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Congress’ Growing New-Old Conundrum: Complicating Prospects of Opposition Unity in India

Congress’ Growing New-Old Conundrum: Complicating Prospects of Opposition Unity in India

Soumyadeep Chowdhury is a postgraduate candidate in political science at St. Xavier’s College, University of Calcutta

Since 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has won more elections than it has lost, returning with an even larger majority in the 2019 polls, signalling a paradigmatic shift in Indian politics away from multi-party coalition politics. However, its performance in state elections has been mixed. The victory of the Indian National Congress (INC) in the 2023 Karnataka Assembly polls was a morale booster for the opposition, as they work to deny the BJP a third term in control of the central government. The ongoing leadership battles within INC-ruled states calls for an analysis of the generational factionalism which currently plagues the party, as evidenced by its latest defeats in the Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.


The Indian National Congress (INC) dominated the political landscape after independence, ruling at the national level and in most of the states. From the 1990s, however, the power of Congress declined, coinciding with increasing prominence of regional parties and the rise of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The result was an era of coalition governments until the spectacular victories of the BJP in 2014 and 2019. The Congress party’s decline at the state level has been equally palpable. Since 2014, the BJP and its allies have overtaken Congress in terms of control of state governments. Currently, Congress has Chief Ministers in just three states: Telangana, Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka. It governs three others, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Jharkhand, as a junior ally of the respective regional parties. The BJP and its allies, on the other hand, control seventeen states plus the union territory of Puducherry.


Since the time of the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, members of the Nehru-Gandhi family have, by and large, held the leadership of the Congress party. Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi and grandson Rajiv Gandhi were also Prime Ministers. Rajiv Gandhi’s wife Sonia Gandhi was the longest serving Congress President (1998-2017, 2019-2022). However, Sonia’s virtual retirement from active politics has cleared the stage for a new generation. Her son Rahul Gandhi and daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra have taken charge. In the states, however, there has not been such a smooth transfer of power with veterans and rising stars battling it out and compounding the problems facing Congress.

Despite winning a clean sweep in Karnataka, for example, a week-long tussle over who would take the Chief Minister’s position demonstrated that all was not well within Congress in that state. Factionalism has also damaged the party in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh, the few states where Congress managed to win Assembly elections. The only exceptions here seem to be Punjab and Telangana, states won by Congress in 2017 and 2023 respectively. Although, Captain Amarinder Singh’s leadership helped keep dissent at bay for most of the Congress government’s tenure in Punjab (2017-2022), the party’s last minute gamble of replacing Singh as Chief Minister just a few months before the 2022 Assembly polls backfired. It led to a split in the Punjab Congress, contributing to an electoral rout.


Madhya Pradesh, in central India, has largely replicated national electoral patterns, remaining under Congress control until the nineties, when the BJP started to make significant inroads, eventually converting it into a stronghold. Congress returned to office in Madhya Pradesh in December 2018 after an interregnum of fifteen years only to lose power in just fifteen months. The fissures between Chief Minister Kamal Nath and another INC leader Jyotiraditya Scindia seemed evident from the outset. Nath, a nine times elected Member of Parliament and president of the state Congress party, was credited with leading the party to a narrow win in the 2018 polls. Scindia, hailing from the Scindia royal family, had been elected MP from his family bastion of Guna four times. The supporters of the former Chief Minister (1993-2003) Digvijay Singh, also had to be accommodated despite his declining political influence.

The inability to strike the right balance between Nath’s entrepreneurialism, Scindia’s regal charm and Singh’s affluence culminated in the fall of the Congress government just over a year into its tenure. Scindia’s loss in his Guna seat during the 2019 elections to the lower house of the national parliament, the Lok Sabha, had only deepened his suspicions of an internal plot to marginalise him. This led to the defection of twenty-one Congress party Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) to the BJP in March 2020. This handed power to the BJP under the leadership of Shivraj Singh Chouhan as Chief Minister. Singh Chouhan shares an agrarian disadvantaged background with a large proportion of the state’s population. Scindia was eventually given a perch as an important cabinet minister in the BJP-led central government. In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP then dealt a crushing defeat to Congress in the assembly elections of 2023 further exposing the organisational weakness of Congress.


Bipolarity finds stronger resonance in Rajasthan where, since the nineties, control of state government has rotated every five years between the BJP and Congress. In 2018, Congress returned to power defeating the BJP. Ashok Gehlot, who had already served two terms as Chief Minister (1998-2003, 2008-2013), seemed the natural choice to lead the state. He was, however, challenged by a younger rival, Sachin Pilot, president of the state Congress party. A former MP and Union minister, Pilot is the son of former Congress leader and Union Minister Rajesh Pilot. Despite an initial compromise wherein Gehlot would be the Chief Minister and Pilot the Deputy Chief Minister (while retaining his position as the President of Rajasthan Congress), the two soon fell out over issues of corruption and mis-governance. Gehlot’s manoeuvring however allowed him to remain in power through the defection of MLAs from the Bahujan Samaj Party and the rallying of some independents which eventually sidelined Pilot and his supporters.

