If the Congress party were to regain lost ground as a genuinely centrist political formation anchored to social democratic foundations, it could pave the way for a consolidation of a middle ground in Indian politics. With the indications that the Samajwadi Party is poised to support Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s proposed nuclear deal with the United States, the Congress party has been pulled back from the brink of political meltdown. Undeniably, the Congress and its coalition partners in the ruling United Progressive Alliance have been struggling to contain the considerable damage from the grim situation nationwide, of spiralling inflation and rising prices of essential commodi ties, particularly food and oil products. Had indeed elections been forced on the Congress and the UPA at this juncture, the Congress party’s political trajectory might have had an abruptly unhappy ending, with a prospective defeat and subsequent marginalisation. But now as a result of the Samajwadi Party’s promised support, the Manmohan Singh administration, which would have lost power as a result of the withdrawal of support from the Left parties, has been given a second lease of life and hopes to forestall early general elections. What was a life-threatening challenge a few weeks ago has translated into a unique opportunity to recover lost political ground for the Congress party, which would have to act fast to regain the confidence of voters who brought it to power along with its allies in 2004. Yet the more important task that lies ahead of the Congress beyond its declared objectives and stated priorities is to ensure that the unprecedented opportunity that has arisen in this period to consolidate the centrist forces in the Indian political spectrum is not lost. For far too long have Indian national life and public discourse been held hostage to the polarisation of the political field between the Right represented principally by the BJP and the Left parties. It must be recalled that in the early decades after Independence, the concept of a social democratic political alternative to the Jana Sangh representing an axis of landlords and big capital and to the Communist Party of India had caught the public imagination, enabling the Congress and its various splinters to wield considerable political influence over the decades. It was only after the Congress party lost credibility as a result of its authoritarian actions and opportunistic compromises that the Hindu nationalist forces consolidating behind the banner of the BJP were able to gain crucial political space. The election of 2004 brought the Congress and its allies back into the reckoning, allowing them to form a government with the support of the Left parties. What was particularly striking was the willingness of the Indian public to give the Congress and other centrist forces an opportunity to revive a democratic political agenda that would emphasise both growth and distributive justice while steering clear of contentious political projects such as the fomenting of Hindu nationalism. Given that in recent years the battle for the hearts and minds of the Indian voters has been largely dominated by the discourse of the BJP and the Left parties, the Congress party’s stark failure to capture the national imagination — reduced as it was to a caricature of its former self as the vanguard party of Indian nationalism — had vacated crucial space in the political field, depriving the Indian voter of an alternative to these two extremes of Right and Left. One unhealthy consequence of this situation was reflected in the political discourse that was appropriated by the forces on the Right. This generated a host of synthetic issues and unsubstantiated claims, unconnected to the governing agenda such as the specious debate on nationhood and fallacious claims that mass conversions from Hinduism were taking place on an unprecedented scale. In this context, the sudden revival of the Congress after decades of a trend of increasing marginalisation suggested that the Indian electorate could be open to the idea of a “third way,” as is favoured in European societies. Adding to the expectations of a new paradigm of governance was the experiment of a dual leadership with Dr. Singh leading the government and Sonia Gandhi the party. The Congress took care to emphasise that while Dr. Singh would ensure that growth and economic reforms were at the top of the governing agenda, Ms Gandhi would continuously highlight issues of distributive justice and poverty alleviation. Part of the carefully structured reinvention of the Congress party as a social democratic formation offering a “third way” was the declared interest in a new foreign policy paradigm. This included restoring cordiality with Pakistan, taking new steps forward with China, but more significantly engaging the United States, increasing the strategic content of the relationship, of which the nuclear deal is a prominent element. It was unrealistic of the Congress party, in a coalition heavily dependent on the Left parties for survival, to have expected them to look the other way when its government waded into contentious territory such as strategic relations with the U.S. That the nuclear deal rather than any other issue of equal import such as inflation and rising prices became the breaking point between the Congress and the Left parties was not surprising. What was perhaps inexplicable and inexcusable was for the Congress party, which had such an ambitious project on its anvil, not to have prepared the ground for this radical shift by launching a nationwide public campaign explaining the reasons for its espousal of this deal. It is apparent that the Prime Minister views the nuclear deal as a milestone symbolising a paradigm shift in India’s foreign policy, something akin to the transformation of India’s economic framework as a result of the 1991 reforms. The failure to respond quickly and persuasively to the trenchant public criticism by the Left parties of the Prime Minister’s stance on the deal testifies to a continuing structural weakness in the party organisation — the acute lack of communication skills, crucial to any political mobilisation effort. The inability to successfully showcase the nuclear deal as an element of a larger paradigm shift in India’s strategic policy that did not pertain only to the U.S. but would enhance India’s status in the larger global context put the party on the defensive in the political arena. That similar deals were to be signed with France and Russia was not sufficiently highlighted in the public arena, a point that could have balanced out the perception that the Manmohan Singh administration was giving undue emphasis to the relationship with the U.S. The marked inability of the Congress to stake out a position for itself in the public discourse, despite its high-profile leaders, Dr. Singh and Ms Gandhi, charismatic figures who have caught the public imagination in different ways, testifies to the intrinsic weakness of its organisational structure. With the Samajwadi Party now coming forward, providing the Congress with a unique opportunity to work together in a critical election battleground — Uttar Pradesh — the Congress must acknowledge that the strongest point in its favour in an increasingly polarised political situation is that it represents a “third way” in this complex scenario. The political task ahead for the Congress is to revive the middle ground in Indian politics that can eschew the abrasiveness and the polarising effects of parties that are at the opposite extremes. It is clear that the present leaders of the Congress party, Dr. Singh and Ms Gandhi, have an ambitious political and economic vision. While the spectacle of inflation and rising prices might present a sharp challenge to the proposition that it is possible to pursue policies that stress both growth and equity, it is evident that the two leaders are unwavering in their conviction that reforms and distributive justice can go hand in hand. But that conviction would lack validity and political purpose unless they are able to persuade the electorate that this is indeed a feasible proposition. Without taking a particular position in the discourse and highlighting a particular political vision, the Congress party will find it difficult to establish its own identity as a forward-looking party willing to shed the negative baggage of the past that has hindered its revival. But in order for the Congress to reestablish itself, it would have to take the lead in consolidating all the centrist forces. The Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra, and other smaller parties that have sprung from the original Congress party base in the Hindi heartland and elsewhere are natural allies that the Congress will have to reach out to, as it prepares for the next election. Unless the Congress party becomes more realistic in terms of its engagement with other centrist political forces, shedding its own notions of its traditional hegemony in certain States, particularly U.P., it will not be possible to recapture the political space it has yielded to extremist forces, particularly of the Right. If the Congress party were to regain lost ground as a genuinely centrist political formation anchored to social democratic foundations, it could pave the way for a consolidation of a middle ground in Indian politics. This in turn could render national life less susceptible to volatility and violence, which is often the result of extremist forces gaining dominance in the political discourse.