12-and-a-half steps Congress must take. Or else.

PRITAM SENGUPTA in New Delhi and PALINI R. SWAMY in Bangalore write: Udaoed in Uttar Pradesh. Pichkaoed in Punjab. Upset in Uttarakhand. Gored in Gujarat. You might think it can’t get any worse for the Congress, but it could. So how can the Congress be resuscitated to believe that there might be life after death?

Your answer might be, why the eff should we be bothered, that’s Sonia Gandhi‘s problem. If that is your answer, stop reading right here. On the other hand, if you spot a management challenge—a 122-year-old brand in dire need of fresh thinking, better positioning—here are 12-and-a-half steps the Grand Ol’ Party must take if it is not to be pummelled in the next general elections.

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1) Have the humility to recognise that somebody could be better than you at playing this game. Merely because three members of your family have been prime ministers, it doesn’t mean there is something special about the water and air at 10, Janpath that will keep power in the family’s bloodstream forever. In other words, admit there is a problem. It could just be wrong brand of tea you are sipping (Narendrabhai, wink-wink).

2) Stop looking for scapegoats; go into election mode—now. Get thinking heads like Sam Pitroda and Jairam Ramesh to strategise on the key issues you are getting hammered on like terrorism, internal security, minority appeasement. Hire top-flight American image makers to communicate this lucidly to the educated, urban middleclasses—it is they who are deserting the Congress in droves. Use the traditional media like newspapers, radio, television by all means, but also exploit new media to reach out to the young. Set up blogs, send SMSes, have Sonia Gandhi speak on YouTube. Heck, get a “Second Life“!

3) It’s not a nuanced game the BJP is playing. It’s a primal, jugular campaign that appeals to the lowest common denominator. Let the BJP know that two can play the game. Get some aggression into the system. Get a few straight-talking ruffian-types, for want of a better word to describe the Rajiv Pratap Rudys, to fight the nightly television battles with the BJP spokesmen, not smooth lawyers like Kapil Sibal or Abhishek Singhvi or hopeless wimps like Veerappa Moily. Remember, the English channels are a small constituency. And they don’t bloody vote.

4) It’s a young country; get the young into the thick of things. There is no point claiming that Rahul Gandhi is “Our Dhoni” and keeping him in the reserves. Remember, Dhoni doesn’t score his runs in the pavilion. Remember, also, that L.K. Advani has a 50-year headstart in politics. Push Rahul baba to open the innings. Give him the partners he wants, not just other sons he has played with (Jyotiraradhya Scindia or Sachin Pilot). Let him get his hands dirty fighting his battles. He might fail as he has in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, but he will be wiser; he will learn he’s to blame, not somebody else. After all, didn’t he grandly speak of “meritocracy”? Let the boy realise that there’s no such thing as a free prime ministerial lunch. He has to earn every morsel. Ensure that the message gets to every leader down the line.

5) Stop giving out the signal of protecting the “unprotectable” and undeserving. If Jagdish Tytler and his ilk are guilty in the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, allow law to take its own course. In fact, go out of your way to help the law take its course. Not just with Tytler but with every tainted Congressman everywhere in the country. Be open, be transparent, be fair, be fearless. Let the country know that nobody, howsoever mighty, howsoever close to “the family”, will be spared if there is even a taint. Adopt a zero-tolerance approach to criminality, corruption, rape, kidnap, murder, extortion… Like Hindustan Lever, advertise a “New, Improved” Congress. The nation will respect you for this.

6) Pull the rug from underneath the chaddis. Come clean on every single controversy you or your family have been involved in or accused of. Deprive them of readymade issues. If Ottavio Quattrochi is indeed guilty of anything, he should pay for it. In fact, go out of your way to help the CBI catch him. If he is not guilty, communicate to the country on where you stand. But don’t allow the impression to gain ground that you are using CBI to scuttle all moves to get him here. If you really play non-partisan, people will respect you for this. By being transparent, you will win the hearts of people.

7) Demonstrate that you look at all Indians equally, not as Hindus, Muslims, whatever. If you want to hang Afzal Guru, hang him. If you don’t want to hang Afzal Guru, say so why, clearly. Don’t dither. Stop giving the impression that you are shielding him because he is a Muslim. Terrorism has no religion, but terrorism is also not the place to show your secularism. It will fetch you votes, of course, but only minority votes. Remember, the majority is always bigger in size than the minority. Adopt the same strategy in all States.

8) Stop being so bloody defensive. Take the battle into the enemy camp; communicate, communicate, communicate. Shout from the rooftops that the BJP’s claims on handling terrorism are bogus. It sent Jaswant Singh with a known terrorist Maulana Masood Azhar. It released Peter Bleach. Shout from the rooftops that POTA did nothing to halt terrorism. After the IC-814 was hijacked when it was around. Parliament was attacked when it was around. Shout from the rooftops that its grandstanding on Naxalism is crap. BJP-ruled Chattisgarh is the hotbed of Maoist activity.

9) Stop being such control freaks. Encourage party leaders all the way down to the State, district and city levels to demonstrate that they are adult human beings with their own opinions, desires, demands, needs. You cannot win trust and confidence by ruling a State from Delhi all the time. When Modi is being tom-tommed as chief minister, how can you have a Bharatsinh Solanki say, “I will wait for ‘High command’ to decide!” This was good when Indiraji was ruling 25 years ago!” Times have changed. Give people what they want, and hold them accountable if they screw up.

10) Don’t let the tail wag the dog any longer; don’t get bogged down by the Left or by allies like the DMK. They are running the Government by proxy. They have succeeded in portraying you as running a weak government with a weaker prime minister. Stand up and stand firm. It is far better to go to the polls than to be seen and perceived as a weakling by all and sundry. Give the Left an ultimatum to put up or shut up; or tell them to take a long hike.

11) Allow people to stand up to you; encourage them to disagree with you. Where are the Rajesh Pilots and Madhav Rao Scindias? It is important to groom the younger leaders by giving them opportunity to lead. Give one State election to the team of youngsters to try out their plan, their method of working and see what happens. At worst, you could lose, which is happening anyway! At least you would have given them a chance to prove their worth.

12) Above all, stop acting so coy and give Manmohan Singh at the Centre and all the Congress-ruled States an ultimatum: deliver and demonstrate development in the next six months. Come up with quantitative and qualitative results to back your claims. Come up with one killer idea between now and then that you can take to the polls. Show that your growth is inclusive—it includes the majority. As shown by Mayawati, it is better to carry all sections of the electorate than pandering to supposedly minority interest always.And finally, this half-step.

And, finally, this half-step.

Stop giving the impression that you are running the UPA government by remote-control. Stop your cronies and factotums from giving the impression that they only dance to your tunes. Let the country know that Manmohan Singh is not just there to warm the seat but to run the government.