It would be presumptuous to write a death certificate for a party that has existed for more than a hundred years. There are other examples in the world of political parties that have governed or ruled for decades, and then went through phases of deep decline. But then, they have successfully re-emerged. You may find examples in Japan, Mexico and Italy; to a certain extent, the Labour Party in the United Kingdom as well. But all these parties have succeeded in reinventing themselves. They went through a change of leadership and electoral platform. They have redefined their identity and ideologies. In many ways, these parties are almost unrecognisable to their previous incarnations before their decline.
It is not up to me to say what the Congress leadership should do, whether it should go or not. It is not my concern as a scholar. The only observation I can make is that it is tough for old political parties on the decline to reinvent themselves with the same people at the top. That is what many examples across the world tell us.
The Congress party remains the second national party in India by virtue of retaining support from a large number of people. You still have several states where there is no opposition other than the Congress. Most of these states are largely in the Hindi belt. You still have many states where the Congress remains the direct contender for the BJP, and it is unclear as to which other regional parties—including the Aam Aadmi Party—might come to these states. It will be challenging for any party seeking to replace the Congress in these states.
In many states, the Congress is the lone force against the BJP. It can eventually sign up with a coalition of opposition parties, but none of them is in a position to come and help Congress in these bipolar states. Besides, such a coalition of opposition parties should find a way to capture the imagination of voters. They have to stand for something that is distinct from their opponents—something that can mobilise voters across groups, castes and genders. They cannot be just an aggregation of forces [and win the elections].
The emergence of women voters as a distinct category is a recent phenomenon. Political parties have become aware that women’s participation has increased all across India after the 2009 [Bihar assembly elections]. So, there is a massive phenomenon in India of women participating more [in the electoral process]. Political parties have integrated that fact and therefore are appealing to women as voters, by themselves, and not just as an extension of their households. This was reflected in manifestos, in policies, and the articulation of welfare policies with women beneficiaries in recent elections. If you look at parties that have campaigned on welfare schemes, they tend to have received more support from women than men.
The AAP in Delhi, the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar, J. Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu for some time, and, of course, Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. All these leaders have made direct appeals to women voters and have enacted pro-women policies—which is also a way for these parties to show that they are appealing across castes and communities. This transformation of women’s participation has brought many positive changes in Indian politics. Now there is more concern from parties to be gender-conscious. That itself is a positive development. But it is not necessarily translating into political empowerment—in terms of the inclusion of women candidates.
Some of these parties, which have the most imaginative pro-woman politics, have the worst records when it comes to the inclusion of women in their parties. It is only parties like the Trinamool Congress and the Biju Janata Dal who have made significant efforts in terms of women candidates. Of course, the Congress tried to do that in Uttar Pradesh, in the name of creating a new space for women in formal politics. But the problem is that the Congress party did not have much else to offer the voters. To win elections, you need more than one good idea.
While I think most would see the Congress move to include women as a good decision, this is not susceptible to generate a lot of support per se, when the Congress does not offer anything on any of the other factors that matter when you contest elections—organisations, resources and credibility. What Congress has done is to use a full-scale election as a pilot programme to experiment with gender equity, but it shows that if you focus on that at the exclusion of other aspects of electioneering, it does not work. The Congress cut its vote-share by more than half in these elections. It was a terrible performance.
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Now, of course, the Congress can always claim legacy by saying that it appointed the first woman chief minister in Uttar Pradesh, which is true—Sucheta Kripalani. But she was appointed because she was the wife of J.B. Kripalani. It was also an appointment from the top. UP chief ministers at that time were appointed from Delhi. She did not hail from UP; she hailed from Ambala in Punjab. When Kripalani was chief minister of UP, there was still a voting gap of 10-15 per cent between men and women. So combined with the fact that we do not have data on how women voted at that time, it is hard to say that the presence of a woman chief minister in UP had any effect on the women electorate per se. We just do not have the data to show that. There are reasons to be a bit doubtful about it. Also, she did not have a long career as chief minister.
In recent elections, we have seen the Congress being eroded more and more, both by the BJP and by other parties. I anticipate that unless it manages to jolt its organisation, it will continue to lose its leaders and MLAs—who would find they have little incentive to stay with the party. That process has already started.
—As told to Mandira Nayar
Verniers is an assistant professor of political science and co-director, Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University.