View: Congress must aspire to be like Apple, and not BlackBerry

View: Congress must aspire to be like Apple, and not BlackBerry

For a father, buying a gift for a daughter who has just entered her teens is a dicey proposition. Balancing the conflicting roles of a protective dad versus the uber cool one is like skating on thin ice. The BlackBerry mobile phone sorted out that predicament for me. While the USP of the gadget was its push-email (the corporate world was completely addicted to it), it had become a global sensation with adolescents because of a feature called BBM (BlackBerry Messenger). The BBM was the first messaging service that appeared like a private bubble, offering both confidentiality and unlimited texting for free. So prized was the BlackBerry that former US President Barack Obama in his autobiography A Promised Land talks about his heart-breaking separation from his favourite device for security reasons.

Of course, that was eons ago. BlackBerry does not exist anymore (it has an enterprise software model now). Like BlackBerry in the smartphone industry, Congress once overwhelmingly dominated the political narrative in India. If BlackBerry in 2009 had 50% of the US smartphone market, Congress regularly won absolute majorities on its own in the Lok Sabha; its peak was 404 seats in 1984. By 2014, BlackBerry’s market share had nose-dived to less than 1% (with losses at $1 billion). In the same year, Congress was reduced to 44 Lok Sabha seats and WhatsApp, which initially appeared to be a poor third cousin of BBM, got a whopping valuation of $19 billion from Facebook. BBM had sunk into a rabbit hole. Do you see the similarities here? Both remained adamant that all was well, and the slipping customer/voter mindshare, at worse, a transient aberration. It would naturally fix itself. It did not.

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The Congress, plagued by internal hubris, underestimated the regional satrap from Gujarat who was revolutionising BJP. It seemed content with delusions of grandeur of being “India’s natural party of governance”. Once again in 2019 the Congress was vanquished, getting 52 seats, while the BJP won a massive 303.

One of management’s most over-used clichés is reinvention. Periodically, every CEO pays homage to this homily, though few really walk the talk. Politicians more so; in fact, the Congress has chosen to be fossilised, a reluctant reformist. But as the Congress trouble-shooters attempted to put an end to the months of infighting between a confident but smug Captain Amarinder Singh and a recalcitrant and trigger-happy Navjot Singh Sidhu, many political pundits applauded the magic formula of brokering peace by the Congress in Punjab as a “pragmatic bold risk”.

Is the Congress belatedly waking up to the reality that the good old days of incremental fiddling are over? That perhaps the time has come to take some imaginative strides which might even boomerang in the short-term? Or was this just a desperate reaction to being pushed to a corner, an unsustainable frail détente at best? Time will tell.

In his seminal work Think Again, Adam Grant, an organisational psychologist at Wharton, talks of the “overconfidence cycle” trap that BlackBerry had fallen into. The Congress has been afflicted by the same bugbear, and many of my colleagues were convinced that at most the BJP would be a seasonal flavour. They have been proven wrong.

The Congress must aspire to be an Apple, pushing boundaries, forcing inventions, periodically rejigging its mammoth organisation and recalibrating its storytelling. It has limited options, because political depreciation can become a death-wish. Unlike Blackberry that had to contend with several competitors, Congress is the only pan-India alternative to the BJP. The latter’s subpar performance (pandemic mishandling, Pegasus snooping, ravaged economy, high fuel prices, sectarian tensions, undermined institutions, record unemployment etc) could affect its political fortunes in 2024. But the Congress is being unusually magnanimous towards it. There are five things the Congress can do to seize the governance debate: elect a Congress president, bring the Congress under RTI and disclose source of funds (a game-changer move to checkmate BJP’s electoral bonds chicanery), decentralise by appointing vice-presidents for different regions, revitalise grassroots by having transparent elections from block levels to the CWC, and instead of focusing on personality politics like the BJP, bring back the original ‘Congress collective’, a culture of dynamic teams (Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Bose, Maulana Azad etc.) who challenged each other, prioritising nation-building over petty politics.

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The Congress must create an alternative national blueprint and knock on every door to inspire a shared vision. The BJP for all its current hegemony must know that BlackBerry’s cataclysmic fall was also because it had just one product category: mobile phones. The over-dependence on Modi makes the BJP a one-trick pony, and diminishing returns have already kicked in.

You have to break eggs to make an omelette; the ball is in the Congress’s court.

(The writer is former Congress Spokesperson)


( Views expressed above are the author’s own.)

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