The Indian National Congress, once the default party of government in Indian politics, won 44 seats in 2014, and will likely not even double that number in 2019. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one election by that margin is a mistake, to lose two looks like carelessness. Or, if you prefer to paraphrase Karl Marx, the first time it was tragedy for the Congress, but now it's farce.
Yes, the party won three states back from the Bharatiya Janata Party in December last year. Yes, it is holding on in Punjab and Kerala. But it has fundamentally failed to break through in the crucial dimension for its politics: to retain a foothold in the politics of the north and centre of India at the parliamentary level. Plus it has been swept out of the way in Maharashtra, a state it certainly should have, if not won, at least dented the BJP alliance in.
Many reasons will be given for this failure, and perhaps there are indeed many reasons. One of these, an obvious numerical reason why the Congress looks particularly bad right now, is that the bastion of undivided Andhra Pradesh, where it was at one time assured of at least a sizeable proportion of seats, has now slipped from its grasp. If it loses Maharashtra in addition, and becomes a poor also-ran in coastal Karnataka and the Lingayat belt of that state, it means that it just no longer has the geographical base to be a real contender.
India, at one point, had a clear political structure. There was a national force in Indian politics, and that was the Congress. It had, in every state, various opponents that represented state-level interests. Where the BJP was its principal state opponent - in Gujarat, in Rajasthan, in Madhya Pradesh - strong state leaders for the party made it an election about sub-national pride and governance. (Remember Chief Minister Modi campaigning on Gujarati asmita?) That position in national politics, as the national pole in most state polities, has been taken now by the BJP. It has taken that position for one simple reason: its conception of Indian nationhood has fought and won a battle, over the past decade and more, against the Congress' "Idea of India".
To the extent that the Congress' "Idea of India" can be summarised through the career and words of any one leader in that party, I would recommend a study of Digvijaya Singh. He is a tremendously devout man, and yet one of the greatest hate figures for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh precisely because he embodies the Congress' ideology. It is, at its core, pragmatic nationalism: the notion that India is a bundle of contradictions, of competing group assertions, and it is the duty of the Indian state is to play an arbiter between them, to cover up and manage these centripetal and divisive forces through inclusion, representation and occasional preferential treatment. It is precisely this that is known now as "appeasement" when it comes to Muslims - but the ideology is far vaster than that, it is founded on the belief that India, without such management, dances at the edge of a precipice. That Digvijay Singh is losing to Pragya Thakur is a fine and poetic summation of the defeat of this ideology.
It has been replaced at the national level by another ideology: not just that of the Sangh, but its version as refined by Narendra Modi. This conception is that India is essentially Hindu; India is a unitary civilisation, divided by the vestiges of countless invasions; India must eventually be strong on the world stage, and in order to be strong, it must embrace its Hindu identity and be united in mind. This oddly European notion of national identity can be traced back to Savarkar and Golwalkar and even further, but under Modi, it has been refined to include the promise of social and economic mobility within the great Hindu umbrella, and that has made a crucial difference. Other identities are dangerous, by the BJP's reckoning and the Congress' - and Amartya Sen's - notion of India being constructed of multiple overlapping and argumentative identities must be replaced with that of a single one. Dalits, OBCs, Bengalis, Lingayats, and even minorities must remember they are Hindus first if India is to progress. I wrote in 2014 that Modi's idea of India's future was that it should be strong, rich and Hindu, and that all three things would have to happen together or none of them would happen at all. And this, in a nutshell, is the dominant conception in national politics today.
The Congress has lost this election not because it failed to strike a few alliances, or because of the personality of Rahul Gandhi, or because it was poorer than the BJP and had fewer levers of influence. It lost because it has lost the ideological argument.
Yes, it could have won a dozen or even two dozen more seats had it worked out an alliance with Prakash Ambedkar in Maharashtra or with the Aam Aadmi Party or with the Grand Alliance in Uttar Pradesh. But when faced with this mandate for Modi, what are two dozen seats? What, even, would crossing 100 mean? It is simply postponing the inevitable.
Nor is it, as more pieces than the BJP has seats will argue over the coming days, that Rahul Gandhi is the only problem. Sure, many people think he is uninspiring. But he is uninspiring because the ideas he expounds endlessly are those of the Congress, and those ideas themselves inspire too few people. If he has said foolish things, so have the Prime Minister and other BJP leaders, but unlike them, he is considered a fool - because he is unsuccessful. Replace Rahul with anyone else who subscribes to the same ideas as the Gandhis supposedly do, and they will be considered as hapless. And who would you replace him with? Can anyone imagine a single leader in the Congress who, as a national leader, would have been able to withstand the waves of 2014 and 2019? That is because the Congress has no purchase in the national imagination - a fact that has nothing to do with the Gandhis, but with deeper emotional and ideological factors. Indira and even Rajiv represented the dominant strain of Indian nationalism. Sonia and Rahul represent an increasingly weak and vanishing version. Some things are beyond personality.
The psephologist-turned-politician Yogendra Yadav has argued that the Congress should shut itself down, that it stands in the way of an effective anti-BJP politics. But this misses the point. If the Congress shuts itself down, it will be choosing to kill this conception of the Indian nation. No challenger to its space - not Lohiaite socialists like Yadav, not radical decentralisers like the Aam Aadmi Party - has an alternative national conception to offer. I may not miss the Congress personally if it goes; I have little love for how the party has, since the Indira era, operated politically. My own ideological sympathies lie more with the federal forces in Indian politics. But I would not be pleased to see the Congress' notion of Indian nationhood supplanted by the BJP's as the primary antagonist to the regional forces that I personally sympathise with.
We do not live in Modi's India. We live in Indians' India, and the reason so many Indians adore Modi is because he represents their preferred conception of the Indian state and the Indian nation. No other explanation for these results is as compelling.
(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)
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