To have been once rich and powerful and now looking around for crumbs, holding on to basic dignities, is a heartbreaking situation. The Congress party is in that situation. Naturally, they are on the lookout for a miracle. Last week, briefly, that miracle assumed a human shape, wide-lipped and bespectacled and, reassuringly, speaking not the best English: Prashant Kishor.
Kishor was there holding out hope; shimmering, for a day, or two. And then it was over. Like spilled water on a hot road. At Sonia Gandhi's invitation, Kishor had presented a plan for the party's revival. His recommendations included inner-party elections, the resuscitation of the parliamentary board with Sonia Gandhi as its president, a person outside the Gandhi family as the party's working president, and regional alliances.
The audience Kishor addressed did not include most of the so-called G-23, a group of critical party leaders. This, of course, is a problem because some of the most sensible members of the party belong to that justifiably disgruntled club.
Later in the week, Kishor was invited to join an 'empowered group' with 'defined responsibilities'. He declined. This is a sensible thing to do. Were he to join the party, he would have found it difficult to function as a Gandhi family man, when structurally or even politically, the family is at its weakest. Also, neither Rahul nor Priyanka is accessible to anyone beyond a point. Kishor would have found himself isolated if he were serious about implementing his recommendations.
The recommendations have nothing new in them. The 23 half-hearted rebels themselves have been advocating these — half-heartedly, in the sense that they do not ever risk their own skin to enforce their plan.
In fact, it is this trait — the one that prevents them from quitting the party, the trait of keeping up appearances, the genteel convention of conduct not to force the moment to its crisis — that makes them genetically one with the party that want to reform.
The fact is, despite the need for inner-party elections and such, what the Congress party needs is what it so sorely has been wanting for decades now. A charismatic and even a rogue leader who, in his mind, is already dead, so he can stake his body all over again in the fires of politics.
That indeed is the real tradition of the Congress party. The reason why the party led the fight for India's independence was that its rank and file were not afraid to risk the physical dimensions of life. Whether it was Gandhi, Nehru, or Bose, none of them shirked the dust of the street or the discomforts of the jail. They did not mind getting their hands dirtied. They ignored the batons falling on their back.
In their mind, they were already dead; so now they could live without fear. If Mahatma Gandhi wore bare minimum clothes, it was not just to announce his solidarity with the naked and poor of India, it was also to tell the British that he did not believe in hiding his body under clothes. They could take it and shove it; he displayed his body like a taunt, almost a threat.
It is that body, at once truth and dare, that is missing in contemporary Congress politics: a leader who did not care if someone trained a gun on him or beat him up, or threw him into jail.
Last week, the Jehangirpuri slums demolition showed once again how relevant body-politics can inspire people across ideological lines. Just one woman stood between the JCB machines and the expulsion of hundreds from their homes. Brinda Karat's intervention has little to do with the relevance of the CPM, which indeed is all but defunct except in Kerala. It was a humanist staking her body, her physicality itself, as an act of protest. For a long moment, Brinda Karat stopped being a politician, she became a hero.
The Congress party needs a hero. Someone who does not much care for his five-star meals, scented seminar talks, or viral social media feeds. A man or a woman ready to lie down on the road as the tanks and trucks advance.
A man or a woman like that will change the fortunes of the party. That man is not Prashant Kishor. Not Rahul Gandhi, either, unfortunately. Nor Shashi Tharoor, nor Kapil Sibal.
Please recall in this context a relatively apolitical and ongoing development like the reconstruction of the Central Vista. Most of the Congress leaders stay around that area in Central Delhi. And all of them oppose the reconstruction, which is a prestige issue with the Modi government. But not one of them would so much as skip a meal — let alone go on an indefinite fast — in protest.
It is this sanitary approach to politics that is preventing the Congress party from redeeming itself. They lack an inspirational, body-politician; they lack a hero. Everything else is secondary.
As of this week, Prashant Kishor has turned down Sonia Gandhi's invitation to join the party. This is good for the party, good for Kishor, too. But, the essential Congress problem remains. The acute absence of a hero. Pity the country that needs a hero, Brecht said. Well, the country that doesn't need one does not exist. Not yet.
(C P Surendran is an author and senior journalist. Views are personal.)