Over 400 Congress leaders from across the country will meet in Rajasthan’s Udaipur this weekend for a long-due chintan shivir (brainstorming session).
The agenda for the three-day session, beginning May 13, is a desperate search for a glide-path for ideological, organisational and electoral revival of the 137-year-old Congress Party ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
The overwhelming expectation within the crisis-ridden Congress is that the Udaipur session must, like previous chintan shivirs organised by the party in 1998 and 2003 at Pachmarhi in Madhya Pradesh and Shimla in Himachal Pradesh respectively, herald the course-correction that the party desperately needs.
Organisational atrophy, ideological ambiguity, factional discord, an unremitting wave of attrition and the failure to counter Narendra Modi’s BJP at the hustings have collectively pushed the Grand Old Party to the precipice of electoral irrelevance in just the past decade.
The challenges for the party are further compounded by a wave of both explicit and hushed criticism of the Gandhi family over their perceptible failure in expeditiously applying the correctives needed.
The Udaipur session will see party apparatchiks discussing a broad range of issues. Interim party president Sonia Gandhi has set up six panels to draft a “broad agenda” on subjects such as current political challenges, farmers and agriculture, economy, social empowerment and the youth as well as identify areas for organisational reform within the party.
Several Congress leaders The Federal spoke to conceded that while each of the six broad categories are important for the party to address, all eyes would be on what “big ideas” the panel on organisational restructuring throws up.
On Monday (May 9), the Congress Working Committee (CWC) met at the party’s 24, Akbar Road headquarters in Delhi to discuss the preliminary report of each of these nine-member panels. Sonia, who presided over the CWC meet, impressed on her colleagues that the Udaipur session “should herald a restructured organisation to meet the many ideological, electoral and managerial tasks we confront”.
The blueprint for organisational reform is being fleshed out by a nine-member panel headed by party leader Mukul Wasnik. Sources in the CWC said the Wasnik panel has come up with several “pointed suggestions”.
“Mukul Wasnik gave an excellent presentation and pointed out many areas that need improvement or drastic reforms. The old demand by G-23 for the formation of a Parliamentary Board (a suggestion also made to the Congress leadership by poll strategist Prashant Kishor recently) that would put in place a mechanism for collective leadership has been put forth. The panel has also suggested that all office bearers, in the AICC or in state units, must have fixed five-year tenures upon completion of which they should have a mandatory cooling off period of three years before they can hold a similar post,” a CWC member told The Federal.
Another suggestion that has been made is for the party to have a “dedicated empowered department” for election planning and strategy instead of the current informal “war room system”.
Sources said there was also an overlap of some suggestions put forth by different panels. “The panels on organisation, social justice (headed by Salman Khurshid) and youth empowerment (led by Amarinder Singh Raja Warring) have individually pushed for an increased representation of Dalits, adivasis, backward castes, religious minorities and the youth in the party organisation at the central and state levels. The Khurshid panel wants a 50 percent reservation in party posts for SC, ST, religious minorities and backward castes while the youth panel wants 50 percent reservation in posts for leaders aged below 50 years. Of course, both can co-exist because we can have a mix of SC, ST and minority representation from among the youth and party elders,” another CWC member told The Federal.
Briefing reporters after the CWC meeting, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said the nav sankalp chintan shivir will be an “action-oriented” session and will “mark the beginning of a long journey… a transformation of an unprecedented magnitude.”
The chintan shivir also comes at a time when the Congress finds its position as the traditional fulcrum of anti-BJP political parties increasingly challenged by the likes of Trinamool Congress’s Mamata Banerjee, Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal or even Telangana Rashtra Samithi’s K Chandrasekhar Rao.
Sources said party veteran Mallikarjun Kharge, who heads the panel on political challenges, spoke at length at the CWC meet about the need for the Congress to reclaim its central place among BJP’s rivals.
The Kharge-led panel, sources said, asserted that the Congress must “proactively take the lead in bringing all secular, like-minded parties together to combat the BJP”. It also made a strong case for “launching a sustained campaign against the BJP’s politics of sectarianism and majoritarian Hindutva politics,” said another CWC member, adding that the suggestion was also backed by the social justice panel led by Khurshid.
At the face of it, the CWC discussions indicate that the Congress leadership, sinking into a deepening morass for the past eight years, is finally realising that its need for a drastic surgery can no longer be put off. However, its past legacy of making all the right noises for reform and revival and then sinking back into its typical inertia, also has several party leaders wondering whether the Udaipur session will actually pave the way for the intended transformation or if it would be business as usual after May 15, when the shivir ends.
