'What do you think the Congress is today?'
'Is it a political party heading for a life-and-death battle?'
'Or an NGO, just doing its thing and hoping it will improve the state of the world?' asks Shekhar Gupta.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
With just a week or so to go for the first phase of voting, how battle ready does the Congress look?
How is the josh of its generals and foot-soldiers?
Who are these generals?
We know that it's been telling us for some time that the Modi government is the most corrupt, inept, divisive and disastrous in our history.
But it isn't telling us how it plans to fix it.
Where does it stand on the key issues that matter to almost every voter this summer: Jobs and the economy, nationalism and social cohesion?
At this point, let me confront you with another question.
The spin on the ball is mine, and deliberate.
What do you think the Congress is today?
Is it a political party heading for a life-and-death battle?
Or an NGO, just doing its thing and hoping it will improve the state of the world?
It might anger many Congress supporters, but we must turn this knife.
Your rival has had you on the mat for most of these five years, and is sharpening the hatchet for that final strike.
If the Congress does poorly again, it can be sure many more of the desperate and demoralised members of its 'middle' will go away.
It is also most likely that at least two of its new state governments, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, would be toppled.
Even Rajasthan would need luck to survive.
What will then remain of the Congress? Chances are it will still be the same old, or maybe even a new lot of self-styled Kautilyas and Machiavellis and self-styled intellectual giants with one common feature on their CVs: Never won, or contested an election.
Or even lost what they were ever given charge of.
A political party has only one mission statement: To win elections.
It calls for hard work and commitment, brings bountiful reward for success, but also a stiff price for failure.
In short, it adds up to that one word: Accountability.
Do tell me you think this is what's been happening with the Congress lately.
If the answer is no, I will tell you why it looks like an NGO. NGOs too work hard.
But their aims, targets and focus can change with the season, or the mood in their "market place".
Their competition is essentially the government.
They will always look virtuous and efficient in comparison.
And accountability is limited to the donor or good people's own conscience.
There is also, generally, an anti-establishment streak.
The Congress has become more feudal over the years, and also less meritocratic.
Very little has come up by way of new, battle-worthy, electoral talent.
Some old dynasts -- the Gandhis included -- barely hold on to their shrinking, feudal boroughs.
They can't expand the party in their regions, they also won't vacate space for new talent.
Young, bright and articulate spokesmen are great.
But they do not go and fight elections, risking reputations, wealth and sunburn.
You can do a listing of the top 50 Congress people all over the country.
This paradox will be established.
On the contrary, as in a durbar, or an accountability-lite NGO or family-owned business, sycophants survive many disasters.
You might not even remember a man called Mohan Prakash, a nothing, old Socialist Rahul Gandhi took a shine to.
One after the other he was handed over major states to run, including Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.
He apparently became famous and a favourite when, early on, he called Rahul Gandhi the Jayaprakash Narayan of the Congress Party.
One thing you can say for him is, he was consistent, if in failures.
Ask Congress people more about him, and they sing you the line from Aamir Khan's 3 Idiots: Kahaan se aaya thha woh, Kahaan gaya usey dhoondho... (where did he come from, where do we find him now!).
He isn't the only one of his kind.
C P Joshi is another long-time Rahul favourite who turned everything he touched into dust -- the Northeast being the latest.
Was he held accountable, you think? No, unless you think being speaker of the Rajasthan Assembly is a punishment.
My colleague and The Print's political editor, D K Singh, took me through what might be called Rahul Gandhi's 'A' team.
It's a loser's parade. Raj Babbar continues to be the UPCC chief though the Congress hardly exists in that state.
Ashok Tanwar, once Rahul's young Dalit star, continues heading the Haryana Congress though he lost his own Lok Sabha election and the party was wiped out in the assembly.
Another key dynastic figure from Haryana is the party's media head, Randeep Singh Surjewala.
He recently contested the by-election in Jind and finished third by some distance.
Among the general secretaries, Ambika Soni and Mukul Wasnik are a spent force but continue to be in charge of Jammu and Kashmir and Kerala plus Tamil Nadu, respectively.
Dipak Babaria (who's he!) continues to be in charge of Madhya Pradesh.
He has never contested an election.
Nor have Anand Sharma (head of the foreign affairs department) and Jairam Ramesh (convenor of the powerful party core-group).
Within the core group, A K Antony hasn't contested after 2001.
K C Venugopal is an outgoing MP, but unlikely to contest this time to focus on party work.
You'd presume Amit Anilchandra Shah won't be focusing on his party as he fights for Gandhinagar.
The key counsels around Rahul are all smart, superbly educated people: Trusted aide Kanishka Singh, ace tweet-writer Nikhil Alva, ex-bureaucrat K Raju, data-scientist Praveen Chakravarty, chief ideological trainer Sachin Rao, ex-banker Alankar Sawai and social media head Divya Spandana.
Spotted something common between them? Except Spandana, none is a politician. And note the most visible among these 'navratnas': Sandip Singh, former JNU activist and a leader of the ultra-Left All India Students Association, who apparently writes Rahul's speeches.
If you look at the general secretaries, core group, and Rahul's key advisors, only a handful have political minds.
The sharpest among these, Ahmed Patel, is no longer a central figure. Remember, he is the one Congressman with old wiles and the spine to fight Amit Anilchandra Shah in their home state and wrest that Rajya Sabha seat from him in that dirty late-night face-off at the Election Commission.
All this, however, would count for less if we at least knew the Congress party's mind on the three key issues we listed earlier.
It can keep attacking Narendra Damodardas Modi on jobs, economy and farm distress.
But how is it going to resolve these issues, we aren't told.
Even if he is going to recast the Congress into the ideology of the activists he's now fascinated with, an AISA style raving, crimson Left force, it might even have sex appeal for some.
A colourless, we-shall-tell-you-when-we-get-there approach is dead on arrival.
On nationalism, security, fight against terror, foreign policy, the Congress is frozen, until a Sam Pitroda shoots it in its butt.
Nobody from the Congress states the fact that every weapon system you are fighting with, including the Mirages and Sukhois, were bought by their governments.
On the other hand, they make Rahul speak easily verifiable falsehoods like 'HAL made these Mirages'.
It didn't. Dassault did.
HAL has never made a Mirage nor will make one.
But his grandmother ordered in 1982 the ones we fly now.
Politics needs hard work, more than just retweeting the boss.
On the third key issue, social cohesion, the talk of love and tolerance is wonderful.
But, how are you different if your view on Sabarimala, triple talaq and the Ram temple is about the same as the BJP's?
T N Ninan listed the considerable achievements of the UPA government, from lifting people out of poverty, farm growth, infrastructure spending, Aadhaar.
I'd add the nuclear deal.
He asked: Why is the Congress not talking about these, but letting Mr Modi get away with this totally outrageous claim that everything good you see in India came in his five years?
This is for the Congress to reflect.
If it doesn't, you take a call: Is it a political party or an NGO? You know, NGOs are also supposed to be anti-establishment.
Even when you were the establishment for a decade.
By Special Arrangement with The Print