TINA is as TINA does

TINA is as TINA does

Insufficient ambition is also a tricky thing

Mitali Saran

Ambition is a tricky thing, as any Scottish nobleman named Macbeth will tell you. It can fuel creative problem-solving, as any freedom fighter named Mahatma Gandhi will tell you; it can also be driven by a narcissistic lust for power that turns everything to ashes, as nobody in India is allowed to tell you.

Insufficient ambition is also a tricky thing. Much to the anger and frustration of supporters and would-be supporters, that’s the vibe that the Congress party has been giving off for almost eight long years. Yes, it has won elections. Yes, it has formed a few governments. Yes, it regularly challenges the Modi government in Parliament. Yes, it has some passionate, articulate members who regularly make the case for secularism, pluralism, governance, democracy, and the Constitution. Then why are so many Indians who subscribe to the same constitutional values, or who are disillusioned and horrified by the BJP, so reluctant to back the Congress?

Some of it is because so many people have absorbed the BJP’s relentless propaganda about dynasty—which is, of course, gross—being a worse evil than its own hate-filled apartheid state vision. I personally don’t think anything could be worse than the Modi government, except maybe a Yogi government, but many people genuinely find it hard to place faith in a party that doesn’t seem to have faith in itself, that is haemorrhaging people, and cannot own its own successes.

Having fire in the belly is pointless if the Congress cannot communicate that energy to voters. Every team needs a captain, or set of captains working together, and almost eight years into its 2014 defeat, the Congress has still not convincingly sorted out something as basic as its leadership. You can’t have one president stomp off, then tolerate a leadership vacuum for months, before finally dragging an ex-president out of retirement, and lose or almost lose governments, and then, incredibly, put off party elections for another year until 2022 as the CWC just did, without looking chronically rudderless.

To persuade people that you can do the job, you have to appear to be able to do the job. You shouldn’t need to lie and intimidate your way there, as the BJP does, but you do need to have a leader and a clearly articulated vision that is not purely reactive. You have to work harder than the BJP—and the BJP never stops—to win people, without the BJP’s financial power and media capture. I will never forgive Prashant Kishor for helping to bring Narendra Modi to power, but I agree with him that the Congress cannot simply wait out the man’s appeal, because even if it loses a general election, the BJP will remain an entrenched and powerful opponent. The Congress cannot hope for a free pass, and the longer it waits, the worse it looks.

Rahul Gandhi calling power “a poisoned chalice” is the political equivalent of first world problems. For all the Congress’ past crimes and misdemeanours, it is the leading opposition party, and represents a better India than the BJP’s. But whoever leads the party needs to grip that chalice and drink from it with conviction if they’re going to fight the most dangerous government this country has ever seen—and they need to do it day before yesterday.

Too many Congress supporters respond to this criticism with snappish defensiveness and the counter-accusation that it’s easy to kick someone when they’re down; they’re doing their best; nobody on the outside can understand the trials of running such a huge organisation.

But that’s exactly the point—India’s voters are on the outside, and they don’t care about your trials. From the outside, the Congress looks like a side with potential but without drive. Voter expectations are higher than the party thinks. It needs to ratchet up its expectations of itself to look like a viable alternative. And instead of getting defensive, listen.

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