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Congress: An old familiar feeling?

Some things in life are quite predictable. Virat Kohli will score centuries. Navjot Singh Sidhu will live from controversy to controversy. The Congress party will find ways to sabotage itself.

Of course, for a period, it felt as if the party under a new Gandhi, was taking a more realistic look at the hand that it held, and would play accordingly. After dawdling in Goa and fiddling around in Manipur, it acted with surprising canniness in Karnataka. It handed over power to the JD(S), in spite of being the larger party by far. The victory in the 3 northern states hinted at the possibility of a resurgence, and Rahul Gandhi too turned into a more credible leader, as many surveys too seem to bear out.

But in spite of making all the right noises, when it came to action, the Congress appears to have reverted to type. The decision not to forge an alliance with the AAP, is a decision that could cause the opposition a possible swing of 14 seats, which given the election scenario at hand, could make a decisive difference between winning and losing. Elsewhere too, the party has failed to cement any meaningful alliances as of today, even their Bihar alliance seems to have hit a rough patch.

A time like this needs ruthless focus only on primary and immediate objectives. From the Congress’ perspective, the bulk of its numbers are likely to come from states where it is already strong. In all other states, its only game plan can be to do whatever it can to strengthen the hands of other opposition parties. To try and get greedy in UP, Bihar or Delhi, for instance, makes no sense. These represent low probability-low reward outcomes that are simply not worth backing today.

As it is, post Pulawama, the outlook for the elections have changed considerably. The BJP looks energised, while the Opposition has been put on the defensive. Attempts to pin the government down on the effectiveness of its counterattack in Balakot are fraught with danger, for try as it might, the Opposition has not found a way to do so without seeming to undermine the Indian position. Quite simply, any conversation on nationalism, no matter what its content, makes the BJP stronger. Similarly, whatever gains which could have accrued from Rafael, have been made. On an issue of this kind without the enthusiastic support of media, as in the case of CWG, building momentum purely through campaign rhetoric is exceedingly difficult. The question to ask is whether a significant number of people will vote against this government primarily on the grounds that its leader is corrupt. Extremely unlikely. Which makes it not worth betting on.

The Opposition has above all, to get its on-ground structural strategy in place, which is all about building alliances, something that the BJP has done quite efficiently. The other opening that is available is the sense of disappointment felt by a section of the voters with the performance of this government and this has to be the sharp focus of their campaign.

This is hardly rocket science. Then why does the Congress find it so difficult to take a clear-eyed view of its options? Part of the problem has to do with the lingering sense of entitlement that it simply cannot shake off. In its own imagination, it is a ruler in waiting, looking forward to its next turn to take charge of the country. The victory in the recent state elections seems to further this implicit notion of an inevitable cycle. Also, so many of its decisions are driven by internal considerations, rather than external factors. The time it took for Rahul Gandhi to ascend to the throne (more a wooden stool, given the party’s performance in 2014) and the belated and half-hearted manner in which Priyanka has been pressed into service, are signs that give away the party’s delusional belief in its own destiny.

It is tempting, even if somewhat simplistic, to attribute this trait to the generic difference between an autocrat who has earned his spurs through the ranks and a dynast who has been handed down a legacy. The former converts insecurity into driving purpose while the latter keeps lapsing back into his comfort zone. Everything continues to be a battle for the former, whereas for the other, battles are episodic exercises punctuated by periods of relaxation. The self-made leader knows when to cut his losses, while the inheritor allows himself to believe that somehow, he will prevail as his lot always has. One constantly lives with the prospect of losing everything he has gained, while the other can never lose everything, for he will always be known for being who he is. One uses centralised power decisively to make things happen, while the other uses power to give himself the latitude to act inscrutably.

The Congress has time and again, displayed a curious inability to make tough choices. There seems to be an instinct of denial, of not acknowledging that making choices is about making sacrifices and taking chances. The difference in the Modi- Shah approach is stark. At one level, the BJP leadership is not even remotely lacking in confidence, but at the same time, when it needs to make something happen, it shows little hesitation in giving away more. It has a pragmatic view of its reality, even as it makes no bones about its larger ambitions in the long run.

It is true that at some stage, the Congress will feel that it needs to start rebuilding itself in the regions where it was once a force and now has been relegated to the margins, and it cannot do that if it keeps ceding ground to regional parties in the interests of building an alliance. But in 2019, that is a secondary objective, and that is a luxury the party cannot afford. The BJP is motoring ahead, and the Congress is running out of options.

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