The dismal performance of the Congress in the four Hindi-speaking states which went to the polls recently did not surprise anyone, except perhaps its own leaders. Pollsters have been saying for more than a year that it is on the decline. They have said the popular mood is such that the Bharatiya Janata Party will push it down to the second place and emerge as the largest party in the Lok Sabha in next year's elections.
Congress leaders have offered the self-serving explanation that the party lost because it failed to apprise the people of the good work done by its governments at the Centre and in the states. They should ask themselves if the good things that happened under their watch are sufficient to persuade the people to overlook the bad things such as rampant corruption and spiralling prices.
People form judgments continually on the basis of how governments' actions impinge on their lives.
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government is mired in scams, and its popularity has touched the nadir. Some leaders of the Congress and its allies are fighting graft charges in courts. When acts of malfeasance came to light, the UPA, instead of squarely facing the situation, reflexively went into denial mode and resorted to cover-up.
Corruption has grown enormously in recent years. What's more, it is now an issue high up in people's minds, thanks to Anna Hazare's on-again, off-again Jan Lokpal campaign.
Corruption, as Indira Gandhi famously observed, is a global phenomenon. A historical analysis will bear out that most countries faced corruption when their economy was growing rapidly. The British parliament had hauled up Clive and Warren Hastings on their return home from India with loot. Japan, South Korea and China, which witnessed economic boom ahead of India, also witnessed high corruption. While they sent functionaries like president, prime minister and party bosses to jail, India has had a poor record in dealing with corruption at the top.
Other parties too are affected by corruption. The BJP was forced to act against its chief minister in Karnataka, B.S.Yeddyurappa, following serious allegations, and he broke away and formed a regional party. Now it is trying to get him back to its side before the parliamentary elections. There were corruption charges against a dozen members of the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh but that did not prevent the party from securing a third term in the Assembly elections.
Clearly, the Congress has an image problem it cannot wish away. Corruption charges stick more easily to it than to others since it has been in power longest and is assumed to have been corrupted to a greater extent than the rest.
It is unfair to throw the blame for the party's present plight entirely on Manmohan Singh, as some Congressmen are doing. After all, he had also presided over UPA I, which did well enough to secure a new mandate for the party.
Some of the Congress's problems do not admit of easy solutions. It is saddled with leaders with a record of mishandling issues of import. Telangana is a classic example of a problem complicated by leaders whom the high command had relied upon to sort out difficulties. Such problems are the price the party has to pay for attaching greater value to servitude than to competence.
The party's shrinking vote base presumably still includes many who view it as the party of Gandhi or Nehru or Indira Gandhi, all of whom had forged emotional links with the ordinary people. Having relied upon nominated leaders after the 1969 split, at the state level it lacks leaders and an apparatus capable of ensuring delivery of its votes. This leaves it in a disadvantageous situation, especially in states where it is pitted against cadre parties.
Where the party apparatus is intact, as in Kerala, it faces difficulty of another kind. The supposedly all-powerful high command has to remain a helpless spectator when a leadership which stands discredited, following disclosures about closeness to cheats and communal elements, drags the party down with it.
There are, of course, issues that can be addressed, not to find quick-fix solutions but to refurbish the party's image before the elections. It may be able to regain some lost ground if it can convey the message that it understands the people's yearning for change, reflected in the Assembly elections, and is willing to reinvent itself.
A new Lok Sabha has to be in position before the term of the present one ends in May 2014. Last time, the deadline was June 2 and the long-drawn-out electoral process began with the Election Commission announcing the poll schedule March 2. This time the announcement may have to be advanced to mid-February.
The moment the schedule is announced, the model code comes into force, and the government will not be able to initiate any new programmes or policies. That means the Congress has just two months for any makeover effort. But the party stands paralyzed, caught between a prime minister who has outlived his utility and a fancied successor who is finding it difficult to get rid of the reluctant groom syndrome.
(15.12.2013 B.R.P.Bhaskar is a political analyst based in Thiruvananthapuram. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)