The grand old party shows a vacillating leadership and seems unable to capitalise on right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party's failures in government.
NEW DELHI –– In 2014, a populist wave by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by its star campaigner Narendra Modi, drowned India's Congress party, reducing it to a meek opposition in the Indian parliament.
That year, be it roadside hoardings, rooftop flags, posters on walls or electric pylons, or the banners in public places, no space was left untouched by the BJP's election campaign.
Modi ran on an anti-corruption platform, making tall promises of bringing India's economy next to the economies of developed countries, and constantly taking bitter jabs at then ruling Congress party.
The rhetoric translated into BJP's landslide win, and Modi emerged as one of the most popular leaders of the country after former prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi.
But in this election, the Modi lehar (tide) – as BJP leaders and campaigners called it then – has been reduced to mere turbulence. Modi's policy missteps, such as demonetising banknotes and his failure to fix the sluggish economy, growing unemployment, which is highest in 45 years, the stray cattle menace, communal tensions and farmers’ distress, have left India's electorate completely fragmented.
"BJP promised two crore jobs every year and 15 lakh rupees [$21,453] in each citizen's bank account. Then, with demonetisation and GST [Goods and Services Tax], they destroyed the economy. They deserve zero for this," Sushant, a 23-year-old student of New Delhi’s popular Jawaharlal Nehru University, told TRT World.
"I am impressed that Congress is saying that it will give 72,000 rupees [$1,029] to every poor family. It could be the best thing to strengthen India. I think Congress is a good option. I am voting for it."
Rahul Gandhi says he's ready to take over as president of India’s main opposition Congress party. But will he be able to deliver? pic.twitter.com/Ih21hEZuPr— TRT World (@trtworld) December 10, 2017
Calculated 'baby steps'?
Although the BJP is struggling to canvas local opinions along the lines of the 2014 elections, Congress seems both reluctant in its approach and aware of its limitations in this election.
Instead of aiming to unseat the ruling BJP with an outright majority, the party that won Independence for India in 1947 and ruled the country for most of its post colonial period, is apparently taking baby steps, and working toward winning only at least a quarter of the seats in the parliament and then perhaps going for the 2024 elections at full throttle.
"Congress' strategy is to survive in 2019 elections and secure at least 90 -100 seats," Rasheed Kidwai, a New Delhi-based author and journalist, told TRT World.
Kidwai, who has written a biography on former Congress leader Sonia Gandhi and a book on the party itself, said: "Then, the party could go ahead into 2024 elections from a strong position. It appears wanting to win only 35-40 percent of the entire contest this time."
Congress' downward spiral started in 2014 when it was drubbed by BJP in the one-sided national election. Its worst-ever electoral performance meant Congress kept a mere 44 seats in the country's 543-member parliament, down from 206, reducing the party to a docile opposition.
Things changed for the party in 2017 when Sonia Gandhi, former leader of Congress, handed over the reins of the party to her 48-year-old son Rahul Gandhi, who is contesting the Amethi constituency in the largest Uttar Pradesh state.
The younger Gandhi – the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which has provided three prime ministers since India's independence in 1947 – gained some political capital by seizing three key crucial states in assembly polls from Modi's BJP at the end of 2018. And earlier this year in February, Congress President Rahul Gandhi pulled a surprise by picking his younger sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, as party's general secretary.
"She successfully helped manage provincial elections for her brother [Rahul Gandhi] who was being slammed by BJP leadership, loyalists, adverse media and online trolls," a New Delhi-based editor of an influential newspaper told TRT World.
"There were clear instructions from the owners that any news related to Rahul Gandhi or Congress must not appear on our front-page. But when she entered the fray, things changed. People on the ground liked her immensely. She was getting Congress the lost traction. There was no choice but to give her the media space."
In the last two decades, the party has gone through several revival phases in which the party made alliances with regional stalwarts and rose to power, lost interest in making coalitions and relinquished power, or got embroiled in a dilemma over how to sustain a party that wants to have a pan-India presence, like the old days, but is fragile in certain Indian provinces, especially in eastern Hindu-belt of India, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal states.
"Congress has been trying to revive itself more since 1998 than ever before. But they're just ending up messing with it," a Congress insider, who wished not to be named, told TRT World.
