In 2003, Congress was insignificant in four states; the number is ten now: can this be stemmed?

The conclusion of the Bharat Jodo Yatra and the commencement of the Budget Session of Parliament in the past week produced two divergent narratives. Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge’s invite to 23 “like-minded” parties to walk with Rahul Gandhi on the last day of his cross-country walkathon elicited response from only eight, five of whom were parties with single-seat representation in Parliament. The invite from Kharge in his persona as Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha to Opposition parties to plan a common strategy to oppose the government in the Budget Session on a slew of issues ranging from Adani to China border drew 15 attendees—in the Winter Session 13 parties had responded to a similar invite from Kharge. The acceptance of Congress as fulcrum of united action by Opposition seems to have become the accepted norm in Parliament—will it out vie the field as well? Rahul Gandhi is undoubtedly the supreme leader of the GOP, as demonstrated by the response he generated among Congresspersons during the Yatra. However, his acceptability does not seem to transcend into the anti-BJP Opposition spectrum.
Congress media chief Jairam Ramesh had described the party’s presidential election as a “sideshow” and said that the Bharat Jodo Yatra was the principal programme of the GOP. Rahul Gandhi, braving vagaries of weather, has completed the 3,570 km Long March, cutting through 14 states. AICC organisational in charge K.C. Venugopal, in a media interview, summed up the impact of the yatra thus: “BJP had built a false image of Rahul Gandhi. Sangh Parivar had been waging a continuous, targeted attack against him for the past 10 years, labelling him a ‘Pappu’ to demean him. And that, I agree, did impact his image a bit as he was portrayed in a bad light among the people. But during the Yatra, he met and interacted freely and directly with thousands of people, and his interactions have demolished the false image about him.” Rahul’s stature has been refurbished. He has been seen as an active politician for a long stretch between 7 September and 30 January, when he did not dash off to an unknown destination abroad for “sabbatical”. However, to sustain the momentum of the “real” event (yatra), the sinews of the “sideshow” (party organisation) are a prerequisite. When Rahul stepped into politics in 2003, Congress had been organisationally decimated in four states—UP, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. The list has become longer: Delhi, Punjab, Gujarat, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have been added. This elasticity has to be reined in. In the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, the GOP drew a blank in 17 states.
The Mood of the Nation survey conducted by CVoter (past two decades this agency has used daily trackers and produced credible compendiums) coinciding with the last lap of Rahul’s Yatra showed that if polls are held today the NDA will get 298 seats (like in 2014 and 2019, BJP’s projected tally, 284, is past the absolute majority mark). The UPA is projected at 153, with Congress winning 68. Other parties, not aligned to the two alliances, are projected at 92. In effect, while BJP gets 284 and Congress 68, non-BJP, non-Congress seats may total 191. According to Congress insiders, the CVoter survey brought smiles to the faces of party strategists, whose estimates for 2024 were varying between 37 and 50 seats.
The Yatra, according to Congress spokesmen, was not intended as a tool to unite the Opposition. While Rahul Gandhi was on the last lap of the Bharat Jodo endeavour, which he described as “nafrat ke khilaf mohabbat ki dukan”, in Mumbai, superstar Shah Rukh Khan was heard thanking the “powers that be” for ensuring that his blockbuster Pathaan was released without a glitch: “log prem se film dekh sakey”. The “nafrat” and “divisive” narrative of the Yatra and the divergent public stand of SRK, who is not known as a critic of Rahul Gandhi, underscores a dichotomy. (SRK’s family was part of Frontier Gandhi Badshah Khan’s group, which opposed Partition and wanted NWFP, now known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, as part of India—when Pakistan was created they walked across to India—Muslim migrants to India in 1947.)
Opposition unity is created by adverse conditions. Attempts were made to unite the Opposition since 1964 when Ram Manohar Lohia (Socialist) and BJP precursor Jan Sangh icon Deendayal Upadhyay reached an understanding. The setback to the ruling Congress in 1967 came primarily because GOP renegades, who contested against the Congress, later aligned with these non-Congress forces. The Emergency in 1975 and joint incarceration of Opposition leaders provided fertile ground for unity. Post 1980, when Congress returned to power, a series of Opposition conclaves produced fiery resolutions but could not unite the anti-Congress vote. The Shah Bano imbroglio and the Bofors allegations, on which the government of Rajiv Gandhi obfuscated, created the necessary condition for unity in 1988—the defeat of the Congress followed in 1989. Since then there has been no occasion or opportunity for emergence of a successful Opposition combine. The BJP, which has emerged as ruling party after forging successful anti-Congress alliances, perhaps knows how to stave off the challenge.
The Congress is taking a leaf out of the BJP experience—its Haath-se-Haath jodo yatra, which aims to connect with voters at the polling booth level, will need a robust organisational base. The plenary session of AICC to ratify Kharge’s election as president is slated for 26 February in Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh. Will Raipur see a vibrant session, in which 12 members of the CWC are elected—or will Kharge be authorised to nominate all 23? Ashok Gehlot was stopped from contesting the party’s presidential poll as he wanted to remain Chief Minister of Rajasthan as well. If the one-man-one-post formula, which stymied Gehlot, be applied strictly, will Kharge’s continuance as LOP in Rajya Sabha be tenable? The Congress has to set its house in order if it wants to be in the vanguard of anti-BJP unity.