“Many of these suggestions, in the present form or with minor changes, have been made in the past too. The provision for a Parliamentary Board is laid out in the Congress constitution but in practice, it doesn’t exist. We will have to see how and in what form these suggestions are ultimately implemented,” a senior party leader and G-23 member told The Federal.
The real ‘head’ache
Another Congress functionary pointed out that though Sonia spoke at the CWC meet “with sincere determination to bring about the suggested changes” the party is due for electing a new president this August. “We still don’t know who that will be… Will the new president show the same conviction that Sonia Gandhi showed today,” the functionary said.
Doubts within a section of the party over the Congress high command’s conviction in going through with the blueprint for organisational transformation are seemingly on account of the possibility of the party leadership being passed on once again from Sonia to Rahul Gandhi — or even to Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
It is widely believed that the deepening trust deficit between a section of senior party leaders and the Gandhi family is on account of their strained — or non-existent — working rapport with Rahul, and also Priyanka. Many of the G-23 leaders prefer a Sonia-led Congress as they feel she has a “natural inclination towards running the party through consensus” while both Rahul and Priyanka have variously shown a preference for “arbitrary and disruptive decision-making.”
“You can rest assured that while the chintan shivir will discuss everything else, there will be no mention of the problems the Congress has suffered due to the functioning style of Rahul and, over the past year, also Priyanka. Since the Congress can’t be hyphenated from the Gandhis, you can’t hope to effect any real change without addressing the obvious problems with the way Rahul and Priyanka choose to run the affairs of the party,” a former Union minister told The Federal.
Though the Gandhi family appears to be a monolithic unit, Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka have different approaches and each of them has their own coterie of favourites, which often work at cross-purposes, thereby creating more confusion and chaos in an already imploding party.
“Sonia is pragmatic, she has always preferred consensus over confrontation and, most importantly for a vast organisation like the Congress, she knows how and where a leader can be best utilised, what their strengths and weaknesses are,” said a party MP.
The MP added, “Rahul and Priyanka, unfortunately, lack these qualities… if you go to Rahul with a problem, he invariably assumes that you are preparing grounds to leave the party or are eying for some ‘reward for your services to the Congress’… like Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka too have their favourites but the difference is that people Rahul and Priyanka push for important posts repeatedly fail to deliver but instead of being held to account they simply get reassigned to new and often more important roles.”
Several instances in the recent past have also shown how the three Gandhis have not always been on the same page with regard to organisational decisions. Sources said Sonia was not convinced about removing Amarinder Singh as chief minister just six months ahead of the Punjab elections, she was forced to do so because Rahul and Priyanka wanted a change of guard.
The differences over Punjab’s leadership, said a Congress leader from the state, didn’t end with Amarinder. “Rahul was not very keen on appointing Navjot Sidhu as the Punjab Congress chief because he had held discussions with party MPs and MLAs from the state and realised Sidhu was an unpopular choice but then Priyanka stepped in and rejected every opposition to Sidhu. Her decision cost us the election,” the Punjab Congress leader said.
Similar differences among the Gandhis cropped up over the question of inducting Prashant Kishor into the party. While Sonia was largely indifferent to the prospect of roping in Kishor in any capacity, Rahul was reportedly opposed to any engagement with him but Priyanka, say sources, insisted that the I-PAC founder be given another chance.
The talks with Kishor, of course, broke down, leaving the party humiliated once more as the development signalled that even a man like Kishor could practically ‘reject’ the Grand Old Party.
Then again, while revamping the Congress’s Haryana unit last month, Rahul reportedly assured senior MLA Kuldeep Bishnoi that he would be accommodated either as Leader of Opposition or as the state unit chief, against the wishes of former CM Bhupinder Hooda.
When the appointments were finally cleared by Sonia, Hooda’s close aide Udai Bhan was made the PCC chief while Hooda himself continued as the Leader of Opposition, leaving Bishnoi jilted. Congress sources say Priyanka, who has been working closely with Hooda’s son and party MP Deepender Hooda, too had a role in denying Bishnoi the post he coveted. A CWC member, Bishnoi refused to attend Monday’s meeting, making it clear that he wants an answer from Rahul on why assurances made to him were not kept.
A party veteran, who has worked closely with all three Gandhis at different points in time, conceded that chances of any Congress leader critiquing any member of the Gandhi family at the chintan shivir and demanding answers from them are “out of the question”.
“This is the real unfortunate thing about the Congress. We know there are problems for which no one but the high command is responsible but no chintan shivir will discuss these,” the leader said.