Every time Congress loses an election there is a tendency to write us off. This is not so only about recent times under the incumbent Congress President, Smt. Sonia Gandhi. Many people even wrote off Smt. Indira Gandhi after the 1977 debacle. These people forget that about three decades the JS (Jana Sangh) and its successor party, the BJP remained on the fringes of electoral politics. Atal Behari Vajpyee even lost his own seat to a young and charismatic Madhav Rao Scindia. His party was squeezed into two seats in the Lok Sabha. I do not recall any outcry, or even earnestly whispered advice, that the party leader could not deliver and should therefore step aside. Instead of looking at the specific issues that conditioned the outcome of the elections, to restrict discussion on the ability of our leader to secure votes for us, is either naive or dishonest. No product, however outstanding, sells in the market place without suitable packaging, advertising, distribution network, and adequate salesmanship. The launch or existing market share of a product can go wrong if any one of these elements are missing.

Of course we still need to talk about why we have lost so dramatically this time. It is easy to identify superficial reasons but if we mean business we need to look deeper. Why and how did we win last time and why did the BJP lose last time? After all they had by then already arrived on the national scene in a big way. Yet they lost miserably. This was only five years ago. Again, over the past few years, each time an election was won by one party, the other party won the subsequent election that followed. For example, we swept the last Assembly poll in Delhi but lost all Parliament seats shortly thereafter. BJP had done well in MP and Rajasthan in the last Parliament, but were comprehensively trounced in the Assembly elections that followed. Perhaps all this is good for democracy.

Incumbency factor has of late become a fashionable way of explaining defeats. Sometimes it is pinned on the party, sometimes on the government, sometimes on the larger than life leaders, and sometimes on the MLAs. This is either too obvious to be emphasised, or indeed a complex public response process that needs closer scrutiny and analysis. Ostensibly doing good work itself might not be enough. Rajasthan and Chattisgarh are examples of that. Grassroots development too itself may not be enough if that is at the cost of bigger, more conspicuous symbols of infrastructural development. Madhya Pradesh will vouch for that. Internal party dissent may be dangerous but not necessarily fatal, as we saw in Himachal Pradesh. So ultimately a lot of issues interact and interface to give a result. Facts obviously have a direct relevance but perception is often more important. Perception can be natural or guided. Media management and media use play a major role. In these recent elections too we must give the media its due. Perhaps many of us underestimate the reach and impact of media, particularly the electronic channels. We give even less thought to how we look on the TV screen. Histrionics that might impress in political conclaves can look ugly and offensive through the TV camera.

Having said all that, what is the road ahead for the Congress? Time may be short, resources will undoubtedly be scarce, but there should be no reason to doubt our ability to win, or indeed our determination to win the Parliamentary election. We need brains and brawn. We have no paucity of both but they have to be put into coordinated action. The issue of pre-poll alliances, the inevitability of which is being repeated to us ad nauseum, and which we had categorically accepted at Shimla, is a matter of brains. How can alliances be crafted? On what terms should we reach out?

We should look upon prospective alliances as a matter of strategy not panic or desperation. The loss of the four Hindi belt states should not be seen as the loss for the Congress alone. If the absence of alliances is a dominant reason (and I believe it is not) our perspective partners too have lost. They are of three kinds (a) essentially regional, successful outfits attempting to increase their clout by establishing enclaves elsewhere; (b) break away Congress groups trying to settle scores with the party; (c) existing regional parties that have a potential for gradual growth into a multi “ regional outfits. Curiously, despite the losses in the last decade, the Congress remains the only national party with footholds across the length and breadth of the country. It is natural that we should seek to rule the country. If joining hands with likeminded (and I dare say, fair minded) is necessary we will do so. But there is no reason that we should shake hands with some one who holds a gun to our head. Whilst we aim to capture Delhi and therefore prepare to share Mumbai, Lucknow, Srinagar, Patna etc, we cannot be pushed into conceding our primacy or our principles in the pursuit of power.

Salman Khurshid 10/12/2003