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The decline of Congress and its global peers

LiveMint logoLiveMint 10-08-2017 Livemint

It was mere coincidence that Ahmed Patel was fighting tooth and nail for his Rajya Sabha seat on Tuesday around the same time that South African President Jacob Zuma was facing his eighth no-confidence vote. But there are indeed striking parallels between the political trajectories of Patel’s Indian National Congress (INC) and Zuma’s African National Congress (ANC). In fact, the stories of Patel pulling off a victory just by the skin of his teeth and Zuma surviving narrowly despite having a large majority in parliament encapsulate the tough times both the parties are going through.

Having led India’s national freedom struggle, the INC graduated to become the default party of governance post independence. Similarly, the roots to ANC’s dominance lie in its protracted movement against the infamous apartheid regime in South Africa. Nelson Mandela, the tallest leader of the anti-apartheid struggle, took great inspiration from the methods of M.K. Gandhi of the INC. In decline too, the INC and ANC share a number of characteristics; the former, with a longer history, is ahead on the same curve.

Both the INC and ANC are bedevilled by corruption charges, including at the top levels of leadership. The allegations of corruption had a huge role to play in the INC being reduced to 44 seats—less than half of its previous worst—in the 2014 general election. Zuma is alleged to have set up a huge network of patronage and cronyism. The belief of both parties that they could get away with corruption is rooted in—as professor Nina Khrushcheva has pointed out (goo.gl/66yTEc)—arrogance. The laudable role of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in the freedom movement has degenerated into the “hereditary” arrogance of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Similarly, the ANC has misinterpreted its social justice legacy to be an imprimatur to indulge in corruption on a large scale.

There are other examples of political parties which got marginalized after several decades of influential presence in their respective countries. The Liberal Party was once one of the two major political parties in the UK but largely disappeared after World War I. The Communist parties in Western Europe could not adapt to service industries supplanting manufacturing sectors dominated by blue-collar workers. Khrushcheva says: “Working-class voters’ move to the middle class did as much to kill off Western Europe’s communist parties as the failure of the Soviet regime.” The INC has suffered a similar problem in India. The economic liberalization of 1991 and subsequent reforms have changed the basic character of Indian society: Millions of people have been pulled out of poverty and have joined the neo-middle class. The INC has found it difficult to grapple with the consequent rise of aspirations-based politics even though it was the one that triggered the reforms process.

Many major political parties have found it tough in recent years as the backlash against globalization and inequality has manifested itself in the electoral emergence of “outsiders” like Donald Trump. But perhaps the toughest battle for survival is being fought by the Socialist Party in France. One of the leading parties in France for the past several decades, the Socialist Party finished fifth with a paltry 6% of votes in the first round of the French presidential election earlier this year. While the immediate reason for this drubbing was the immense dissatisfaction with the outgoing François Hollande government and the hollowing out of support due to the departure of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Emmanuel Macron from the party, the greater damage to the Socialist Party and other Social Democratic parties of Europe has been due to the alienation of the residual worker class, which seems to have flocked to the far-right anti-immigrant parties.

With the erosion of working-class support, the Social Democrats have come to rely too heavily on urban middle-class voters. It is ironical that ideological moderation was one of the reasons why the Socialist and Social Democratic parties could flourish in the late 20th century by eating into the support of more ideologically rigid Communist parties. The ideological moderation, however, slowly turned into complete deracination, with leaders like Tony Blair in the UK supporting the invasion of Iraq and Gerhard Schröder cutting welfare spending in Germany. In order to win back their traditional constituencies, these parties may surrender to a radical left takeover; some of it is already visible in the UK’s Labour party with the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. While the return of the radical left may sound alarming to many, the Social Democratic parties of Europe still have a credible way out of their woes.

The best example of revival of party fortunes is Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). After 71 years in power, the party became identified with humongous levels of corruption and was finally thrown out in 2000. But it worked hard to alter its image under a new leader and, aided by the weakness of its rivals, returned to rule the country 12 years later. The time away from the seat of power was even smaller—three years—for Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, which lost an election for the first time in 2009 after ruling for more than half a century.

The INC in India, on the other hand, has neither the vision nor the leadership to initiate a revival. Will it be able to turn the tide without replacing its incumbent leadership?

Can Rahul Gandhi revive the fortunes of the Indian National Congress? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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