Happy new year, Congress. Or is it?

Happy new year, Congress. Or is it?

Happy new year, Congress. Or is it?

As one of the darkest years for mankind slips into history, India’s once-mighty Congress party has little to raise the glass of champagne to.

It has been decimated in the Bihar elections, extinguishing the hope for its partner RJD. It did terribly in Jammu and Kashmir civic body elections and Hyderabad municipality polls. For the first time in three decades, the presiding Nehru-Gandhi family faces revolt from within.

And its president-forever-in-waiting, Rahul Gandhi, has left for Italy a day before the party’s foundation day.

This when the BJP’s ruthless election machinery is working tirelessly on the crucial state elections in 2021 in Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Kerala. There is not a single moment when the prime minister and BJP’s chief campaigner Narendra Modi or the Union home minister and master strategist Amit Shah is switched off.

These two have shown India that the winning machine never sleeps. The contrast could not have been sharper with the Congress scion, for whom politics seems to be a 9-to-5 corporate job with breaks, work-life balance, powerpoint presentations by savvy execs, unwinding at a chic bar after work, and awarding oneself the occasional holiday to Bangkok or Milan.

When you are the main challenger to the beast of a political force, it is suicidal to behave like Rahul.

It is not that the Congress is not a player in the forthcoming spate of elections. It is the main challenger in Kerala, a state with a tradition of alternately electing the Left and the Congress. This time, however, there is a strong public feeling that history may not get repeated. The Left may retain power.

If that happens, it would be humiliating and seriously undermining for Rahul. Sensing certain defeat in family stronghold Amethi, he also fielded himself from ‘safe seat’ Wayanad, winning it eventually and saving face. If the Congress loses in Kerala despite Rahul being an MP from the state, that 2019 face-saver will become smelly, dripping egg in 2021.

In Bengal, the Congress has managed to push itself to the irrelevant fringe after giving the state its first and finest chief minister ever, the legendary Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy. Even when the Congress CM Siddhartha Shankar Ray was quelling the Naxal movement with an iron hand in the ’70s, none must have imagined the mendicancy his party would be reduced to four or five decades later.

In Assam, the Congress lost its supremacy just five years ago. Today, especially after Tarun Gogoi’s death, it looks like a rudderless, distant second. Maybe even third, if the new Assam Jatiya Parishad does surprisingly well.

In Tamil Nadu, it can improve its tally from 8 in 2016 if it fights in alliance with DMK and works hard. But that is a big ‘if’.

Rahul’s entire strategy seems to be to wait out Modi’s tenure and hope that power will automatically come and fall on his lap when people get disenchanted with the BJP. But the river of politics does not always flow that way.

In the last six years in power, the BJP has, with the determination of a heroin addict, expanded its base and taken over institutions and local bodies. The RSS has spread and deepened its ideological project in ways hard for most people to even fathom.

The Hindutva force has not just created Modi’s visible successors such as Amit Shah or Yogi Adityanath, but it is grooming new leaders away from the public gaze, to be brought on stage at the right moment.

The Congress, on the other hand, is trying its best to shield its prince from the dissenters. It is still avoiding an internal election, lest he is challenged and even defeated. It may well end up putting the reins back into an ageing, ailing Sonia Gandhi’s hand to desperately avoid taking a tough decision.

The party is up against a force it still has not been able to fathom. If the Congress continues in the mode it is currently in, 2021 is going to be another long quarantine from power.