What should the Gandhis do after being clubbed into submission by Narendra Modi?
Let’s first look at what they have chosen to do so far. They were churlish in accepting defeat, with Rahul Gandhi in particular putting up a shameful performance. His words — “Congress party has done pretty badly” — did much to validate those who said he was casual in his approach to the elections.
Sonia Gandhi mumbled some words without naming Modi and then disappeared. In the meeting with the party it was business as usual, with their offer to resign (to what mandarin does Sonia send her resignation? It would be interesting to know) being rejected by the courtiers.
What should they do now? There are four things that they can do personally, setting aside all the talk of analysis of the defeat, which will not happen, and revamping of the state units, which will not happen.
The first thing is to communicate to the Congress and its voters that the Gandhis recognise how large this defeat has been. They have not done this so far, and if they understand what a monumental thrashing they have received, they have not shown it.
The second thing is to put their hand up and raise their parliamentary profile. For 10 years, Sonia refused to take the office of prime minister, which was fine because she was not qualified intellectually, as I have written before. But she also refused to do much work in the Lok Sabha. It was Pranab Mukherjee who was Leader of the House from 2004 till his elevation as president a couple of years ago. Sonia did little inside Parliament and left it to others to do the defending or, on the rare occasion, attacking. Rahul was, of course, famously absent from action for much of the time. This has to change. The forum from which they can revive the party’s image is the Lok Sabha. The sorry huddle of Congress MPs, less than four dozen in a house of 543, will discourage them, but they have to man up.
The third thing is for them to sum up what it is that they stand for and communicate it to potential voters. My understanding is that the Congress stands for three things: pluralism in society (let us discard the word secularism, which has become a turn-off for many), liberalisation in the economy and a focus on state spending for the weakest Indians.
From editorials explaining the reasons for Modi’s victory, the wrong lesson for the Congress to take would be that their broad policies were wrong. They were not. The execution was poor and the management was incompetent. The three Congress pillars are unexceptionable and a stress on them will redound to the party’s benefit because they are sound.
Perhaps the Gandhis already know this, but even if they do, most of their supporters don’t. They should compress the message and begin to drum it. They should add the three points as a coda every time they speak.
On liberalisation, they should assist Modi, despite the Indian tradition of making the opposition a platform for nuisance. The BJP was negative and unhelpful, opposing foreign direct investment in retail. The Congress on this count should not be petty.
The fourth thing they should do is resist attempts to rollback their big schemes. There is talk of trimming the employment guarantee scheme. Some of the others, such as the National Food Security Bill and the Right to Education law can be hit in execution. Modi will certainly go after the Unique Identity scheme, which he so viciously attacked as a sop for Bangladeshis.
The capacity of the Congress to resist in Parliament is depleted in the Lok Sabha, but it has other fora: Rajya Sabha and, importantly, the media.
The Gandhis have chosen to hide behind their ministers and chamchas, which was fine when they were in power. Now, stripped of it and of much of their aura, they must show they can do politics in the way it needs to be done in India. Modi shows great joy in doing the work he does and it is what makes him an attractive figure. The reluctance of the Gandhis is the opposite. It is an asset in victory, but it is thoroughly off-putting now, when it seems they’re only biding their time, waiting to be returned again to power.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 25th, 2014.
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