The crisis in the Congress is deepening by the day, as furious backroom confabulations have not yielded a leader to replace Rahul Gandhi. The grand old party seems unaware that its biggest problem is not the absence of a Nehru-Gandhi at the helm, it is a comprehensive loss of identity.
The Congress has very little left to lose; the BJP's big tent caste and class coalition is now all things to all people and to that end, has sought to appropriate every valuable icon: Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Jayaprakash Narayan and even PV Narasimha Rao. Nehru is only a matter of time.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's directive to BJP MPs, that they mark the 150th year of the Mahatma by undertaking 150 km padyatras in their respective constituencies, is a significant step in the systematic effort to subsume the country's most powerful symbols of nationalism, tolerance, secularism, social justice, constitutionalism, liberal democracy and sheer Indian-ness.
The process of acquisition was slow but steady, aided by the Congress' apparent indifference to its icons. The father of the nation was ghettoised in academia, the Khadi Village Industries Commission and 'Gandhian' institutions (the Gandhi Peace Foundation was, in fact, the epicentre of the anti-Indira Gandhi JP movement).
Along came the BJP, well aware that obeisance to Gandhian values is imperative for a national party seeking to capture hearts and minds. In his first term, Modi made it a point to promote Khadi and dedicated Swachh Bharat to the Mahatma (who may not have approved of the strong-arm methods used). His 'last man' principle, rearticulated by Deendayal Updhayay as 'antodaya', was absorbed into the BJP campaign. Now, it has become mandatory for MPs to carry Gandhian concepts of nationhood, village self-reliance and environment to their constituents.
The Congress meanwhile is bemoaning, not the loss of its base, its middle-rung leaders or even its most cherished icons, but the resignation of Rahul Gandhi. Like headless chickens, they keep circling back to the first family.
Rahul Gandhi threw down the gauntlet to the Congress when he resigned; challenging it to survive, if it could, without 'la famiglia'. Deliberately, he quit without a succession plan, leaving a party that has existed under the shadow of the Nehru-Gandhis since Independence, to sink or swim.
Several names for the interim presidency of the Congress have been floated, among them those of Captain Amarinder Singh, A K Anthony, K C Venugopal and P Chidambaram. Among the youth brigade are Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Milind Deora. None of them quite fit the bill, but any of them would be a step forward, at a time when state units are engaged in internicine battles and the Karnataka government teeters at the edge of a precipice.
Will the first family adopt a strictly hands-off approach vis-a-vis a new leadership? In the past, it has ejected leaders, namely PV Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri, who proved too independent. Sonia Gandhi then took direct control, only to have an 'Et tu, Brute' moment with Sharad Pawar and Purno Sangma. Dr Manmohan Singh was more accommodating, but his very success in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls triggered alarm bells.
If the grand old party is to survive, it must take hard decisions, the first of which is to elect a leader who is not a family sycophant. The second is to come to terms with the current political scenario and adjust the party's semantics accordingly. The third and most important is to articulate a 21st century vision for the Congress, even while reclaiming its heritage.
The Congress cannot compete with the BJP on populism and anti-poverty rhetoric, as it tried to do in Lok Sabha 2019. The BJP simultaneously speaks the language of the poor and the aspirational.
To reinvent itself as an alternative to the BJP, the Congress needs to rediscover old-style values of political morality, constitutionalism and liberalism, all of which it cynically jettisoned over the decades. It must now get back to basics; it would do well to look to Gandhi for inspiration. No prizes for guessing which one.
(The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal)