Indian Express, August 13, 2017
Crisis? What crisis, existential or not? Ahmed Patel won. Normally Rajya Sabha elections are totally predictable, frankly boring. But we were treated to a cliffhanger. Every positive and negative aspect of Indian democracy was on display, making it the most watchable show in town. We had the wits of two Chanakyas — Ahmed Patel and Amit Shah — pitted against each other. Like Rocky IV, the senior man won. But, along the way, we saw the combination of extreme legality and obvious corruption of political morals. No party trusts its representatives, knowing that they have no commitments to the party above personal gain. Hence the forced isolation in Bengaluru. Two defectors wanted to convince the BJP that they could be trusted; that defeated the plan. There was also the procedural nitpicking where lawyers from both sides besieged the Election Commission. The denouement was fascinating. It seems that in a Rajya Sabha secret ballot, you have to show your ballot to your party whip but not anyone else. This means that not just the parties but the electoral system is based on mistrust of those voting. It is a shocking confession of the weak foundations on which the Rajya Sabha election system is based. A secret ballot is not secret. Who let that through? The Congress won, but I guess for the citizens watching, their faith in the electoral system for the Rajya Sabha suffered.
But while the BJP could not snatch one more seat than their due, they are now the single largest party in the Rajya Sabha. Thus far, the Congress had some clout in the Upper House. The government could not pass its prized land acquisition Bill despite repeated attempts. Now the balance may change. As the Rajya Sabha numbers change in a different rhythm than the Lok Sabha, if Modi were to deliver another majority as looks likely, the Congress will be in exile for a few years longer.
What many outside wish and as Jairam Ramesh expressed, the Congress ought really now to get around to looking at itself critically and ask what went wrong and how to put it right. It is difficult for a long-dominant party to face the reality of decline. But it is now or never. The Congress should not rely on cyclical comeback as happened in 1977, 1991 and 2004. Now there is a formidable party which has become hegemonic. Rather than repeat their entitlement to rule thanks to Gandhi-Nehru-Gandhi, the Congress ought to construct an alternative narrative which will appeal to the new generation.
It is hard to be hopeful that the Congress will revive itself. The conversion of a cadre-based party into a family fiefdom by Indira Gandhi emptied the party of anyone who can think outside the box and dare to point to the Emperor’s (or the Crown Prince’s) clothes. The last time it was an “outsider” from deep inside, Sonia Gandhi, who saved the party from terminal decline and delivered its comeback in 2004. You can’t step into the same stream twice.
Maybe it is not a crisis but an opportunity. At 70, India can witness the passing of the baton from the Grand Old Party born in British times to a party born post-Independence. India has confidence in its democracy and is happy to renew it by a change of the hegemonic party.