Unlike Gehlot who has established himself as a state-wide leader, Pilot’s significance remains contained to around thirty constituencies in Eastern Rajasthan, where the Gurjar community which Pilot hails from remains a political force. Pilot’s public protests exposing failures and corruption scandals in the Gehlot-led Congress state government further unnerved the Congress party’s central leadership. Its President, Mallikarjun Kharge, accommodated Mr. Pilot in the Central Congress Working Committee, the party’s highest national decision-making body. This was viewed as part of a ‘forgive and forget’ formula to smooth ruffled feathers and avoid a catastrophe in the Assembly Elections due just months later. However, despite this, Congress subsequently lost to the BJP.


Karnataka, in southern India, had over four decades of uninterrupted Congress rule before changes in the 1990s heralded an epoch of coalition politics. The BJP experienced a increase in support alongside regional party Janata Dal, whose influence in the states southern districts allowed them to play kingmaker when neither of the two major parties managed to secure an absolute majority in 2004, 2008 and 2018. However, the 2023 election saw Congress return to power with the highest tally of votes and seats in decades. This electoral sweep did not quieten internal unrest. Siddaramaiah, the Congress leader with the largest popular appeal in the state and a political career spanning over four decades, was chosen as Chief Minister. Snapping at his heels is Deputy Chief Minister and Karnataka Congress President D.K. Shivakumar, an emerging leader whose organisational skills are credited for crafting Congress’ record victory. The relationship between the two is the subject of much speculation.

The National President of Congress, Mallikarjun Kharge, also hails from Karnataka. With another Congress veteran Dr. G. Parameshwara, a Deputy Chief Minister and prominent cabinet minister in previous governments, also ambitious to claim the Chief Minister’s chair, Congress is treading a fine line in pacifying internal discontent. Unusually, the opposition BJP seems equally divided in Karnataka. However, the announcement of another alliance between the BJP and Janata Dal, could jeopardise Congress’ chances if timely measures aren’t taken to unify its leadership and cadre before the general elections. Karnataka has an established history of voting differently for Assembly and Lok Sabha Elections.


Much like Rajasthan, anti-incumbency seems the norm in the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh where, over the past three decades, the Congress and BJP have taken turns to run the government every five years. The assembly poll of December 2022 was the first after the death of veteran Congress politician Vir Bhadra Singh who had steered the party in the state for nearly four decades. Emerging victorious, the Congress party decided to bypass Singh’s family members – his wife and current state president Pratibha Singh who is also Member of Parliament and son Vikramaditya Singh, a two time state legislator – to appoint Singh’s one-time bête noire Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu as the new Chief Minister and the former Opposition Leader Mukesh Agnihotri as the Deputy Chief Minister in an attempt to dilute charges of nepotism. Nearly a year on, however, internal tussles within the state party refuse to die down. This does not bode well for the party’s long term prospects.


Chhattisgarh, carved out of Madhya Pradesh as a separate state in 2000, remained under BJP rule from its first state elections in 2003 until Congress triumphed in 2018. Thereafter, however, clashes between Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel and his arch-rival and deputy T.S. Singh Deo captured headlines. Deo, a descendant of the erstwhile royalty, who played a crucial role in winning many seats of northern Chhattisgarh was entrusted with important cabinet portfolios. Significantly, the younger Baghel had precedence over the veteran Deo. Despite Deo accepting the offer to be Baghel’s deputy, this last-minute reconciliation failed to prevent a Congress defeat in the 2023 elections. The INC suffered major reverses especially in the constituencies of Northern Chhattisgarh where Deo held considerable clout, underlining the necessity of timely circumvention of factionalism to boost Congress’ electoral prospects.


Even as the continued hold of the Gandhi family at the national level helps the Congress party function under a unified chain of command, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charismatic personality and the BJP’s organisational robustness make a national revival difficult. The states are therefore the arena for all the opposition parties to prove their mettle. However, intense rivalry between veteran politicians and emerging leaders have already dented Congress’ electoral results in state polls. As the various opposition parties debate the formation of an Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, acronymed ‘INDIA’, to give the BJP a one on one fight, Congress continues to regard itself as ‘first among equals’. Given that the appeal of such regional leaders as Mamata Banerjee, M.K. Stalin, Sharad Pawar, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad Yadav and their parties fails to extend beyond their respective states, Congress is well placed to lead any such endeavour. However, poor electoral showings owing to unmanaged internal conflicts cast doubt on its ability to do so.

Many of the current constituents of the I.N.D.I.A front, such as the All India Trinamool Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party, are regional parties that broke away from Congress. If it is to be successful against the BJP in this year’s General Elections, Congress needs to learn from the collapse of its own government in Madhya Pradesh and the subsequent defeats in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. In those states, unmanaged factionalism escalated into deeper political crises damaging the party’s prospects. Congress should therefore aim to pacify internal discontent and put its own house in order. There does not seem to be a textbook formula for reconciliation, but finding unity will be critical for opposition unity and Congress’ prospects in the near future.

The opinions expressed are those of the contributor, not of the RSAA

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