The Congress party, which under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru led India to independence in 1947 and has ruled the country for most of its post-colonial history, runs the risk of near-extinction as a political force in 2016. Congress now has just 44 seats in parliament compared with the 282 of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of the prime minister, Narendra Modi; that is not even enough to qualify as the main opposition. In 2016 it will probably lose a number of state elections. Among the major states this will leave it in power only in Karnataka, whose capital is Bangalore, where Congress was humiliated in city-council elections in 2015. Neither Congress nor the BJP when it was out of power has ever been in quite such dire straits in terms of having virtually no regional bases to boast of.
The blame for such ignominy is being heaped on the Congress’s leader-in-perpetual-waiting, Rahul Gandhi. Himanta Biswa Sarma, a former state minister who led a recent defection of Congress members in Assam, issued a pungent indictment of Mr Gandhi on his way out. Mr Sarma described him as a politician who has built a moat around himself; after months of trying unsuccessfully to speak with Mr Gandhi, Mr Sarma received a return phone call only when he was sitting in the office of the president of the BJP, announcing his defection. Not surprisingly, Mr Sarma did not answer the call.
When he does agree to meet party leaders, Mr Gandhi’s habit of scrolling through his e-mails offends them. Congress’s leader in Punjab complained to Rahul’s mother, Sonia Gandhi, the party’s president, after walking out of a meeting in which Mr Gandhi spent much of his time on the phone. Mr Gandhi’s stumbling performances in his rare media interviews are painful to watch. So are his gaffe-prone speeches in parliament.
One might expect a challenge to Mr Gandhi to be festering within Congress. Not a bit of it. He has the advantage of celebrity as the good-looking grandson of Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter and twice prime minister.
By mid-2016, four major Indian states will have gone to the polls—Bihar in the north, West Bengal and Assam in the east, and Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the south. Congress will not win any of them. This may not bring a split in Congress as some predict, but 2016 will be the year in which the party, founded in 1885, is relegated to being a nonentity in Indian politics.