The old joke resurrected each time the Congress Party fails, which it does with monotonous regularity, to come up to scratch in an electoral challenge, is that the once grand and now just old party is given a few seats to contest in any anti-BJP alliance not because it can bring in votes but because it can bring in top-notch legal counsel for Opposition worthies.

Congress leader Kapil Sibal, one of these lawyers and among the dissenters who wrote to party president Sonia Gandhi demanding changes in the leadership a few months ago, has spoken up again after the Bihar poll debacle. He has underlined the fact that the party leadership is still in denial and introspection remains a far cry.

Sibal says the Congress is not seen as an “effective alternative” and advocates an “organisational overhaul, better articulation of its ideas and promoting active, thoughtful leaders”. On the evidence of this prognosis, however, Sibal too is in denial. For, he confuses form with content.

Historically, the Congress has faced two major challenges to its worldview and ideology. The first came from the Left. The undivided Communist Party of India under the leadership of the moderate PC Joshi had a serious chance of eating into the Congress base.

But the Jawaharlal Nehru-led Congress was done the favour of a lifetime by the coup of the doctrinaire hardliners within the CPI who dispensed with Joshi as leader in favour of a rabidly Stalinist leadership. Nehru was enough of a practitioner of realpolitik to draw the moderates – termed ‘revisionists’ by the Marxists of the time – into the broader Congress fold though their leader never succumbed to the blandishments of office and remained loyal to his party despite its shabby treatment of him.

It also helped the Congress that the Left’s pandering to what may be termed extraterritorial Islamism made it the party of choice for Hindus while its tokenism for minorities shored up its support base among them. Congress cruised in this comfort zone for the next three decades till the advent of what is mistakenly termed the Right under the leadership of LK Advani in the late 1980s. His project was the political articulation of an Indic civilisational ethos on which could be built a civic nationalism.

The Congress’ many hypocrisies and venalities had brought its leadership inter-generational entitlement but not the smarts to cope with this ideological challenge. Its cluelessness about a changing world and an aspirational India was thoroughly exposed as first the AB Vajpayee-led government and now the Narendra Modi-led administration, albeit in a different manner, emphasised the primacy of the nation-state, championed a nonsupremacist Indic ethos and focused on bottom-up development. Advani, like PC Joshi five decades before him, was discarded by his party.

But instead of Advantage Congress, as it had proven to be in the 1950s, it is Modi who is fashioning the national narrative in the new millennium because the Congress is clueless about even its own history