Democratic politics is often unpredictable, especially in India where ups and downs can upset political pundits, opinion polls, and armchair critics alike. In trying to read the outcome and implications of the just concluded plenary session of the Indian National Congress at Raipur, a safe harbour statement is necessary and it goes something like this: 'The party has certainly found a new burst of energy, but don't mistake intense activity for smart work.'
The BJP's assorted, loud tribe of supporters never misses a chance to mock Congress MP Rahul Gandhi whose dynastic hold over his party remains strong despite the fact that he holds no significant office in the organisation.
The ruling party's attempts to write him off have been as futile as the Congress party's own attempts to bounce back since 2014 when Modi stormed to power. A patient, careful look at the Raipur conclave's content and context suggests some forward movement for the Congress, but far less than it believes it has.
Congress MP Rahul Gandhi's dynastic hold over his party remains strong despite the fact that he holds no significant office in the organisation.
The political furore triggered by the US-based short-seller Hindenburg Research on the Adani group of companies and its perceived special treatment by the Modi government can be considered another shot in the arm for Congress.
At Raipur, the party's call-to-action clearly listed the unity plank as a priority.
Congress is now calling for caste-based reservations even in the judiciary, a step that must not go unnoticed.
A sobering thought for the Congress is that ordinary citizens don't understand high-sounding resolutions but items they can relate to.
Bharat Jodo Yatra and Dalit Figure Fronting Congress Party As Trump Cards
There is little doubt that the Bharat Jodo Yatra led by Rahul Gandhi amid Mallikarjun Kharge's election as party president has spurred a new wave of optimism in the party. A planned East-West journey on the lines of the South-North long march may add more fizz in an election year. But journeys are not destinations.
The political furore triggered by the US-based short-seller Hindenburg Research on the Adani group of companies and its perceived special treatment by the Modi government can be considered another shot in the arm for a party looking for agenda items to dislodge the Modi government.
Kharge, to his credit, has been remarkably confident and credible as a leader. He sounds sincere and committed and in a way that commands an elderly respect. The fact that he is a Scheduled Caste (Dalit) leader should in terms of Congress ideology be an asset to the party, but a lot depends on whether he is treated as a figurehead or a mentor for the party that badly needs more than photo opportunities and soundbites.
Beyond Rahul's long march, the Adani ammunition and the Dalit facelift, the party's best bet now is its finally acknowledged realism that it is no longer the automatic and natural nucleus of an opposition challenge to the Modi-led BJP.
Realism always helps realpolitik. Two recent statements by veteran Congress leaders seem to set the stage for what happened in Raipur. On the one hand, Salman Khurshid hinted that a united opposition was a likely scenario and it was akin to a situation between two lovers on who says "I love you" first. On the other hand, Jairam Ramesh said the Congress must be the fulcrum of opposition unity.
Can Congress's Bid for Unity & Socio-Economic Equality Contest Modi's 'New India' Goals?
At Raipur, the party's call-to-action clearly listed the unity plank as a priority, leaving little doubt it was in no mood to lose out in a three-pronged electoral contest in many states and would rather have anti-BJP allies in places where it has only seen rivals. This actually makes unity efforts official. With a year to go for general elections, this gives ample elbow room for formal talks and negotiations.
A lot else that happened in Raipur, is on the face of it, quite familiar, suggesting that the Congress is still in danger of putting old wine in new bottles. However, its economic resolution contained an emphasis on labour-intensive manufacturing, job creation, and a need to reduce economic inequality - showing a clear left-ward shift. The party is certainly revisiting its 1991 liberalisation programme with a fresh pair of eyes. What's next? A reversal of course? New promises?
The exact words of its economic resolution are worth noting: "The time has now come for India to re-evaluate and re-prioritise its economic development roadmap in the backdrop of the twin attack on our economy, namely increasing unemployment and inequality”.
The party also suggests new metrics to address economic inequality -- going beyond old yardsticks like per-capita income.
The resolution on social justice left no doubt on the left-ward tilt as it stressed not only on the rights and welfare of religious minorities, Scheduled Castes, and Scheduled Tribes, its traditional but melting vote banks, but also Other Backward Classes (OBCs) with whom it has made an uneasy peace after blow-hot-blow-cold rivalries.
In plain speak, this means its aim for a common agenda for the opposition is now on firm ground and can have positive outcomes in states like Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. Congress is now calling for caste-based reservations even in the judiciary, a step that must not go unnoticed.
Where its plans may come apart is the fact that there is too much emphasis on unemployment and identity politics while Modi seems to have captured the imagination of a large mass of people with the dreamy idea of a resurgent India.
Can Congress doing a reality check on the ground be good enough to ward off Modi's resurgence rhetoric? The answer seems to be "Perhaps" because Modi, despite his strong popularity and considerable wins over the past decade, is not winning because of personal charisma but by a combination of hard work, party organisation, and deft packaging of his own ideas on socio-economic development.
How Can Congress Turn the Wind in Its Favour in 2024
Slogans have use-by dates. The setbacks suffered recently by the BJP in Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, a defeat in Rajasthan in 2017 and a near-defeat in Madhya Pradesh in the same year, suggest that the electorate is not awestruck by Modi but takes calculated decisions that keep him on his toes and in what his critics call a 'perpetual election mode'.
A sobering thought for the Congress is that ordinary citizens don't understand high-sounding resolutions but items they can relate to. If Congress can convert its words into promises that people can identify with, it may stand a chance of being the opposition fulcrum it wants to be. I would only say: Watch this space.
(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity.)