Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi had said after the Aam Admi Party's (AAP) success in the 2013 Delhi elections that there was much to learn from the fledgling outfit and that the Congress will do so "in a way you cannot imagine". More than a year later, when the AAP is again expected to fare well in Delhi, there is no sign that the Congress has learnt any lessons.
The AAP's resurgence is all the more surprising because the party went into a decline during 2014 after its government in Delhi resigned. The reason for its debility was the party's misreading of its earlier popularity which made it contest more than 400 parliamentary seats and win only four. In Delhi itself, it lost all the seven Lok Sabha constituencies to the BJP. The AAP suffered other setbacks, too, including the desertion from its ranks of some prominent party members.
Yet, the party returned to the battlefield with all the drums beating and banners flying while the Congress remains in a stupor. The reason why a party which is less than two years old has been able to overcome its reverses while a 130-year-old Grand Old Party continues to be in a moribund state says something about the factors which determine political fortunes.
The obvious element in the difference between the new kid on the block and the elderly uncle is public perception. While the youngster has a certain freshness which evokes a willingness to give him a second chance notwithstanding his missteps, the grey-haired political contender's jaded looks compound a rather dismal record of sleaze and non-performance in office.
At the centre of the contrary images is the art of communication. The AAP leader, Arvind Kejriwal, has proved to be a master of effective interaction with the masses. Arguably, he is helped by the fact that his image is still untainted in terms of failures in governance because the party has never been in power for any length of time.
A longer than 49-day stint - the period of the AAP's last tenure in office - may take some of the sheen off its rhetoric. For the present, however, it can take advantage of its untested reputation since it hasn't yet had the time to renege on its promises. As such, the voters are prepared to place their trust in its words -- for the time being.
The century-old party, however, is a poor communicator. While its chief, Sonia Gandhi, remains a reader rather than a leader - she is a script-writer's slave with no spontaneity in her speeches - the second-in-command, Rahul, gives the impression of being a dilettante who is going through the motions of making speeches, even with a simulated show of passion, for the sake of the family. He doesn't have "fire in the belly", as former Congressman Natwar Singh said in his autobiography.
But that's not all. The Congress lacks fresh ideas. Its image in the public mind is of a party with a Soviet-style statist approach to politics with little scope for individual enterprise. It suffers as a result in comparison with both the AAP and the BJP. While the former flaunts its intention to remould the system by weeding out the vested interests in politics, the bureaucracy and the private sector, the BJP is bent on unleashing what Manmohan Singh once called the "animal spirits" of the entrepreneurial class in order to breathe new life into the economy.
Both these approaches have their appeal, though not always to the same sections of the people. The AAP's combative attitude towards the establishment, ensconced in a gated world immune to the travails of the common man, is appreciated by the underprivileged who are at the receiving end of an insensitive and condescending officialdom.
The party's purported honesty also had an appeal for the better-off segments of the population till Narendra Modi was able to successfully woo them with the promise of a buoyant economy.
The AAP also has the knack of grabbing headlines which is an asset in the days of 24x7 news channels. Earlier, it did so by levelling accusations of corruption against the bigwigs, whether politicians or industrialists, much in the manner of what R.K. Karanjia's sensationalist tabloid, Blitz, did in the 1960s and '70s. Like the latter, the AAP occasionally faces defamation cases, but apparently believes that the publicity compensates for the legal expenses.
Now its gimmicks involve cautioning the Election Commission about the possibility of the BJP tampering with the electronic voting machines or inviting the Modi government to arrest Kejriwal if the charges of money laundering against the party are true.
There is little doubt that such belligerence has put the BJP on the defensive. Compared to the virtual cakewalk which the BJP had in last year's parliamentary polls against the palpably weak Congress, the AAP's insolence and pugnacity have tended to put the ruling party off balance.
There is a saying that when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled. The Congress is proving to be somewhat like the grass in this context.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)