Last week, Jairam Ramesh posed a shocker to the Congress party when he succinctly posed that the party was facing an “existential crisis". To party loyalists, understandably, this was sacrilege on the part of a senior leader, especially given the inclement political circumstances facing the oldest political party in the country.

The entire episode, Ramesh’s utterances and the predictable backlash from within the Congress, reminded me about the Danish classic by Hans Christian Andersen: The Emperor’s New Clothes.

To quickly recap, two weavers promise a hard-to-please emperor (who was also full of himself) a one-of-its-kind royal suit, which they claimed would be invisible to those who were either stupid or incompetent. The cunning weavers played on the psyche of an emperor whose best was well behind him and the penchant for sycophancy that comes so naturally to courtiers who live off royal spoils; the emperor falls for the ploy of an invisible suit and worse decides to show it off in a public parade.

And thus transpired the pantomime: the king paraded through his kingdom in the nude. Nobody dared to point the truth out to the emperor. There were those who feared his wrath and the rest didn’t want to be dubbed stupid. It eventually fell upon a child (like in the closing scene of the epic movie Manthan) to point out the obvious: “He is not wearing anything at all."

What Ramesh did was to state the obvious: the Congress is facing an unprecedented crisis. Yes, the defeat in the 16th general election (and even the humiliation of managing to win only 44 seats) could be explained away as a defeat arising from 10 years of anti-incumbency. But not the systematic withering away of the Congress in almost every state election thereafter.

Critics are right in claiming that Ramesh is no grassroots leader and is among the class of technocrats (like former prime minister Manmohan Singh) who have made a lateral entry and done very well for themselves in the Congress. They have every reason to resent his ilk. But they are wrong in implying that as a result he does not have a right to voice an opinion. What exactly did he say that offended the loyalists?

Besides the catchy headline, Ramesh made two very pertinent observations. First, he said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah, the two principal rivals wreaking havoc on the Congress, thought and acted differently. And hence opined: “If we are not flexible in our approach, we will become irrelevant, frankly."

The Congress leader then went on to make another claim—that India had fundamentally transformed. “Old slogans don’t work, old formulas don’t work, old mantras don’t work," he argued before concluding, “India has changed, the Congress party has to change."

Personally, I believe Ramesh was totally on the money. It is not just the Congress that needs to understand his homily. Narendra Modi’s critics, especially the self-righteous ones, fail to read their man. His success has been built assiduously on the argument of ending status quo—which is exactly what old slogans seek to perpetuate.

Whether it was the launch of the Swachh Bharat mission, demonetisation of high value currencies last year or the high voltage campaign in Uttar Pradesh that the Modi-Shah duo so consummately won, in every challenge the opposition has always misread the national mood. Yes, all these schemes had their flaws, but the underlying message to change the status quo (or chalta hai as the popular Hindi coinage goes) could not be missed. An aspirational and transactional India—which is overwhelmingly young—which has no time for sell-past-the-date slogans finds Modi, however clumsy his sloganeering, appealing.

It is a fact then that the Congress is facing an unprecedented challenge; an existential crisis as Ramesh put it. As Modi himself often points out, the opposition needs to understand him to mount a challenge. In that Ramesh’s public post mortem of the challenge before the Congress is the first step to attempt regrouping.

Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus.

Respond to this column at anil.p@livemint.com

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