 'commanding heights' of the party. Certain Presidents of the DCCs and many other key personnel also embody this trend. The Congress thus functions in a paradoxical manner. Leaders talk of reviving the party but it choses a ludicrous strategy for it—Revival through Rejects. This aphorism also holds true in case of Delhi, UP and Maharashtra PCC Presidents. Although their leadership garnered unfavourable response from the public, the party naively continues to see them as architects of revival. Compulsions of a structural type produce such behaviour. Multiple coteries that have seized the party can neither be unanimous nor forgo individual grip over processes and privileges to arrive at the General Will. This explains the abnormal size of the APCC with 44 General Secretaries and 106 Secretaries as opposed to state BJP that has 3 General Secretaries and 8 Secretaries. A closer look at the candidate list of 2016 Assembly elections also reveal distinct coterie affiliations behind the different contestants. Instead of the General Will of winnablility, appeasement and accommodation of coteries became determinative to candidate selection. The argument can also be extended to interpret the disappointing performance of the Congress in the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council election as popular rejection of an attempt to reinforce Sub Farrily rule at the periphery. As per news reportage, majority of Congress tickets were distributed among the relatives of two prominent leaders of the region. But perhaps the definitive manifestation of this hypothesis in recent times is this. Following R N Kovind's nomination, pressure was generated on the Congress to field a backward caste candidate. Out of numerous Dalit leaders and activists, the party could only find M Kumar, a Dalit nonetheless but representative of a 'Dalit Dynasty', as a senior journalist remarked.

Even before there were coteries in Congress but their development was incomplete and this was partly precluded by stronger leadership Today, their maturation is complete and it has unfortunately coincided with a weak Apex. Consequently, there has been proliferation and entrenchment of coteries that have seized the party. The party has subsequently stagnated as imperatives arising from sectarian contests of power and privilege have obstructed the dialectical development of the party in relation to the society it operates within. This condition should not be confused for a mere case of a negative- sum rivalry amongst petty dissident groups. Instead, the argument made here engages with the larger symptom of a party mechanism incongruent with the level of social development. Rajiv Gandhi echoed the essence of the overall hypothesis presented in this essay when he talked of 'cliques... enmeshing the living body of the Congress in their net of avarice'... 'who dispense patronage to convert a mass movement into a feudal oligarchy'. 

Vol. 50, No.7, Aug 20 - 26, 2017