For several years now, the Congress has dined out on its lineage. Forged in the freedom struggle, it began its innings in independent India with the patrician Jawaharlal Nehru at its helm. Today, the party which has seen PMs such as the imperious Indira Gandhi and the austere and scholarly Manmohan Singh, is like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
As the saffron tide sweeps on like a juggernaut and regional groupings edge it out, the Congress seems to have taken the easy way out. It has hitched its wagon to politically ascendant forces like the JD(U) in Bihar, the SP in Uttar Pradesh and is looking fondly at even the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra after the civic polls. It has become an add-on, good for a few seats in exchange for an illusion of being in power, for being part of the forces plugging the dyke against the tidal wave of the BJP.
But should the once great party be content with being part of the supporting cast to other parties, which grudge it even the crumbs that they part with and a position way down the political pecking order? No, I know there will be few takers in the party for this bit of unsolicited advice but I think the Congress needs to stop thinking about piecemeal gains in elections and take a serious look at why it has lost so much traction with the people.
It is no use blaming Rahul Gandhi and his lack of leadership for it. It is no use saying that had Priyanka stepped into the fray things would be different. The problem is that the Congress has no alternative narrative to offer, it has long ceased to be proactive. It confines itself to reacting to the actions of others, notably the BJP. It is unable to pick up one issue and run with it. It has not come up with the big idea in ages.
The Congress has all the ingredients required to make a comeback if it is consistent and diligent. It has huge brand recognition, a presence in every nook and cranny, an extensive cadre and a robust second-rung of leadership. Yet, it does not seem to capitalise on any of this. Instead of keeping its eye on the prime ministership, it should focus on rebuilding its base in states where it was once a formidable presence. It means re-energising its representatives in grassroots institutions, coming up with credible programmes, focusing more on its positives than the Opposition’s negatives. Brand Modi is hard to beat, so don’t waste your breath trying, instead focus on the here and now and what is possible.
The Congress leadership should collate ideas from its younger leaders and implement them in the states where it still has a chance. It has been so obsessed with power at the Centre that it did not notice that it is losing its grip in places which it once took for granted. In fact, even in its once inviolable strongholds, people are becoming weary of the party and its lack of ideas and imagination.
Its messaging must be different from that of the saffron forces, it should not try any soft Hindutva approach, it must have a robust liberal economic policy, it should stop its espousal of subsidies, it should stop wearing a tired pro-poor badge on its sleeve. It must project itself as a modern, progressive party with new ideas for a young India in terms of jobs, education, health and skills. It must come out with a practical and believable blueprint.
It has access to the finest professionals and its core beliefs are more in sync with modern India and Indians than that of the other political formations. Which is why I am astounded that it is happy to be a bit player and not work towards the top slot once again. The longer it waits to reinvent itself, the harder it will be and the less space it will have. A democracy without a credible and strong opposition is in a dangerous place.
The Congress is mired in its old shibboleths and an inactive older leadership. If it is seen as trying a lot harder to reflect the aspirations of the people, it will get noticed. At the moment, this is in the form of tokenism when it comes to the poor and marginalised, once the bedrock of the Congress’s support base.
In Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s iconic film Elipathayam (Rat trap), the story revolves around a comrade who returns to his village after pursuing the revolution. As he sleeps all day, the people gather round, firm in the belief that he will impart his wisdom to them. He keeps sleeping only to wake up now and then, but he says nothing. The patient people wait and wait – the story has a tragic end so I won’t spoil it for you in case you have not seen it.
I recommend it to the Congress leadership, there are many lessons to be learnt from this film.