In 1998, Congress had a brainstorming session in hope to revitalise the party that culminated in the Ekla Chalo [march alone] programme. That programme failed and the party lost the 1999 national elections.
In 2002, one of the country's worst religious riots occurred in BJP-ruled western Gujarat state. Up to 3,000 people, most of them Muslim, were hacked, beaten or burned to death. A year later in 2003, Congress' brainstorming session in northern Shimla city adopted a plan to form pre-polls alliances with more than a dozen "secular parties" for the 2004 general elections.
The Gujarat pogrom had "stirred the conscience" of many parties including CPI(M) General Secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, who backed and helped Congress lead a coalition government called United Progressive Alliance (UPA) against the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which had called for early polls.
Another Congress-led coalition, the UPA-II, rose to power again in 2009. Ahead of the 2014 elections, Congress held another brainstorming session in north-western Jaipur city over how to expand the party presence across India.
It was clear the party was losing interest in forming alliances and “ceding space”, and ended up contesting that election without partners in crucial states against the powerful BJP, with the latter trouncing Congress in a landslide victory.
Congress still experimenting?
"The experimenting continues in this election too. The dilemma is whether to fight all alone and end up in defeat, like 2014 elections, or make alliances and overthrow ruling BJP. The defeat is sure in the first option but it helps solidify the party. In the second choice, Congress ends up ceding space to regional parties denting its pan-India ambitions," said the party insider.
In this election, Congress couldn't forge an alliance in largest and crucial state of Uttar Pradesh where regional parties like Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) snubbed it.
"It didn't approach us. After winning in three state assemblies Congress thinks it will sweep UP all alone in general election. It's not going to happen," former UP chief minister and a king-maker Akhilesh Yadav told TRT World in an exclusive interview.
"Congress' focus is not the 2019 election but 2022 assembly election in UP state. Its focus is how to make a party and create an organisation in the state. But you don't make a party or organisation during elections," the SP chief said.
'We're contesting to win'
In New Delhi, Congress is contesting alone. And in the crucial state of West Bengal, it negotiated the option of seat-sharing with regional powerhouse Trinamool Congress, but failed to achieve it.
However, Congress has stitched together alliances in Bihar, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu states, with observers saying the party could ally with other parties once a post-election picture is clear.
Senior Congress leader and former law minister Ashwani Kumar rejected the view that Congress isn't putting out its best in this election.
"We're contesting to win and dislodge BJP from power. We're not averse to alliances either. We did try our best at certain states but seat-sharing remained a problem," Kumar, also a key aide to former PM Manmohan Singh, told TRT World.
Congress' trump card
Congress also wants to exploit BJP’s faultlines: the lethargic economy, alienated minorities including Muslims who have faced lynching in alleged cow smuggling or slaughtering cases, anger in rural areas in the face of poor crop prices and rising costs, and other anti-incumbency factors.
And it looks forward to 47-year-old Priyanka Vadra –– usually referred to by just her first name –– who is known for being able to convince a common Indian voter with her charm and rhetoric.
Congress leaders hope that she'll be able to pull large crowds just like she did in the UP state.
"She commands huge respect among the people. Her entry [into politics] will surely give us a huge advantage," Kumar said.
Facebook has deleted hundreds of accounts and pages in India and Pakistan for "inauthentic behaviour". Many of the accounts have been "linked to India's opposition Congress party, and others to Pakistan's military" pic.twitter.com/XejzdICEE3— TRT World (@trtworld) April 2, 2019
Congress is 'BJP, minus cow'
Priyanka appears to have taken BJP head-on, debuting her campaign in Modi's stronghold of Varanasi on a boat in the River Ganges, considered sacred by Hindus.
Her admirers say her personality is reminiscent of her grandmother, Indira Gandhi, who was India's first woman prime minister, also remembered as India's 'Iron Lady', but a divisive figure assassinated in 1984 following anti-Sikh riots in northern India.
Critics say Priyanka's attempt to traverse the Ganges was aimed at containing BJP's criticism that her Congress party has been disregarding majority Hindu voters and appeasing India's largest Muslim minority.
"Congress understands the importance of upper caste or Brahmin votes that form a crucial vote base for ruling BJP," Kidwai said. "The party has always been right-wing in its own way. Or, you can say it's BJP, minus cow."