Dropping the Pilot
Congress will never revive as a national force if the best of its up-and-coming leaders are repeatedly marginalised.
Congress gives every impression of having a death wish. It's more than a year since the party's second successive humiliation at the hands of Narendra Modi's BJP and the rebuilding hasn't started. It doesn't have a national leadership worthy of the name. It's in power in so few places - there are just three Congress chief ministers in states of more than a million in population, by my reckoning - that its claim to be a national force is melting away.
Among other social democratic parties which were in some disrepair, the Democrats in the US seem to have bounced back: opinion polls currently point to a strong prospect of a Joe Biden victory in November's presidential elections. The Labour Party in Britain has a new leader and renewed confidence and is almost level-pegging with the governing Conservatives in the polls.
But India's principal opposition party continues to flounder. And the manner in which its rising stars are deserting the sinking ship point to a crisis which is continuing to deepen.
The Indian National Congress is not dead, but it is decaying - rotting away from within. And when all the other national forces which could at least hold the BJP to account - the communists, various different mahagathbandan permutations - are similarly at a low ebb, there is a howling void at the heart of the world's largest democracy.
If you think back to December 2018, surprise Congress victories in state elections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan gave political commentators the impression that the 2019 general election might at least be a contest. Okay, so we got that one wrong!
But Congress managed to claw defeat from the jaws of victory. Rahul Gandhi, who had talked of the renewal of the party and a greater role for talented younger figures, opted for the old guard of Kamal Nath and Ashok Gehlot in his choice of chief ministers. The defection of Jyotiraditya Scindia to the BJP four months ago ended Congress rule in Madhya Pradesh. As I write, it's not clear whether Sachin Pilot is also changing parties - but the awkward Gehlot-Pilot alliance within Congress in Rajasthan is broken beyond repair.
I know - and like - Sachin Pilot. I knew his father Rajesh Pilot when he was internal security minister in the mid-1990s and on one occasion travelled with him around Kashmir. Sachin spent a few weeks on work experience in the BBC office in Delhi. He was bright, personable and while not as outgoing as his father, he was patently sincere. Sachin insisted at that time that he had no desire for a career in politics, but after his father's tragically early death twenty years ago, his personal ambitions and priorities changed.
I heard Sachin Pilot speak at a meeting at the LSE a few months ago - there wasn't a lot of substance in his remarks but they were thoughtful and well delivered. He answered questions cogently. Although Pilot was not at all disloyal to his chief minister or to his party's national leadership, there was a touch of exasperation evident in his comments. You can understand why. After being asked to move to Jaipur to revive the party at the state level, and then securing a sensational victory, he had been overlooked for the top job.
Ashok Gehlot clearly is a master of manoeuvre and has both marginalised and humiliated his former deputy. There is a nautical phrase 'dropping the pilot' - when a specialist ship's pilot who navigates the vessel through particularly hazardous waters disembarks. So 'dropping the Pilot' is not only a pun, it's an apt description of the squeezing out of the state president who saw the party through difficult times in Rajasthan.
How can Congress revive if its best hopes for the future are either disenchanted or take refuge in rival parties?
The BJP may not be as attractive an option for Sachin Pilot as it was for Jyotiraditya Scindia. He never struck me as tinged with saffron. And on a personal level - and these things matter - his wife, Sara Abdullah, is a member of Kashmir's premier political dynasty. Pilot would have to swallow hard to hook up with a party which last year oversaw the arrest of his brother-in-law and father-in-law.
However this engrossing political drama plays out, Congress will emerge from it still weaker. And a feeble opposition in turn eats away at how well any democracy functions.