It’s been another round of electoral defeats for the Congress and yet another aftermath in which the same old call for introspection goes up — and falls, unheeded. By all accounts, the Congress leadership did not introspect in 2014, after the party was squashed by the Modi wave and reduced to a paltry 44 seats in the Lok Sabha.
Nor in 2015, after it was routed in the Delhi assembly election, winning no seats at all, with most of its candidates losing their deposits. So why should the setbacks of 2016 be any different, why should they provoke the Congress to react differently? Why should the Congress shed its carefully rehearsed routines of evasion and obfuscation and the firewalling of its top leadership from any criticism and accountability?
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It may be time for Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi — the latter, remember, promised many years ago to comprehensively overhaul the party — to finally ask the tough questions, not because the losses in the latest round of assembly polls are so extraordinary, but because they confirm the unchecked slide of the party. They must ask why in the face of a reinvigorated BJP, the Congress looks like a party that reacts to its political opponent on terms set by the latter. And why against regional parties that are hectically innovating and moving and remaking their strategy in order to survive and grow, like its allies in Bihar, the JD(U) and RJD, it seems a stranded party waiting for a cue that never comes. Even in West Bengal, where the Congress made an unconventional move in the form of the alliance with the CPM in this election, it lacked the organisational vitality or the narrative to back it up locally. For many years now, the Congress has been the left-over rump after the aggressive mobilisers, be it the BJP or the regional parties, have weaned away bits and pieces of the erstwhile umbrella party. The Congress must wonder whether it stands for any core values anymore — for instance, does a commitment to secularism mean a principled stand against the minority baiting of, say, the BJP? Or only the ostensibly pragmatic and more risk-averse strategy of soft Hindutva to take the edge off its harder version?
To be sure, it can be argued that there is a Congress space in the polity — for a party that is more a coalition of interests than a tightly bounded entity — but it is increasingy unclear if the Congress will continue to fill it. It is not clear, either, if the Family that has so far presided over its sprawl and provided the glue for it, is performing that role as efficiently. To go on from here, the Congress will need to face up to its terrible shrinking and ask whether and in what form it has a future.