Napoleon once said that he wanted generals on his staff who had luck on their side. He would have been happy with Narendra Modi. Just consider the ways in which lucky breaks have come his way. Mahatma Gandhi returned from South Africa a hundred years ago. It fell to Modi to celebrate the centenary at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in his old home turf of Ahmedabad last week. The Vibrant Gujarat Summit also just happened to follow in the same place. Gandhi is no longer Congress property. He has been nationalised by the BJP.
Before the election, the BJP had claimed Sardar Patel as one of its own. Here again, Gujarat was the connection and Modi was happy to make a lot of that. As an extra bonus, the Prime Minister was lucky and by implication the Congress unlucky that the 50th anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru’s death fell right in the election month of May 2014. Had the election been six months later, the Congress could have reaped a bumper harvest of publicity.
The Congress has been plagued by ill luck. It won in 2004 by luck. Even the re-election in 2009 could be attributed to luck and the disarray in the BJP. But since then, it has declined. Sonia Gandhi was plagued by ill-health and Manmohan Singh had to undergo multiple bypasses. Rahul Gandhi has not had a single lucky break in all the years he has been in Parliament (though often absent). Now that it has suffered a massive defeat, not just in the general election but in state after state, the question is — will the Congress ever revive?
Parties which are in and out of power are resilient and fight back. But a party which has been forever in power is inured to shock. It finds it hard to revive itself. The example of the Liberal party in Britain is worth studying here. It was the party which as the Whig Party claimed to have headed the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which legitimised popular protest against an unpopular monarchy. It shared power off and on with the Conservatives for the next 225 years. After winning in 1905 and getting re-elected twice, it split and lost in 1922 and never again came to power on its own during the 20th century.
This could happen to the Congress. As of now, it has done little to analyse the reasons for its losses or tried to redefine its ideology. It remains smug and static. Its leadership is elderly except for Rahul who is largely absent and a liability while he is around. It does have younger leaders but they need to defer to the young prince. The older leaders showed their fear of the people by choosing to stay in Rajya Sabha. This leadership is hoping that it will return to power not on its own positive stance but because the BJP may falter. Its tactics in Parliament show it has learnt well from the way the BJP behaved while the UPA was in power. But the contrast is telling.
The UPA had little popular support and no icons who could enthuse the new generation of voters. The BJP is, so far, lucky in that respect. The PM has remained an icon and knows how to handle the social media, an area in which Rahul and Sonia are conspicuous by their absence.When parties lose, they need to react sharply and radically. My own party, the Labour Party, had to change its leader four times and redefine its ideology over the 18 years in opposition to regain power. Tony Blair had luck on his side as he won three elections, the first Labour leader to do so. The Conservatives changed their leader four times and updated their philosophy as well over the 13 years they were in opposition. The losing leader went after each election defeat. A new leader was elected and stayed until the defeat.
In India, no party seems to change leaders. The BJP did not after 2009. The Left has also been frozen in its leadership. Indeed, no losing party seems to change. This is because none of the parties has internal democracy. India needs better political parties if it is to stay a democracy.