Chintan Shivir: Sonia as tough on Modi govt as on Congress revival, but…

The Congress' Udaipur session has, so far, seen both an honest appraisal of how deep-rooted the party's problems are and of the ominous churn that India has been thrust through since 2014

Extraordinary situations have to be addressed through extraordinary ways, said Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi. Pic: Twitter

Sliding into a cavernous sinkhole of political irrelevance over the past eight years, the Congress has finally gotten down to some serious soul searching. The party’s Nav Sankalp Chintan Shivir that began in Rajasthan’s Udaipur earlier today (May 13) is being pegged by the party leadership as an occasion to draft an actionable blueprint for reform and revitalisation of the 137-year old organisation and find a glide path for felling a seemingly invincible BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

For the 422 Congress leaders from across the country who have huddled together at a resort in Udaipur, the task ahead is, to put it very mildly, a challenging one. These 422 leaders, including interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi, former party chief Rahul Gandhi and party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, have been divided into six groups of 69 to 71 members each.

Also read: At Udaipur chintan shivir, Congress really needs to scratch its head

The groups have been tasked with drawing a roadmap for organisational restructuring as well as drafting the party’s narrative for subjects as wide-ranging as current political challenges, state of the economy, youth empowerment, farmers and agriculture and prevailing threats to social cohesion and communal harmony. 

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Eight years lost

Herein seems to be the first real problem with the party’s grand strategy. It snoozed through the past eight years as a viciously aggressive BJP went about with its Congress-mukt Bharat agenda. The party’s internal challenges, of course, are much older and can’t be blamed squarely on the disruptive experiments of organisational reform that Rahul sought to bulldoze ever since his political debut back in 2004. 

Now, through discussions spread over two days (May 13 and 14) – or just around 15 hours, as the time allotted to the groups to recommend their draft proposals would suggest – the Grand Old Party believes it will find a cure for all that ails it today. 

But then, leaders of the crisis-ridden GOP may take solace in the adage ‘better late than never’.

Also read: Sonia calls for introspection, contemplation at Congress’s Chintan Shivir

To be fair to the party, or rather its president who had to abandon her retirement plans in August 2019 when her son quit as party chief taking moral responsibility of the Congress’s second consecutive Lok Sabha defeat, the Udaipur session has, so far, seen both an honest appraisal of how deep-rooted the GOP’s problems are and of the ominous churn that India has been thrust through the past eight years of the Modi government and its policies.

‘Desperate need’ for reform

In her opening address, Sonia minced no words while critiquing the Prime Minister as well as in laying out the “desperate need for reform and revival” of her own party, which she rightly observed “cannot be and will not be stalled any further”.

“It has become abundantly and most painfully clear what PM Modi and his colleagues really mean by their frequently repeated slogan: maximum governance, minimum government,” Sonia said, adding that “it means keeping the country in a state of permanent polarisation, compelling our people to live in a constant state of fear and insecurity”. 

“It means viciously targeting, victimising and brutalising minorities, who are an integral part of our society and are equal citizens of our republic…it means threatening and intimidating political opponents…it means eroding the independence and professionalism of all institutions of democracy. It means the wholesale reinvention of history, the constant denigration of our leaders, especially Jawaharlal Nehru, and systematic moves to distort, deny and destroy their contributions, achievements and sacrifices. 

“It means glorifying the killers of Mahatma Gandhi and their ideologies…it means more empty slogans, diversionary tactics and utter silence on the part of an ever eloquent Prime Minister when the healing touch is most needed.” 

Turning to her own party, the Congress president said: “The situation that has arisen before our party today is unprecedented.” She asserted that “extraordinary situations have to be addressed through extraordinary ways”. Stating that the Congress “needs to improve; change its strategy, usher in organisational reform and change its style of day-to-day functioning”, Sonia called upon her colleagues to “place the party before their niji swarth (personal ambitions)” and reiterated what she had told the Congress Working Committee members earlier this week – “it is time to repay the debt owed to the party”. 

With Sonia laying out the broad agenda, which Chintan Shivir attendees must take cognizance of during their deliberations, recommendations and suggestions for internal reform and external combativeness have been coming in thick and fast.

Mix of old and new

The panel set up to discuss organisational reform has, in its preliminary discussions, come up with a mix of old and new ideas. Senior party leader Ajay Maken told reporters that there was “near unanimity” on key suggestions like further decentralising the organisation by introducing mandal-level office bearers between the block and district levels and also introducing a system of “oversight and scrutiny” to periodically audit the performance of party’s office bearers.

The organisational reform panel has also brought back to the discussion table the idea of ‘one family, one ticket’ during different polls but with the caveat that members of a family who have been actively participating in the party’s activities for over five years will be exempted from this rule.

Another suggestion that has come on organisational reform from the panel on youth empowerment is that the party must adopt a ‘50 below 50’ policy – ensuring that at least 50 per cent of office bearers at any level of the party organisation, booth level upwards till the high table of the CWC, must be those aged below 50 years. Congress leader Ragini Nayak said the ’50 below 50’ policy must also be adopted with an equal emphasis of ensuring diversity – representation to women, Dalits, adivasis, backward communities, etc – in the appointments.

While these are largely issues that deal with addressing the question of internal reforms, there has also been a push for the party launching aggressive and sustained agitations, movements and campaigns at the grassroots that “expose the BJP on different issues such as unemployment, the current economic tailspin, etc. while simultaneously telling the people how the Congress plans to address these if it comes to power”, said a senior party leader.

Right to jobs

Congress leader Alka Lamba, who is part of the panel discussing youth empowerment, said there was serious deliberation on exploring legislative backing for “the right to jobs” given the unprecedented levels of unemployment that India has touched under the current regime. Lamba said the Congress-ruled states of Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan can attempt to bring in such a law, proposed on the lines of UPA-era legislations such as the MGNREGA and the right to food, before they go to polls at the end of next year in a bid to show the Congress’s intent and determination for addressing the growing joblessness.   

To the sceptics, both within the party – and there are many – and those outside of it, much of what is being discussed or suggested in Udaipur may be too little, too late, given that the next general elections are just two years away and the measures adopted now will undoubtedly take a while before – and if – they pay dividends. 

Yet, how open the party is to these suggestions and, more importantly, how it implements them could very well determine where the Congress heads to from here.

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