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The Congress: A sliver of hope?

The world turns on moments. Against the run of play, the mood turns. A few events happen to coincide and the time becomes ripe for a new narrative. For the last few weeks, the Congress seems to be energised by just this kind of possibility. But seductive as the idea is for the party, it is unlikely that any dramatic shift in the political landscape is imminent in India, even if the highly skewed power balance between the government and the opposition is being corrected somewhat.

The Congress does have a sliver of an opening. After years of decline and decrepitude, it has reason if not to smile, then to clutch its head in despair a little less often. The Modi government’s missteps have created a space for other narratives, and Rahul Gandhi’s newfound ability not to say or do something silly every time he tries to say or do something is helping. Gujarat is turning out to less than the cakewalk that it promised to be, and the BJP is uncharacteristically jittery.

From the government’s side, there is a clear change in body language- an increased desperation to keep things as they were. Being on the back foot does not come naturally to Mr Modi and his reactions lack the surefootedness of an earlier time. The GST implementation disaster has been managed poorly, with patchwork solutions that need more patchwork solutions, the effects of demonetisation continue to reverberate through the economy, and worryingly, the PM’s words do not carry the weight they once did. The attempt to spin everything creates fatigue, and when every minister is thrown at every problem in order to generate confidence, it ends up having the opposite effect. The government’s cultural agenda too ends up with too many unhinged statements coming from too many quarters, which in a time like this creates the impression that it has its priorities wrong.

It is important to be clear about the nature of this opportunity for the Congress. Nobody is clamouring for the Congress to return, nor for Rahul Gandhi to lead this country. For most people who oppose this government, the Congress is at best a bitter pill that one will need to summon up resolve to swallow. There may be, in very small circles, it must be emphasised, some sense of nostalgia for Manmohan Singh, not for his leadership abilities (ha), but for his erudition and decency. There is none for either of the Gandhis. The idea of the dynasty is now a terrible burden- little remains by way of charisma, the aura of inevitable leadership, or the presumptive entitlement that propelled them at the hustings. Even Sonia Gandhi, who incidentally escapes all scrutiny, has no equity whatsoever as a potential leader of the country. The family seems disconnected from the country emotionally, and lives in a reality that does not acknowledge the outside world. This dynasty is politically dead or close to dying, and few are grieving.

And yet, in the short run, the party needs them as bandage that stems the gaping wounds it sports. The party’s dilemma is that with the Gandhis, the party dies of irrelevance and without them, it fragments into the little islands of patronage that the party really consists of. Given the fact that as of now, it has no viable path to an alternative leadership, it has to make the best of what it has.

Therefore, the task right now for the party is to focus on the BJP government’s governance failures. This is already being attempted in a more coherent and consistent way than in the past, but this requires more than a few clever tweets. Unless there is more ground level movement in this area, the effect will be superficial. More importantly, the party needs to build an emotionally resonant narrative, that goes beyond individual failures of the ruling party. The idea of a regime that is more talk than action, more high promise than grounded transformation is a potentially powerful one. This idea derives its power from having the ring of truth as far as perception goes. The decline in the level of enthusiasm for Modi’s transformational developmental agenda is marked, even if support for him personally continues to hold firm in this group.

The core emphasis in the run-up to the 2019 elections will need to be focused on attacking the government, with the Congress being positioned implicitly as the less destructive alternative. This may not prevent the BJP from coming to power, for that prospect does look extremely unlikely, but for now the Congress only hope is an emotionally resonant negative campaign, which helps it buys some time for itself. Eventually the Congress needs new ideas that are fronted by a new leadership. It needs to imagine a vision for the country that is rooted in the future rather than one that harks back to the past. It needs a new vocabulary of promises, and a new clarity of purpose and this is something its current leadership is just not geared to deliver. The Congress today represents politics at its most jaded, and this is what needs to change.

In the short run, it needs to create a new set of leaders that mark a break from the old ways of the party. This is a process that involves some pain, but today the Congress has a lot less to lose than it did in earlier times. In the long run, the only road to survival for the party is if the Gandhi family voluntarily ushers in a new line of leadership under its aegis. It is difficult to imagine any other scenario in which the party survives. The Gandhis must let go, but it is not enough for them to merely let go- they need to do so at the right time and they need to underwrite the transition. Unless that happens, a temporary upswing in the party’s fortunes will make no difference to its future.

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