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IT is hazardous, so we are often reminded, to forecast the impending demise of political parties, or indeed, political personalities. Indira Gandhi bounced back, and in less than three years, from the whitewash the Congress suffered in 1977, losing all seats in North India, including her own. And the BJP, after slumping to an all-time low of two MPs in the Lok Sabha in 1984, increased its strength forty-fold five years later. Yet, even as recovery is not unknown, it does appear that the Congress and the UPA may still prove the doomsday pundits right.

The results of the recently concluded assembly elections in the five states of Punjab, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Manipur and Goa only reiterate what has been evident for some time – the inability of the Congress/UPA to learn from past mistakes or consolidate success. Its unexpected performance in the 2009 national elections, particularly in Uttar Pradesh – a state where for long it had been relegated to an ‘also ran’ position – seemed to have convinced the party leadership that the Congress was back on track to once again assume its dominant position in the national polity. This fundamental misreading of the long-term trend in Indian politics debilitated any incipient moves that might have been considered to restructure party organization and culture, in particular develop local leadership with long-term commitment to their constituencies and regions.

Despite Rahul Gandhi’s ‘valiant’ attempts to energize and democratize the party’s youth and student wings, the party itself remained what it had been for decades – an entity in obsessive thrall to its one time glorious past, cemented primarily by obsequious loyalty to the ‘family’, captive to oligarchs whose importance depends on their perceived proximity to the High Command more than their ability to create and nurture a constituency, and an entity that only comes alive at the time of elections. Its dismal failure in the pocket boroughs of Rae Bareli and Amethi, despite a full deployment of its resources, only underscores its structural weakness.

In hindsight, we are all wiser. That the Congress led UPA-2 regime has so far had a miserable run in office – multiple scams, fractious allies, inability to pass crucial legislation, declining growth and high inflation – was a given. Combined with a near absent organization on the ground, an injudicious selection of candidates, as also a complacency that the Nehru-Gandhi mystique is in itself sufficient to ensure victory – the results did not really come as a surprise. Even more damaging in my view was the absence of any fresh, positive vision in the campaign, underscoring the inability of candidates and party strategists to connect with an increasingly young, restless and aspirational voter. Pointing out the misdeeds of incumbent governments is relatively easy; convincing the electorate that your party is better equipped to confront the challenges of the present and future demands more than assertions of intent.

The chances that the party will honestly introspect, draw the needed lessons from the defeat, and more, act on them, appear doubtful. After all, the party made similar noises after its disastrous showing in Bihar, and we are yet to witness any meaningful changes on the ground. And the manner in which the party continues to fritter away the chances of consolidating its position in states that it is ruling – Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra – each of which contributed significantly to its strength in Parliament, is telling.

The greater likelihood is that the Congress leadership will in the proximate future be preoccupied with ‘saving’ its government at the Centre – navigating the budget session, elections to the Rajya Sabha, ensuring an ‘appropriate’ candidate for the post of President and Vice-President. This it needs to do in face restive allies and an assertive opposition unwilling to forego any opportunity to embarrass the ruling party. Alongside managing numbers is the challenge of legislation – far too many bills are stuck at different stages of the parliamentary process.

To survive what clearly will be tempestuous days, the Congress leadership needs to temper its hubris and reach out, not only to allies and opposition, but also the public. Otherwise, it will be seen as a government on the skids, never a healthy position to negotiate from. Above all, the Congress needs to drastically revise its understanding of the ‘national’ and ‘provincial’, a tendency to treat all other political parties as somehow less than equipped to think about and run the country. If the party, and its leadership, is able to curb its natural impulse, it may be able to complete its full term in office, giving it the necessary time to bring in the needed organizational changes. Continuing with its ostrich-like orientation will only ensure that we will not see a UPA-3 regime.

Harsh Sethi