In November 1947, speaking to the All India Congress Committee on the biggest issue of the time – Hindu-Muslim relations – Mahatma Gandhi told the delegates that he had come to them because they were the “real Congress.” It was the AICC, in his view, that held real power, as opposed to the party’s larger general body that met once a year. For the Mahatma, even in 1947, the much larger party meeting only served as being “more or less demonstrative in character”.
Sonia Gandhi’s Congress is a very different creature from the living-breathing cauldron of internal debate that it was under the Mahatma too much history separates it but in terms of the distinction between the smaller AICC and what is now called the party’s plenary session, the Mahatma’s words about real power residing in the hands of only a few it’s now entirely the preserve of the Gandhi family rings even truer today.

Ten thousand delegates may have gathered in Burari for a Congress plenary that comes at a time when the party is facing its greatest crisis since the creation of UPA-2 but behind the choreographed imagery, there is little sign of a real debate in any sense of the term.

Beyond the obligatory political ritualism of such meetings, Burari’s actually significance lies in what the Mother and the Son have chosen to communicate as the party line on the great issues confronting the Manmohan Singh government.

Two broad themes seem to be emerging: terrorism of the majority and minority kind and corruption, which Mrs Gandhi says her party must confront head on. While she has been combative in defending the Prime Minister and the government’s record on the latter, it will need more than words and showcasing the Opposition’s hypocrisy to show real progress.

The jury is literally out on the morality of why Manmohan Singh put up with the Rajas and the Kalmadis for so long. For now though, the Supreme Court’s decision to monitor the telecom probe in its entirety has at least given a government, whose refusal to concede a Joint Parliamentary Committee look churlish, some respite.

Events dictated that corruption had to be on the menu but it is the decision to focus on terrorism and the controversy around Rahul Gandhi’s views on right-wing terror in particular that is truly revealing of the party’s current political drift.

When the Congress celebrated its centenary, in 1985, Rajiv Gandhi used the occasion to unveil a new agenda for governance, hitting out at the culture of corruption, middle-men and entrenched influence peddlers. It is a different story that eventually his promise of a new Camelot fell prey to Bofors and the propensity to play vote bank politics after the Shah Bano verdict.

Twenty five years later, Rahul Gandhi’s Congress is essentially signalling an agenda for fighting right-wing revivalism but curiously the party seems to be missing the big idea.

In a widely aspirational society like ours, the Congress needs a grand idea for governance reform and clean-up that speaks to today’s wider concerns, not grandstanding that looks suspiciously close to dabbling with votebank politics.

There is nothing wrong in the Congress positioning itself as the legitimate counterweight to right-wing revivalism indeed it must do so. The problem is that by seeming to identify the Hindu-Muslim divide as a primary axis shaping today’s polity, it may be missing the larger direction of the social impulses driving modern India.

Simply put, arresting the sense of stasis that seems to have gripped the Congress in UPA2 will need more than just attacks on communal politics or laudatory statements about the NREGA or the Food Security Bill. The party and the government need a new grand narrative and vision for driving social and administrative change, one that goes beyond simple entitlement politics for the poor.

It is not just the Centre. From Andhra to Maharashtra to Rajasthan, the party is facing similar problems of drift in the important states it runs as well. The Congress’ electoral debacle in Bihar is an indicator that personality politics alone is a poor substitute for ground-based leaders with local credibility.

This is the real crisis the Congress faces as it heads into crucial assembly elections in five states next year. And in the absence of a clear-cut developmental vision beyond lip service for the poor the perception of a party that has stalled in delivering developmental progress becomes almost self-fulfilling.

In 1985, the then Congress government reportedly put pressure on makers of Amar Chitra Katha comics to come out with a commemorative volume on the party’s Centenary celebrations. Amar Chitra Katha responded cautiously with a series called March to Freedom. Its first instalment, focussing solely on the story of the Congress Party within the freedom movement, was launched by Rajiv Gandhi.

If a sequel is ever written on the travails of the modern-day Congress, 2010 will surely feature as a pivotal moment where the party was confronted by its hubris and some seriously tough questions. The question is will it have the courage to actually answer them.