The Congress party, struggling with dissidence, division and listlessness, was hit on Monday by the departure of its most bankable face in Tamil Nadu, G K Vasan. Without Mr Vasan, the party may be a distant fourth or even fifth in Tamil Nadu politics. Not surprisingly, the Congress may continue to drift, seeing itself reduced to irrelevance in more and more states, unless it does something to recover itself. One path is to demonstrate that it intends to be a constructive, rather than a destructive, force as an opposition party in Parliament. This newspaper reported on Monday that the Congress is likely to support several important reformist laws that the government at the Centre wishes to get passed by Parliament. This is good news. Positive news, for the Congress, has been thin on the ground since May 16. As soon as possible, it needs to stand up and commit publicly to backing reformist legislation in Parliament. Laws such as the goods and services tax will have a big positive impact on the economy.
If the Congress behaves responsibly and aids in the passage of such laws, it will distinguish itself from the noise and obstruction that marked the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s last few years as the principal opposition party. The BJP did not noticeably suffer many electoral ill effects from its highly objectionable behaviour. The Congress may foolishly assume that this means that blocking law-making will aid its return to power. This misses a central point: the Indian public is already primed to view the Congress as irresponsible at best and paralysed at worst. The BJP left its parliamentary past behind through picking a new leader untainted by that past. The Congress, it appears, will not pick that alternative – Mr Vasan complained that “merit” counted for nothing in the party’s stultified, Nehru-Gandhi-ruled hierarchy. Given this, it must demonstrate to voters that it is holding itself together. It cannot afford to lapse into the reflexive, lazy anti-reform sentiments that are the hallmark of the unimaginative once in opposition.
Many of the initiatives that the Congress may support were introduced and backed by its own government. The goods and services tax and the insurance Bill are just two examples. It must continue to back these. It cannot give into the foolish logic that suggests the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was voted out because there was a lack of trust in its ideas and not in the Congress’ own uninspiring leadership – and so the UPA’s ideas should not be owned by the Congress. This logic permitted the current government to claim credit, for example, for the diesel price hike. If it steps up and plays its part in Parliament, the Congress might be able to do its bit for reform by passing the measures its government had designed. Oddly, by being a responsible opposition, it might also help recover some of its reputation as a governing party.