Pitfalls of handing a walkover
Congress workers in Lucknow are said to be behind posters, stuck across the city, mockingly seeking the whereabouts of Prashant Kishor, the vaunted political master strategist who had been passed on to the Congress by the Janata Dal (United) after Nitish Kumar’s election win in November 2015. In a season of despondence, it is commendable that the anger of the drubbing in Uttar Pradesh has been channeled towards dark humour. It will be worthwhile to find out if they can retain their sense of humour when they learn that some in the opposition, of which the Congress continues to be the pre-eminent party, think it is a better idea to prepare for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls because according to them there is no way to stop Narendra Modi in 2019.
Some plain talking has been done by Omar Abdullah of the National Conference. Perhaps justifiably. To win back a state after 15 years as the Bharatiya Janata Party just did in Uttar Pradesh, with the kind of majority that is unprecedented for coalition era politics, surely calls for a reality check on the opposition prospects for 2019. There are divisions in the Congress old guard on the road ahead and the role of the present Congress leadership in future. Typically for a hierarchy-driven party, the anger has been muted on the outside. Few have asked for a leadership change. But mostly, they have suggested that Rahul Gandhi must be more pro-active, a reference to his vacations at a time when his party is in coma. The so-called loyalists, though, have dismissed calls for a leadership change, while not ignoring that the Congress party is in deep crisis. And then, there are those who have proposed a grand alliance to stop Modi, the demands coming from within the Congress party and those outside it, perhaps believing that they can make up with poll arithmetic what they cannot by capturing the imagination of the voters.
Old-style Congressmen are touchy about unsolicited advice. They claim they know better. There is no denying they have been there, done that. But, given their vulnerable position, and little to show by way of election wins, they have been getting a fair bit of free advice, mostly from fellow opposition stalwarts, who have wasted no time in passing on the frustration of their electoral losses to the Congress and its lacklustre leadership. In a little less than three years since they were blacked out in the Lok Sabha polls, the Congress party appears to have no plan on how to revive itself. The hiring of Prashant Kishor to provide a roadmap for election victory to the oldest political party in the country was being touchingly naive.

Apart from getting extra time by giving a pass in 2019, is there really a Plan B for future elections? If there is, it should start with the rehabilitation of Rahul Gandhi in the public space. There is surely a lot to do there. It does not help when a Madhya Pradesh engineering student proposes that Rahul’s name be included in the Guinness Book of World Records for losing 27 elections on his watch -- apparently a world record, according to the young man. The Congress vice president has not been known to be kind to his own reputation. At a rally with Akhilesh Yadav during the Uttar Pradesh campaign, he forgot the number of assembly seats in the state. His gaffes are legion. There is a fairly low level of public tolerance for this and who would know this better than Rahul.
Compare this with the BJP and its plans for the future. The war machinery is already on the move for the next set of state elections in Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka and the four north-eastern states and the Delhi municipal elections before that. In UP, even though the victory is just days old, the BJP has got all hands on deck to identify deliverables so that they have a record of work done ahead of the next Lok Sabha elections. The message from the 2014 polls, that winning handsomely in Uttar Pradesh is half the battle won, has clearly not been forgotten in the din of the recent victory marches.
With the BJP marching ahead with the sure footedness of a victorious army, the task for the Congress in 2019 will be more than about Rahul, the numbers game, or the toppling of the old guard. India is now changing for ever. The change will come not only on issues of nationalism. Tied to that, there will be changes in the education system, in the way the economy is run, the role of the government and the fight against corruption. Communal relations are on course to being completely overhauled. On an India-wide scale, the Congress has opted out of this process, either as a disruptor or a facilitator in a manner befitting its history and size.
This makes it troublesome for its future because if it comes to power again, it will emphatically not be picking up from where it left off. The Congress is more of an umbrella organisation than the BJP in that it represents more shades of opinion. However, its political legacy is about the Nehruvian worldview, it is about Left of centre politics. It is also about economic reforms and social change, and affirmative action. All that is on way to being swept aside by the BJP wave. The party’s reluctance to seize its legacy and state its case is surprising, perhaps even more than its proclivity to act as a tag-along to regional satraps in state elections. At this moment, there is nothing worse than talking of a walkover to the BJP in 2019. With the BJP on a roll and unlikely to yield an inch, the Congress party’s defeatist attitude is taking it straight down the road to irrelevance.
Ananda Majumdar