Simultaneous with the rise of the BJP has been the steady collapse of the Opposition with no effort, concerted or specific, to revive itself. Seema Mustafa, Editor-in-Chief of The Citizen, a daily online newspaper, says the Congress party is really the worst hit and does not seem to have a will left to revive. For the Left survival now appears a formidable challenge. “Beaten and bruised by the goons of the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, the CPI (M) has lost hundreds – perhaps thousands – of its cadres to the BJP in the state. This has dealt a body blow to the Left movement.

“The regional parties are slowly being silenced into submission. The arrest of AIADMK leader and Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa on corruption charges has worried many like West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, Bahujan Samaj party leader Mayawati, Samajwadi party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and others of their ilk who have gone to bed with corruption. Perhaps the only two sanguine regional leaders at the moment who are following an independent policy with some ease are Janata Dal(U) leader Nitish Kumar in Bihar, and Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik”.

This does not bode well as democracy cannot survive without a healthy, strong Opposition. “It is absolutely essential for this check and balance to reassert itself to prevent an executive from becoming totally reckless, and the legislature to perform according to the aspirations of the people and not as the fiefdom of the ruling party”.

Congress: the slump of the grand old party

The slump of the Congress has been most surprising. Analysts say the Grand Old Party needs to learn from Indira Gandhi’s tactics, skills and style of leadership to meet the difficult political challenges ahead. The Congress won a three-fourths majority in the Lok Sabha in 1984, the year Indira Gandhi was assassinated. The party has never won a majority on its own in the Lok Sabha since then. It has been able to form governments only through the coalition route. 

The party was able to dislodge the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) from power in 2004 and also win another mandate in 2009 to form a coalition government. However, the party registered its worst performance in the Lok Sabha polls this year, winning only 44 seats.

Political analysts say the present Congress leadership needs to learn from Indira Gandhi who was a decisive leader, never averse to taking risks.

Opines Mridula Mukherjee, professor, Centre for historical studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU): “Indira Gandhi was a strong, decisive leader and a hard-headed politician. Leadership means you have to be prepared to take risks. Unless you do things in a bold way, you cannot win (elections). The Congress certainly needs that”.

She said political leadership was not about doing everyday routine things but about dramatic and symbolic gestures. “You need bold ideas. She (Indira Gandhi) rose from the ashes. She came back by picking up people’s issues,” Mukherjee said.

She said Indira Gandhi’s revival after the 1977 election debacle started with her visit to Belchi in Bihar where Dalits had been massacred. Referring to the recent communal clashes in Trilokpuri in East Delhi, Mukherjee said the top Congress leaders had not even visited the place. “Trilokpuri is happening under your nose… Start becoming visible,” she said.

Mukherjee added that Indira Gandhi gave a leftward turn to Indian politics and was not inherently authoritarian as she herself revoked the Emergency imposed in June 1975.

Political commentator and senior journalist S. Nihal Singh says that “Indira Gandhi was a decisive leader and there was nostalgia for her following the dismal performance of the UPA-II government under Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. Judging by the performance of the UPA-II government, there is a measure of nostalgia for her not only in the Congress but among the general people also,” Singh said.

Concurs Aswini K. Ray, a former professor of political science at JNU: Indira Gandhi revived the Congress from its internal problems and the present Congress leadership should learn from the way she connected with people, he said. “She is a role model of populist politics. She was able to effectively communicate her message,” he said.

According to political commentator and senior journalist Kuldip Nayar, Indira Gandhi’s term would have gone down well if she had not imposed the Emergency. Nayar said that Indira Gandhi was a determined leader who revived and restructured the Congress. “One thing they (present Congress leadership) can learn is that she never gave in, doggedly pursued (her goals),” Nayar said.

Unfortunately, the party has given up. It does not appear to have the will to fight. As political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta recently suggested, the “Congress is being defeated by defeatism”. In both Haryana and Maharashtra in the recent state elections, the Congress gave up the battle even before it had begun. One of the Congress candidates in Maharashtra even told me: “Why should I waste money on an election I know I am going to lose.”

Rajdeep Sardesai, senior journalist says “the Congress soldiers are dispirited because their generals have gone missing in action….In the last few months, it has become increasingly obvious that Rahul Gandhi is not Indira Gandhi; he is probably not even a Sonia. Both his mother and grandmother appeared to relish the idea of a fight when written off. Rahul has done just the opposite: He has retreated into a cocoon, refused to engage with the media and even with senior partymen, has barely addressed a handful of election rallies and hasn’t initiated any mass contact or mobilisation programme”.

And because Modi will not just wither away, “Rahul has no option but to either summon up the ideas, energy and courage to look Modi in the eye or else be prepared to fade away into the sunset. That he didn’t take up even the leader of the Opposition role in Parliament was the first sign of trouble for the Congress; that he hasn’t since made any meaningful impact on the national discourse suggests that he has almost abdicated his responsibility to pose a robust alternative to the Modi juggernaut”.

Critics are rather hard on Rahul. Although there will be no immediate threat to Rahul’s position, he needs to win their respect at least. “Indeed, he is probably the first member of the Nehru-Gandhi family that has presided over Congress fortunes for six decades who has been unable to yet win the respect of his party colleagues”.

Left: trying to deal with existential threat

While the Congress struggles, the CPM is conducting a kind of a post mortem in the form of a draft political-tactical line, prepared by general secretary Prakash Karat and approved by the politburo. The draft blames a 1978 party-line that supported building alliances with non-Left parties for the CPM’s decline. The revised position, presumably, calls for a “pure” approach to electoral politics and, on the ground, this could be read to mean the CPM would henceforth ally only with other Left outfits and not with “bourgeois-landlord” parties like the DMK, AIADMK, RJD and SP.

Sitaram Yechury, a politburo member, rightly does not agree and history supports him. The party’s “united front” tactic conceived in 1978 in fact helped it increase its presence in Parliament. It peaked in the 2004 general election, when under the stewardship of Harkishen Singh Surjeet, the party won 44 seats, its highest ever tally in the Lok Sabha and propped up the first UPA government. On the other hand, in 2014, with Karat at the helm, the CPM’s tally fell to nine. Surjeet had become the pivot of a Third Front politics that sought a non-Congress, non-BJP alternative at the Centre and the CPM even got a “historic opportunity” to head the government, which, however, was denied by hardliners led by Karat.

The Indian Express concludes “the CPM lacks organisational and leadership skills and also the ideological appeal to turn the tide on its own. If it wishes to remain relevant and stay in the game in a polity that is being rearranged by BJP dominance, there appears to be little or no alternative to building tactical alliances with non-BJP parties, maybe even the Congress. Rather than quarantining itself, or embarking on a mission of ideological puritanism, the CPM leadership needs to become more open and inventive to meet the new challenges of the changing political moment”.