“The Congress should win Madhya Pradesh even if it puts up a lamp-post, unless the lamp-post chooses to piss on itself”—this was the remarkably earthy formulation of the election situation in the state by an old-time journalist. It is worth noting it down now, a day after polling, so that it remains a record of caution against those who will variously claim credit for Rahul Gandhi or Kamal Nath, if the party does make it through.
Throughout the Congress campaign in Madhya Pradesh, the party failed to address a fundamental question—a question that it has been unable to answer at the national level too. The success of the Bharatiya Janata Party was a result of the Congress’ failures, its compromises and its hypocrisy. Has the party learnt anything from successive defeats? What would it aim to do differently if it were to come to power?
The only answer the party has offered in Madhya Pradesh is that it will take on the BJP by becoming more like the saffron party. This has been, more or less, the only strategy the party has come up with ever since I was a reporter based in the state in the early 2000s, covering the 2003 elections in which Uma Bharti defeated the Digvijaya Singh-led Congress.
In 2003, the Congress leadership consisted of Singh, who is a Rajput, and Kamal Nath, who is a Bania. It still does, but for the fact that they have swapped roles. This freeze in the evolution of the party, thanks to the big two, essentially recapitulates the situation at the centre. At the national level, the presence of the Gandhis has ensured that the party has not seen a new set of grassroot leaders—who are not merely inheriting their parent’s legacy—emerge since the early 1980s which saw Ashok Gehlot, Digvijaya Singh and YS Rajasekhara Reddy rise. This has ensured the party has been unable to adapt to changing realities that should have made it a far more formidable challenge to the BJP.
The story of the Congress’ failures in Madhya Pradesh is, perhaps, the best summary of its national failure. It starts with its failure to build on its strengths, and ends with its capitulation to the BJP’s way of thinking.