The victory of the Congress in the Uttarakhand floor test will give the party a minor morale booster. The BJP’s arrogance and hurry in its use of Article 356 and some shepherding of the process by the Supreme Court has allowed the Congress a brief respite. But the Congress would do well to remember that a mistake by your opponent is not a substitute for your own strategy. The fact remains that the Congress’ long term challenges remain serious. There is still little evidence in the party of thinking commensurate with the scale of the challenge.
The first challenge is presented by Uttarakhand itself. The BJP was overzealous. But there is very little evidence to suggest that the Congress government in the state was on a wave of rising popularity. Before the BJP’s machinations kicked in, the government had been struggling; the BJP merely allowed it to play victim. But this points to a larger structural challenge. It is unlikely that the Congress will be able to point to a single major state of its own as an example of good governance. It will be unprecedented for a national party to go into a general election with no significant chief ministers it can tout as a success. We forget that even in 2014, part of what gave the BJP the image of some potential depth was not just the fact that it capitalised on Gujarat as a model but also that it had three or four chief ministers to project a semblance of governing capabilities. This is why states like Karnataka or Uttarakhand, apart from Kerala, should have had a significance for the Congress, beyond their numbers. We shall know the results in Kerala soon. But it is hard to argue that Karnataka or Uttrakhand will give any confidence about the Congress’ capacities to govern states. If there is a lesson the Congress should draw from the aftermath of the Uttarakhand crisis, it is that it needs to transform governance in that state. It may look marginal to national politics, but reputations for governance have to be built brick by brick.
There may be an inside story on the induction of Prashant Kishor into the Congress. But it is at least a tepid acknowledgement that the party needs fresh thinking. Hopefully, he will ask the hard questions that timid insiders fail to ask. It is also an acknowledgment of one truth the Congress was slow to wake up to: the nature of communication has undergone a revolutionary change with profound effects on politics. Hopefully, the Congress will come out of the Stone Age on communication.
But the party’s core problem is that it can neither dispense with the first family, nor, under current circumstances, live with them. The biggest liability the family brings is corruption. Corruption does not here mean personal corruption; these are matters for the courts to judge. The Indian electorate is quite paradoxical in its attitude to corruption: It wants corruption punished, but the slig-htest political imprimatur over the pun-ishment of high leaders and it also recoils in sympathy. If the investigation of the Gandhis appears as political victimisation, it may backfire.
But the sense of corruption which politically hobbles the Congress is the sense of a decrepit old regime that presided over a vast network of privileges and corruption. Unfortunately, that image still continues. When you are portrayed as a decrepit ancient regime, there are only two ways of reinvention: either you say sorry, and display conduct that inspires confidence that you have changed; or you change personnel. At the moment, Congress shows neither.
The other way in which the family corrupts the Congress is this. It diminishes the stature of even talented people around them. It is hard to think of any political party in the world that does not go through a period of some opposition to the existing leadership after a big defeat. What bothers people about the lack of contestation in the party is what it reveals about its character: still overtly centralised in form, and incapable of generating leadership. The first instinctive reaction the party leadership still generates is widespread contempt, for their lack of ability to stand up.
In politics, of course, much depends on circumstances. If the economy falls into a tailspin or the degree of communal polarisation breaches certain bounds, Congress may acquire momentum. But the challenge is that the first is unlikely to happen: even if not as spectacular as the government will claim, there is good reason to think that the economy is on an upswing and may begin to show real momentum in 2017 and 2018. In fact, in a measured way, there seems to be more momentum on the economic governance front in the last three to four months than was evident previously. Communal polarisation is a card that depends entirely on the BJP’s misjudgements. But even here it is not clear that the Congress has shown the courage of conviction or a new institutional imagination to inspire the promise that it actually stands for something.
There are essentially four strategies in an election: if you are an incumbent, show an inspiring track record. If you are an outsider, tap into a new narrative of hope. The Congress does not occupy this space. Or you can tap into a deep politics of anger. If the economy does reasonably, there is unlikely to be generalised anger of the kind we say in 2014. There will be pockets of social conflict but this will have a local flavour, and the Congress will have to find an artful way of exploiting these in states like Gujarat or Haryana. But in UP, it will not be easy. Or you can run on projecting the general credibility of leadership which the Congress lacks. But its sense of entitlement still stands in the way.
In some ways, the wild speculation on projecting Priyanka Gandhi in the UP elections is a blunt acknowledgment of this reality that the Congress cannot run on either hope, anger, or social engineering. What it needs is the reinvention of credibility that
a new face might bring. But unfortunately for the Congress, Indian voters have shown that family pedigree is not enough. It will have to be encased in a new imagination for the party.
The lesson, post Uttrakhand, should not be to exult in a moral high ground; it has to be the realisation that the party is still tottering on the brink of desperation. It will take immense organisational effort, ideological reinvention, decisive leadership and political courage to overcome this. Elections are far away, but the next two years are existentially important for the party.