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Congress after the cataclysm: Long India’s dominant party, the Gandhis’ machine now barely functions as the opposition

Congress after the cataclysm: Long India’s dominant party, the Gandhis’ machine now barely functions as the opposition

Jun 21st 2014 | From the print edition

IS THE patient dead or merely stunned? The Indian National Congress party was so battered in last month’s general election that recovery may be beyond it. Founded in 1885, the party that did most to extract independence from Britain in 1947 and dominated Indian politics for much of the subsequent seven decades managed to win just 44 seats of 543. One senior Congressman, who boasts a decent record of predicting elections, admits that was beyond his worst imaginings. The “cataclysmic” result constitutes the “most serious crisis” in the party’s long history, worse even than the bleak late 1970s after Indira Gandhi had suspended democracy. He likens the political change now under way to the country’s passing from a first to a second republic.

Congress will play a smaller role in the new dispensation. It is only just the second-largest party in the Lok Sabha, parliament’s lower house. Because it has fewer than a tenth of the seats, even the status of official opposition leader may depend on a nod from the government of Narendra Modi, the new prime minister. And why should he stretch a point to please Congress? When it swaggered over national politics, from the 1950s to the 1980s, it often denied others the perks of formal opposition, the better to crush them. This week Mr Modi began unpicking other parts of its power, demanding the resignations of several Congress-appointed state governors (ceremonial jobs, but with big powers in a crisis), so that his own loyalists can replace them. Piece by piece, Congress’s entrenched dominance is being undone.

Recovery from one awful election is imaginable. Congress did get over 100m votes, nearly one-fifth of the total, slightly more than the now-ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) managed at the previous election in 2009. Others in opposition—notably the Aam Aadmi Party of Arvind Kejriwal—proved a bigger flop even than Congress. A younger Congress MP doggedly calls his party the only pan-Indian political force, a “machine” present in all 600,000 villages. He says better marketing could have sold voters the “wonderful product” offered after ten years in power.

But that underestimates Congress’s ills. Unless the party’s leaders confront how badly their machine is broken, they will not be able to fix it. Instead Congress will atrophy further. Such a prospect seems the more likely because more electoral losses loom in several states which hold polls for state assemblies in the autumn. Voters in Maharashtra, an industrial state in the west, are likely to eject Congress and its local ally there. Congress or its partners expect to lose in Haryana, Jharkhand, Jammu & Kashmir and Delhi. Next year Bihar, with 100m people, will probably fall to the BJP. So would Uttar Pradesh (UP), the biggest of the lot, if assembly elections could be brought forward from the scheduled contest in 2017. Some speculate that mounting reports of disorder in UP, including horrific rapes and murders of Dalit (once known as “untouchable”) women, may be used to justify early polls. In any case, the BJP will strengthen its grip across India’s populous central and northern states just as Congress, without a regional heartland, finds the ground disappearing beneath its feet.

Even if disgruntlement over the party’s recent record in office eventually fades, Congress faces an existential dilemma: what is the point of a party of patronage when not in power? Unlike the BJP, or more idealistic opposition groups, Congress musters few volunteers to its cause and relies more on paid workers. Its Nehruvian rhetoric, promoting secularism and care for the poor, appeals especially to Muslims and others anxious about Hindu nationalism in the BJP. But their fears about Mr Modi may ease the more he talks of development and of meeting material aspirations. So Congress has an interest in reminding minorities of Mr Modi’s past as the figurehead of a divisive strain of Hindu nationalism. At a time when the BJP may want to play down this aspect of its ideology, Congress may feel it needs to harp on communal issues, to scare its traditional supporters back to the fold.

But finding a strategy depends on finding a leader. For the best part of a century the job has fallen to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. This prevented ugly battles between regional or ideological rivals. Though undemocratic, the bloodline was supposed at least to bestow minimal competence. Yet as Indian politics relies increasingly on mass communication, stronger leadership is needed. The Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, diffident about taking office, muddled through by dint of hard work and a readiness to listen to a clutch of advisers. But her son, Rahul Gandhi, long groomed for the position, is a dud: earnest but lacking in energy, ideas, strategy and, crucially, the ability to connect with party workers and voters. Where Mr Modi is red-blooded and presidential, Mr Gandhi is anaemic and aloof. He is so unwilling to shoulder responsibilities that he has barely spoken since the election, reverting to an old habit of slinking into the shadows after a loss. Most damning, he refuses to lead his party in parliament. “Even in defeat Congress makes so many mistakes; Rahul is useless, but no other leader is allowed,” concludes a commentator in Delhi.

That is not just a family problem. The Gandhis have dodged responsibility because of the Congress culture of competitive sycophancy. When a few Congress workers complained about the terrible election result last month, they felt only emboldened enough to beg for a different dynast, Priyanka, Rahul’s sister. Yet, many in Congress fret, she is also flawed, and would represent, as one mutters, a jump from “frying pan to fire”.

Breaking the tryst with dynasty

No one publicly dares raise the obvious and better alternative: that Congress needs to choose a leader on merit even if that risks splitting the party. Instead, the plan is to sit tight, and wait for Mr Modi to make mistakes. The result is lopsided, dangerous politics. Checks on Mr Modi’s government, if any, will have to come from the courts, NGOs, the press or elsewhere. At the moment, India’s opposition is not fit for purpose.

 

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About bambooinnovator
KB Kee is the Managing Editor of the Moat Report Asia (www.moatreport.com), a research service focused exclusively on highlighting undervalued wide-moat businesses in Asia; subscribers from North America, Europe, the Oceania and Asia include professional value investors with over $20 billion in asset under management in equities, some of the world’s biggest secretive global hedge fund giants, and savvy private individual investors who are lifelong learners in the art of value investing. KB has been rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as an analyst in Asian capital markets. He was head of research and fund manager at a Singapore-based value investment firm. As a member of the investment committee, he helped the firm’s Asia-focused equity funds significantly outperform the benchmark index. He was previously the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. KB has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy, value investing, macroeconomic and industry trends, and detecting accounting frauds in Singapore, HK and China. KB was a faculty (accounting) at SMU teaching accounting courses. KB is currently the Chief Investment Officer at an ASX-listed investment holdings company since September 2015, helping to manage the listed Asian equities investments in the Hidden Champions Fund. Disclaimer: This article is for discussion purposes only and does not constitute an offer, recommendation or solicitation to buy or sell any investments, securities, futures or options. All articles in the website reflect the personal opinions of the writer.

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