India is experiencing unprecedented political challenge. It is posed by the backward looking, authoritarian, rightwing forces who have acquired control of the levers of the state power. Political process is benumbed. By sheer habit, it is trudging along in the old rut.

Opposition politics is visionless, splintered, regionalised, and ineffective.

The main, all -India opposition is still the Congress, the Grand Old Party of India. A lot is being said and written nowadays about it.. The latest in the trail is the statement issued by 23 high profile insiders.Those who have dreamed of a" Congress Mukta Bharat" could not have been happier.

The point is not whether some insiders are frustrated or some outsiders are beside themselves with joy.

The point is that the Grand Old Party will not wither away and the goings- on in the Congress have implications for Indian polity, its character and its future.And this cannot simply be wished away.

Congress is the only mass-based political party which has had , all along, an all-India popular base.The base expanded and shrank from time to time. But it has always been there.

Its historical identity with the freedom struggle gave it a head start. Its wont to mean different things to different people contributed handsomely to its appeal.

Normally, the former factor should have vanished with the passage of time. And the latter could have led to its splintering. Neither happened. Mainly because of the iconic presence of what the currently fashionable parlance describes as 'dynastic leadership'. That leadership ensures both : an organic link with the freedom struggle and the centripetal attraction which overcomes the looseness and the ragtag nature of much of its following.

So it is a vital need of the Congress to have "a dynast" as its leader,. Remove that and the Congress loses the sap which makes it survive. Is it any surprise that those who want to liberate Bharat from Congress train their guns fiercely and tirelessly at the "dynasty"?

It is beside the point, therefore, to argue that Congress should encourage alternative leadership.

Given the unique position of the Congress , and the dismal state of the opposition politics in general, what can and should Congress do to meet the unprecedented political challenge that the Indian polity is facing ?

It goes without saying that the Congress should first silence all talk of alternative leadership and forthwith restore formally its natural leadership.

The historic task of the Congress at the current juncture is, as in the pre-independence era, to provide a national inclusive platform for all oppositional politics, and not to function as a partisan election winning machine. Then it was a platform for all politics opposed to colonialism.Now it should be a platform for all politics opposed to the authoritarian, backward looking, rightwing politics of the ruling party.

Indeed the role of providing a unifying platform for all oppositional politics demands that the Congress concentrates more on the unifying rather than divisive elements of politics.

The unifying role would imply a good deal of cerebral endeavour, marathon negotiations and a huge organisational effort : Starting with a common minimum programme, common analytical and advocacy material, a common campaign and culminating in "a single opposition candidate " opposing the ruling combine's candidate in the elections to Parliament, and possibly also in the state assembly elections where the ruling party combine is in power.

The necessary counterpart of the grand opposition strategy would be that the Congress withdraws from or downsizes its role in electoral politics, particularly where it is not a significant force. Such a strategic withdrawal from divisive, partisan electoral contests will not only conserve material and human resources of the Congress for better, unifying political pursuits but will also fortify it with a moral high ground in preaching and practising unfying politics to overcome the unprecedented political challenge.

This should not be misconstrued as a prescription of Sanyasa from all electoral politics, for the Congress.

But it will certainly imply self-abnegation in northern states of UP, Bihar and Jammu & Kashmir, and the eastern states of West Bengal and Orissa. The Congress should essentially leave the field in those states to regional forces. Instinct of self- survival will then drive those forces to work out a strategy to defeat the real common adversary.

It will also mean leaving electoral politics in Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, MP, Chhattisgarh Gujarat and Assam to the old and tried hands of the regional leaders of Congress. Their recent electoral performance has been good and this exceptional dispensation should incentivise them to perform even better as part of the common opposition strategy.

Following the same strategic logic, the Congress should graciously defer to the estranged elder brother, the NCP, in Maharshtra and have a pre-election alliance with the Left Front in Kerala.

In other Southern states of Karnataka,Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the Congress should simply back the winning horse: support whichever party as would be in a better position with its support, to defeat BJP and its allies.

The Congress has to do this consciously, deftly and swiftly. What appears as a short term electoral sacrifice will be more than compensated by substantial and durable political gains.

First and foremost, the Congress will not simply survive as a national political force but also recover the past aura of national leadership through its role of providing an inclusive, national platform for promoting solidarity amongst all political forces pitted against the authoritarian, rightwing challenge.

Withdrawal from or downsizing of the role of election winning machine in a large number of states will conserve its electoral muscle for those states where it is relatively stronger. More important, it will inspire confidence across the political spectrum of non-BJP forces and ensure their whole-hearted cooperation in parliamentary and extra- parliamentary politics pitted against the authoritarian forces.

The Congress then will truly assume the role of the Indian National Congress. Not as a poor legal successor to the goodwill of a historical signboard.

But as a potent instrument of historic renewal of its nation- building role, as the indefatigable defender of the Idea of India which, in its glorious past, it had conceived, nurtured and brought into reality.

S.P. Shukla is retired from the IAS having served the Government of India in different capacities including Secretary in the Ministries of Commerce and Finance.