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Home >Mint-lounge >Features >The Congress party’s sitzkrieg

Many readers will be familiar with the term blitzkrieg. Particularly those readers who know their history through popular culture, such as the black and white Commando comics that are now nowhere to be seen.

World War I was a slow-motion conflict in which two lumbering sides settled into static trench warfare. This was true at least of the western front, which ran from Belgium to Switzerland. On the eastern front, with wider open spaces and less evenly matched armies, the contest between empires was more fluid. But the English-speaking world remembers the conflict through the images of that frozen trench war.

World War II, by contrast, opened in September 1939 with a quick capture of Poland by Hitler’s mechanized armies. So quick that Joseph Stalin, who had agreed to divvy up that country with Adolf Hitler, had to rush his troops to the new border at Brest-Litovsk to take charge because the Nazi generals unexpectedly finished off Poland in days.

The speed of Germany’s tank and dive-bomber warfare was captured by the term blitzkrieg, meaning lightning war (Germans soldiers themselves called it something else—bewegungskrieg, or war of movement—but let’s leave that for another day).

All that quick action was on the eastern front. On the western front, once again, there was nothing. The British and French allied armies just sat there for months, outnumbering the Germans, but too afraid to take them on.

The world had a phrase for this act of declaring war and not doing anything: the Phoney War. The Germans had a better name for it: sitzkrieg, a war where the enemy did little but sit around.

The Germans did not allow the sitzkrieg to last long. In May 1940, Hitler’s generals, mainly Erich von Manstein and Heinz Guderian, lured the allies into Belgium in the north and then sent forth a river of steel from the Ardennes forest slicing into France (Winston Churchill, who was as gifted a coiner of memorable phrases as Mahatma Gandhi and Narendra Modi, called it the “sickle cut").

I’m writing this, to come to the point, because sitzkrieg is a good description of the Congress reaction to the situation the 130-year-old political organization finds itself in. We can hardly call the situation a crisis because it has enveloped the party and the Gandhis for a long, long time. The word “crisis" suggests, at least to me, a sudden difficulty or danger. The Congress, on the other hand, has been wallowing in its predicament for decades.

In Gujarat, the Congress has not won an election over the last two decades. The remarkable thing here is that Gujarat is a two-party state and has been since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took charge. So when or if the BJP stumbles, as all political parties must, the Congress should automatically step up to collect the prize. Its incompetence has meant that it has not been able to. For so long has it been out that a Surti who turned 18 in 1988, as I did, would have very little memory of voting in an election that the Congress won.

In Madhya Pradesh, by the time Shivraj Singh Chouhan ends this term, it will be 15 years that the Congress has been out. Readers may remember that in 2003, Digvijaya Singh, then a two-term chief minister, swore in Bhopal that he would not contest elections for a decade if the Congress lost. He would have been surprised to learn that even that would not be long enough for his Chanakya-like vow.

It will also be 15 years in Chhattisgarh by the time Raman Singh is done with his term. In Rajasthan, they have been alternating with the BJP, and at the moment the Congress is out, having been crushed in 2014, losing every single Lok Sabha seat. Remember, once again, that these are all two-party states. Even in these the Congress has failed; Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, of course, went away long ago.

When Assam and Kerala leave, as they will, it will truly be the elephant’s carcass that the Gandhis are left with, to paraphrase the old Hindi saying that even a dead elephant is worth a few rupees. Karnataka will be the only major state where the Congress will be in power, and even there, with the return of B.S. Yeddyurappa, the BJP will likely win the next time around.

Hindutva, in this case represented by the Jana Sangh, had about a 2% vote in Gujarat till the 1970s. It is today greater than 50%. At any time between the 1970s and the riot of 1992-93 that turned Gujarat saffron, you could see the BJP straining in its effort to seize power. The only political slogan on the walls of Surat that I can remember from my teens is the ubiquitous “havey ek tak Bhajap ne (now, one chance for BJP)". When they got that chance, they took it.

On the other hand, it is business as usual in the Congress. Can you spot a thing they have done in two years other than to pray and hope that Modi stumbles? If they have, it has missed me.

They are fighting a sitzkrieg. Like those moribund allies, declaring war but not doing a thing. And, just like that conflict, it is looking inevitable that those who sit around will be rolled up and put away.

Aakar Patel is the executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at aakar_amnesty.

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