Congress is dangerously running low on fuel. Will it last till 2014?
If at all it lasts, will it have anything left to see itself through the Lok Sabha elections due by then?
The assembly poll debacle is a strong warning sign of the party’s severe erosion of political capital and the increasing rise of unfriendly regional parties. The rural voters have abandoned them and the regional parties have elbowed them out.
However, what should worry them more is the bankruptcy of political ideas and the limited leg-space that it will be left with over the next two crucial years.
Ahead of 2014, it has to face another round of assembly elections in four states, including its incumbent Rajasthan and Delhi. If the results are going to be even close to what we just saw, the party is in deep trouble. It might even lose its right to convene, if at all the UPA allies together manage to cobble a majority.
The drubbing in four states, particularly in UP, has shown that Rahul, and the sparingly used Priyanka, are not the steroid shots that a severely emaciated Congress will need; instead, it requires big political ideas, that over the next two years can create a dramatic impact on large rural masses.
The biggest of them all, is the need for a political prime minister.
It is absolutely clear for the nth time that taking the lifeblood of politics out of the prime minister and conserving it within the Gandhi family for an imagined charisma doesn’t work any more.
A politically lameduck prime minister implementing simple neo-liberal prescriptions out of the policy papers of the WB or IMF is a bad idea. That immediately after the assembly elections, the policy issue that Manmohan Singh spoke about was on retail in FDI shows his lack of political acumen. Does it work for anybody? Absolutely not, not even for the urban voters.
What is required is a big idea like the NREGA that will have an impact on the lives of rural people. NREGA was partially helpful for the UPA in getting a second term, but it has run its course and now makes sense only for international students of poverty. It requires something bigger with short term results. An NREGA Version 2.0 perhaps. After the `India Shining’ experience, nobody has a doubt that it is the rural voter base that counts.
Instead, what does the Congress have in store? The Food Security Bill and the increased allocation on health in the 12th plan.
The Food Security Bill has been severely criticised as a wasteful behemoth that can even impair effective universal PDS systems in states such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala. If at all it gets partly going, it is not likely to create any impact. The first two years could at best be a pilot period when one is likely to see more failures than successes.
The next big thing in store is the proposed doubling of allocation on health. The 12th plan proposes to raise the per capita expenditure on health from the present 1.4 percent to 2.5 percent of the GDP. Experts do find the proposals ground-breaking of far-reaching consequence, but its short term political gains are likely to be negligible given the incubation period its implementation will take.
Two more upcoming pieces of legislation—the Grievance Redress Bill and the Electronic Delivery of Services Bill—are hailed for their likely impact on public life.
Progressive, but politically smart? In the absence of a more popular Lokpal, they wouldn’t make much sense to the public. A Lokpal could have been a politically smart choice because it captures public imagination. Political intransigence and hard line advice, perhaps out of genuine fear of skeletons in the closet, killed a fantastic opportunity.
What else does the party have? Pretty much nothing. Instead, what it is likely to see in the coming months is an increasing defiance by its alliance partners, challenges in Rajya Sabha elections and many of its proposals falling through.
By 2014, the Congress is unlikely to gain anything in Tamil Nadu: Jayalalithaa is already talking about it and has asked her party workers to get her all the Parliament seats. In Andhra Pradesh, the ghost of YSR’s corrupt legacy will be difficult to exorcise; in the four states where the Congress has failed miserably now, the fortune is unlikely to change despite theories of split-voting; the upcoming elections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan also do not look overtly favourable at the moment. Maharashtra and Bihar? Pretty faint.
Perhaps the only hope the Congress can nurse is that the BJP pitches Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial candidate. In such an event, Congress might be an indirect beneficiary.
It is certain that Congress cannot hope for a semblance of redemption without changing its ways and politics. The first step towards such a change is a political prime minister. Nowhere in a democracy, one would see a political dud like Manmohan Singh. Either make Manmohan Singh political or look for a wily veteran, to begin with.
Otherwise, forget about 2014.