NEW DELHI: The once almighty Congress party has been in a state of ‘strategic’ indolence for a considerable time, and this is what’s making people wonder what’s up with it.

Even when it was in government, which is not so long ago, the party was slack and flaccid. But this was concealed from public view under the veneer of governmental activity. The party was also uncommunicative, behaving as though conversing with the public is no part of politics.

This was surprising as our era is a lot about communication, and devices and modes have opened up to make this widely possible. Even the poor are on the Internet. But not Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, and Rahul Gandhi whose appearnces on the social media are at best periodic. This shows them up as not just quaintly old-fashioned but ante-diluvian in a country where almost anyone looks at is young.

More, this attitude of deigning to speak when they desire and keeping mum for the most part- the royalty syndrome, so far removed from the supple accessibility needed today- damaged the Congress in the public perception.

Even some of the more striking actions of the Congress-led UPA government, like Right to Education; MNREGA, the world’s largest rural employment programme; and Right to Information, crucial in the fight against government corruption, misdemeanours or corruption, practically went unheralded outside the wooden framework of government.

Also, no one got to know that historically the highest incidence of poverty reduction in India had occurred during the ten years of the UPA which also gave a sustained seven per cent plus rate of growth over a ten-year period, a record for any democracy.

Just contrast this with how Narendra Modi played the non-existent “Gujarat model” of development, using this to duck the record of communal carnage on his watch. Modi as Chief Minister whitewashed his sins, the Congress black-washed their gains.

This is what purposeless silence can lead to. Worse, given a suitable political twist, this meant the Gandhis, in particular, didn’t care about people much, and given another twist it meant they cared only about “dynasty”. This was the Modi messaging of 2014, which in considerable measure led to Congress’ trouncing- a near crippling- as far Lok Sabha numbers go, although some nuanced parsing- of wider amplitude- may be needed to explain BJP’s astounding electoral run since 2014.

Having a mere 44 seats in Parliament has dented Congress’ brand. Even if you lose state after state, but have a decent strength in the House, and a robust Parliament showing to go with it, you can get by as a party. But the impression that has carried, is of an erstwhile great party seized with helplessness, confusion, even a death wish- a party that quite simply lacked the capacity to innovate and act with energy.

Look at the Lok Sabha in the past three years since Modi became Prime Minister. Illness has kept Sonia away from the proceedings by and large. Rahul Gandhi hasn’t stolen anyone’s thunder.

It was expected of him that he would stand up and give battle by expounding on substantive issues from the floor of Parliament (and there’s been no dearth of issues), exploit opportunities at the country’s highest political forum to engage in “pedagogy”- as the French like to say- in a way that would explain to ordinary folk how the government has used propaganda tools to fool them, and thus help trigger processes that could lead to the unraveling of the myth-makers.

Even when the government was on a weak wicket, it got away cheap- like Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje’s and Sushma Swaraj’s links with the fugitive Lalit Modi, the former cricket czar, the Madhya Pradesh Vyapam scam, and the daily humiliations at the hands of Pakistan and China that this government has been made to suffer.

But expectations of the Congress leadership was a hope destined to be belied, given Rahul Gandhi’s record since he became a MP more than a decade ago. He seems to come to life only around elections, when he can sometimes bring to bear maniacal energy on the campaign trail. But the chief characteristic of this energy is its diffusion, not focus and comprehensiveness.

When election is done, and no matter what the result, the Congress scion does the vanishing act from mainstream activity and returns to some kind of guerilla warfare. This principally involves rushing to scenes of some mishap or tragedy and putting his arm around a victim- not unlike some television news anchors. End of story.

Quite amazing, the Congress vice-president did the self-obscuring act even after the 2009 Lok Sabha poll, when his personal campaigning had won for his party nearly as many Lok Sabha seats in UP as Mulayam Singh’s SP or Mayawati’s BSP and BJP was humbled.

A tally of around 20 seats was a record for the Congress in UP in more than three decades but the feat is not remembered today because this Congress leader, who could be the party’s next chief, did not pause to build on that success and lost himself in the woods. Once again one hears that he is trying to conduct written exams and interviews to enroll recruits to the Congress’ student wing, NSUI- now a pretty much forgotten entity.

In personal conversations, Rahul Gandhi does come across as not just presentable, but knowledgeable across a range of subjects, unlike most political leaders, even highly successful ones. It is hard to imagine that someone in that position should resort to one-liners alone even when the discussion is around something which is large in scope and affects millions of people.

By now his pet theme is to attack the Prime Minister with the same sling-shot again and again. Many have got fed up of hearing that the BJP is a communal party on account of its ideology and the diet fed to its cadres. Someone should tell the Congress leader that all this is old hat. He has got to put things in a different, newer, innovative way, and be mindful of the context by expanding on the subject at hand. Everything is not down to the communal-secular chromosome, though many things may be.

Much of the above points to the leadership question which, inpublic discussion, frequently gets mixed up with the dynasty question. Should Sonia Gandhi and her son pack up because their party has repeatedly lost with them at the helm? Or, should they go simply because they make for the “dynasty tag”? And further, had they stepped aside before the 2014 Lok Sabha or the recent UP state poll, would the Congress have fared better under another leader?

It is evident that most Congress ranks, and those in the leadership, would answer “no”. After the several defeats, they could have easily stormed the citadel, left the party in disgust, or walked over to other parties, especially the winning side. But none of this has really happened, although a few high-profile regional leaders have crossed over to the BJP here and there, but they are generally no longer effective.

The Congress should also decide whether the time has come to engage in concerted diplomacy with leaders like Mamata Banerjee and Sharad Pawar, who had left it, in part on the leadership question, for a possible return to the common pavilion before each is cut down by the saffronites separately.

In this venture, the Gandhis could offer to step aside for any new leader or leadership council that may be elected with common consent. This could be a return to the moment when Sonia Gandhi turned down the prime minister’s crown back in 2004.

The present fade-out of the Congress has a noteworthy aspect. It is occurring at the same time as the fade-out of the-so-called “secular” parties- including the Left- across the canvas, and the concomitant rise of the religious far right in the social and political arena.

Their common fight-back, if that is what they would like as they seem to proclaim in trying to get together on the issue of the looming presidential election, can only commence if the Congress- which alone in the political spectrum stands for all classes, castes and religions- is able to lead with ideas.

The Gandhis, in particular, can best lead with their thoughts and actions even if they relinquish a formal role, if such a course would stabilise the Congress and pave the ground for a better coordination with others on the secular side of the divide.

The Congress should also go out and tell the country what it stands for and how they would live by their belief. They frequently forget to do that. A little bit more selflessness all-round may be the best way forward- even in ticket distribution in elections.