Even if you disregard the results of the exit polls, which broadly indicate a strong pro-Modi trend, it is a foregone conclusion that the Congress Party will sit in the Opposition after May 16. The party, by all accounts, is doing so badly that it might find it hard to get into three digits in the next Lok Sabha. That would be a huge vote against its leadership, wouldn’t it?
But can it be hoped that its leadership will draw the right lessons from its disastrous showing in the poll? We have our doubts. Consider the first reaction of the party to the results of the exit polls. When it became amply clear that the public mood was against the party, it decided two things. One, it barred its spokespersons from participating in various television discussions on the exit polls. Two, and more significantly, it issued a statement saying that the result would be a `collective responsibility of all leaders.’ Clearly, the idea was to insulate the Gandhis from any blame that might flow from the party’s debacle in the poll. The Opposition BJP was quick to point out that the Congress was unready to abandon its old practice of crediting the Family for any good that might happen to it, but unwilling to hold it responsible for its failures. Anyway, the episode was proof enough that the party is reluctant to learn any lessons from the poll. Like it or not, had the Congress done a wee bit better in the exit polls, sycophantic spokespersons would not have tired of praising ‘Rahulji, Soniaji’ and even `Priayankaji.’ But when it comes to defeat, it is always a collective failure. No, the failure of everyone else other than the Gandhis. It is this ingrained slavish mentality, nay, the durbari culture, which has brought the Congress Party to this sorry pass. Whatever you may say against the BJP, and there is a lot that can be said, one thing you cannot hold against it is that it is tied to the little finger of any one, single individual or family. Who would have imagined only five years ago that a relatively unknown and controversial chief minister of a non-heartland state like Gujarat would rise like a colossus and take over the reins of the party, which for over half a century, was led by the Vajpayee-Advani duo. Where are the leaders in the Congress outside the Family? That is the trouble with the Congress. If Indira Gandhi did not allow strong regional satraps to grow, for fear that they might come to challenge her later, she at least had her grip on the pulse of the people. She could win the Congress several elections. Who among the Gandhis has that kind of charisma? The Chosen One has proved to be a non-starter. Priyanka Gandhi inspires some hope among Congressmen, only till she is not fully tested. Besides, she carries the baggage of Robert Vadra. As for Sonia Gandhi, well, her appeal has serious limitations as was seen in the latest campaign. Yet, in spite of its diminishing appeal, the Congress still enjoys considerable goodwill in almost all parts of the country. But unless the party is allowed to grow organically, unless it is able to free itself from the coattails of the Family, genuine leaders will be hard to come by. Courtiers enjoying power due to proximity to the 10, Janpath durbar cannot breathe life into the increasingly moribund Congress organisation.
Yes, we need the Congress to survive. We need an alternative platform to the BJP. The two parties at this stage of our democracy ought to be ready to alternate in power every five years. That way each is able to keep the other on its toes and ensure good governance and good opposition. But this can happen only when merit, and not birth, will be the foundational principle for the Congress Party. Frankly, the generation of Indians who were rooted in feudal traditions and were personally aware of the independence movement is no longer dominant. The new voter does not feel grateful to the Congress or the Gandhis for the good they might have done in the past. His concerns are more pragmatic, more aspirational. If the Congress chooses to remain in the past, it can only grow more irrelevant in the coming months and years. To re-build itself, it will have to revisit its equation with the Family, and ensure that its members are not accorded primacy merely on account of their birth. Once that vital link is reviewed, the party can begin to organise itself on a more professional basis, giving primacy to grassroots leaders rather than to those enjoying access to the Delhi Durbar.