As Indian voters are turning away from the Congress in election after election, they are keeping their best interests in mind. Control of both centre and states alike is good for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bhartiya Janata Party. But it's making India look increasingly like a one-party state. That, of course, is bad news for democracy since any healthy democracy needs a healthy opposition.

Opposition parties seem dejected and defeated, and the Congress in particular seems to have stopped trying. Despite the abject failure of Rahul Gandhi to provide his party with able leadership, the Congress does not seem to want to make any changes in its functioning.

Hope is not a strategy. Opposition parties can’t sit around and hope that Narendra Modi will make mistakes that it can capitalise on. “Anti-incumbency”, that abominable non-idea of Indian politics, isn’t half as scientific as political pundits make it sound. “Anti-incumbency” was not relevant when the Manmohan Singh government won a second term in 2009, and it did not stop the Congress-led alliance in Maharashtra from winning the two previous elections.

In 2004, when the Atal Behari Vajpayee government advertised its achievements with the phrase “India Shining”, the Congress shot to power by simply asking, “Aam aadmi ko kya mila?" What did the common man get? It made good on its promise to stand by the aam aadmi by such measures as enacting the right to information law and legislating a work guarantee scheme for the poorest of the poor. The man who had liberalised India’s economy as finance minister in 1991 was now the prime minister, transforming India into a welfare state that did not believe in endlessly waiting for a "trickle down" effect to alleviate poverty.

The i-word

For much of the UPA's second term,  it failed to put into place radical pro-poor measures of the sort it had during UPA-1. It was only by the end of UPA-2, after many scams and very high inflation later, that it enacted a food security law, again targeting the poorest of the poor. It was too little too late.

The defeat of the Congress in 2014 was a bit like its defeat in 1996, only larger in scale. In both cases, the defeat came riding on endless corruption scandals and high inflation.

A high inflation cycle in 2008 did not affect the UPA’s 2009 performance because of its welfare schemes ‒ there was even a strategically targeted farm loan waiver just before the 2009 elections.

Inflation is arguably the most important factor in Lok Sabha elections. Even unlettered voters in the remotest villages understand that law and order, jobs and development have more to do with the state government. When evaluating a central government, the most important factor for voters is the price of onions.

If the price of a litre of milk jumps by another Re 1, there are enough people in this country who may suddenly find it unaffordable. In a country that has a quarter of the world’s hungry people, poverty is the single biggest political issue, even if TV news doesn’t tell us that.

The only way then, that opposition parties can revive themselves, stay relevant and hope to strike back, is by closely working with the poor and identifying themselves as the parties of the poor, while showman Modi chases what is more visible, such as the garbage on the street or the promised investment from foreign shores.

Modi's promises

It isn't that Modi does not understand this. Just before he was appointed prime minister on May 21, he addressed his party in the central hall of the parliament. “The government should hear from the poor and work for the poor," he said. "My government will be dedicated to the poor, youth and women. It will be a government of villages, farmers, Dalits and deprived sections. All efforts will be aimed to live up to their hopes and expectations.” The promise was repeated in the President’s address in the new Lok Sabha’s first session.

Yet that is easier said than done. Inflation and economic growth are not the best of friends, and it is the unenviable task of any government in power to walk the tightrope. It looks good right now, with Reserve Bank governor Raghuram Rajan having brought down wholesale inflation to the lowest level in five years. The Modi government has given him inflation targets. There will be other challenges, too. As forests will be cut down for mining and manufacturing, there will be opposition from local residents. Land acquisition is still not a settled issue, despite the new law enacted by UPA-2.

The UPA-2 government could not strike a balance between growth and inflation, partly because its welfare policies also contributed to inflation. Yet it was not able to maintain the high economic growth it achieved in the UPA-1 years. With all the scams that broke on a weekly basis, voters felt prices were rising because the government was corrupt.

A new opportunity

The biggest political mistake Narendra Modi has made so far is to undermine the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the food security law. His government has said that it is rethinking the way in which the rural job scheme works because it had been used as a political tool by the previous government. Using a study by the Mumbai-based Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, the government says the Congress deployed the job scheme in areas where its votes were scanty.

The situation is ripe for Rahul Gandhi to visit those blocks, especially the ones in Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh that the study examined, and ask voters how they feel about it. If the Modi government puts the money back in the scheme, it would be Rahul’s victory. If it does not, the Congress will be able to capitalise on the voter disenchantment.

Lessons from AAP

The Congress and other parties could learn a thing or two from the Aam Aadmi Party, which has been down and out in Delhi for its foolish mistake of quitting after only 49 days. Yet its work with the poor in Delhi, most of which doesn’t get media attention, is so consistent even today that it left the BJP uncertain about its chances if new elections were to be held in the city-state. It was only with Sunday's results from Maharashtra and Haryana that it feels the BJP feels it is ready for elections.

The Aam Aadmi Party’s responded to Modi’s Clean India campaign by asking Delhi residents to Whatsapp it images of garbage that it would get cleaned up.  The AAP distributes pamphlets in every neighbourhood telling residents what local development work has been sanctioned by the government at what cost, so that they can monitor it. Every autorickshaw driver in Delhi is still enamoured of the AAP because they didn’t have to pay bribe to traffic policemen those 49 days. The fear of citizens recording them on a mobile phone and having them arrested was enough to keep the police clean.

In states where the Congress is still ruling, there is no reason why the Congress can’t implement such radical reform in governance and development, identify itself with the poor and take genuine measures to eliminate petty corruption. Rahul Gandhi still has a last chance to work with his party’s governments in Karnataka, Kerala, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Uttarakhand.

India's politics and economics should have one purpose: making life better for its poor. If opposition parties forget everything else and target just that goal, they will stay relevant in the Modi era.