It is widely acknowledged that the Congress party’s electoral slide began with the steady erosion of its base among the historically oppressed sections of Indian society – the Dalits, adivasis, backward communities, and the minorities.
Caste-based regional political outfits that spawned out of the post-Mandal era of the late 1980s chipped away at the Congress’s SC, ST and OBC vote bank in the Hindi heartland states. Beginning 1985, the Congress’s own blunders of pandering to the fundamentalist Islamic clergy in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Shah Bano verdict and the erstwhile Narasimha Rao government’s dubious inaction in the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid by RSS-BJP members as also the party’s failure to effectively counter the Sangh Parivar’s increasingly aggressive and vicious Hindutva majoritarian politics, eroded the Grand Old Party’s support base among the Muslims.
Today, besieged by internal turmoil and electoral drift, the Congress is a pale caricature of its former self and its traditional voter base has visibly shifted to other parties, including the BJP. At the GOP’s recently concluded Chintan Shivir in Rajasthan’s Udaipur, an intra-party panel on social justice and empowerment led discussions on why the SC, ST, OBC and religious minority communities are consistently drifting away from the Congress and what correctives the party must employ to reverse this alienation.
K Raju, national coordinator of the Congress party’s SC, ST, OBC and minority departments and member of the social justice panel, spoke on the reforms that the party will adopt to regain the trust of these communities to ultimately make an electoral recovery in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
The Chintan Shivir and the Udaipur Declaration that came out of it have thrown up wide-ranging recommendations for reform within the Congress party. Are the correctives sufficient to put the party on a revival path – electorally and organisationally?
I see a lot of hope and possibility of change for the party. I was part of the panel that made suggestions on social justice and empowerment. Our panel has submitted detailed recommendations on what needs to be done to expand our outreach to the SC, ST, OBC and minority communities. Among the steps we suggested are a leadership development mission targeted at members of these communities and strengthening their voice in the party. We have also proposed ways to invest in the policy concerns for SC, ST, OBC and minorities so that these communities realise that the Congress truly has their best interests at heart.
Presently, the SC, ST, OBC and minority departments of the Congress are not empowered enough to take this agenda forward. We have recommended forming a social justice advisory council, which will do ground research on these communities and their sub-castes — what have been the historic injustices they suffered, who their icons are, what kind of electoral representation they have both within and outside the Congress party and, most importantly, how does the Congress regain their trust. This council will directly report to the Congress president.
Organisationally, we will also hold a six-monthly special AICC, PCC session focused only on issues of SC, ST, OBCs and minorities. The CWC has also accepted our proposal to launch a sadbhavna (solidarity) mission across the country. For this, we will form over 7,000 groups of party leaders drawn from the SC, ST, OBC and minority communities at the block level. These groups will reach out to the oppressed communities, especially in areas where there is communal strife.
One of the things you and several other leaders acknowledged was that the Congress has lost the confidence of the SC, ST, minorities and OBCs. Why do you think this happened?
It is certainly not our conclusion that these communities as a whole have lost faith in the Congress. However, we can also not deny that the party no longer enjoys the wholesome support that it received say 30 years ago, or before the politics of Mandal and Kamandal. The last 30 years saw many political parties appealing directly to one caste group or the other by adopting various mobilisation techniques. The Congress, which remained a party that spoke for everyone and not just for one or two caste or religious groups, lost out.
This alienation was also, in part, the result of the many falsities that parties such as the BJP spread about the Congress. No non-Congress government has done the amount of work our party did by way of policies and welfare measures for the weaker and oppressed communities; but then, we have simply not been good at marketing our achievements and contributions.
Parties like the BJP, which have done little but claim to have done everything, have scored over us by using communication and social media tools like WhatsApp to spread a blatantly false narrative against the Congress. The Congress needs to forcefully and repeatedly expose this BJP propaganda.
The idea of increasing representation for Dalits, tribals, OBCs and minorities, or reaching out to sub-castes among the Dalit and backward communities, looks like a leaf straight out of the BJP’s book on social engineering. Is the Congress aping the BJP here?
There is no question of aping the BJP. The Congress has historically stood for the rights of the oppressed communities. But let’s be honest and accept the reality – we need to change our approach and outreach with time. Traditionally, the Congress had a monolithic approach reaching out to overarching identities like Dalits, adivasis, backward communities. As a result, the more dominant sub-castes among these communities got better representation while others were left behind. With time, aspirations of the numerically smaller sub-castes have come to the forefront. The BJP has used this to its advantage by speaking for these groups, but it has actually done nothing for them beyond giving token representation.
Many leaders at the Chintan Shivir were of the view that we need carefully crafted mechanisms that appeal individually, yet uniformly, to a maximum number of the smaller groups within the larger umbrella of the Dalit, adivasi, OBC or minority community. What we have suggested is, thus, a course correction in keeping with the demands of the times and the aspirations of the people.
Your panel recommended 50 per cent reservation for these communities but the Udaipur Declaration was ambiguous about the reservation cap and only spoke of “adequate representation in leadership”. Was there dithering on the part of the party to fully endorse your recommendation?
There is no dithering or disagreement; the ambiguity is more a result of a technical glitch. At present, the Congress constitution stipulates 20 per cent reservation for SC, ST, OBCs and minorities in organisational posts. That Article needs to be amended in light of our recommendation. There is consensus in the party — and this was reflected in the CWC discussions also — that this amendment is passed. There are several other recommendations too that were made by our panel or the other panels that will require the Congress constitution to be amended.
The Congress president announced the setting up of a task force to look into these recommendations. The task force will very soon suggest the final roadmap for the implementation of the organisational reforms. This process will hopefully be completed within a month.
There also seems to be a difference between your recommendation and the final Udaipur Declaration on the Women’s Reservation Bill. The social justice panel emphatically backed quota-within-quota but the Declaration talks only of “proportional reservation” of women.
We were able to convince the CWC to endorse quota-within-quota under the Women’s Reservation Bill. This is a big change in the party’s approach; as you know that back in 2010, when the UPA government piloted the Bill and got it passed in the Rajya Sabha, there was no provision for quota-within-quota. We could have, perhaps, brought this then too but our allies and some other parties whose support was crucial for getting the Bill passed in Parliament, unfortunately, did not support us on this.
As Salman Khurshid, the convenor of the social justice panel, pointed out, much time has passed and also the political and social situation is different. In our discussions, we analysed the change in dynamics – politically, socially and electorally – and also discussed at length how the women’s reservation already present in local body elections has impacted caste-wise representation of women in panchayat or municipal bodies. Based on these discussions, we took the considered view that women’s reservation benefits have accrued the same way as reservation benefits for SC, ST, OBC in government jobs where dominant sub-groups have got disproportionately higher representation. To avoid this, we are backing quota-within-quota and the Udaipur Declaration also talks of proportional representation.
The Udaipur Declaration says the Congress will campaign for legislative recognition for the SC, ST sub-plans in the Union budget. While the Congress is in the Opposition and can obviously do nothing more than act as a pressure group on this demand nationally, will it take the lead in implementing this in states where you are in power on your own, or in alliance?
This is a very important decision because it will ensure that the promises of affirmative action are also backed with the necessary financial resources. At present, in the absence of legal backing for the sub-plans, the allocations have been consistently brought down by the central government and, most of the time, even these are not fully utilised. What we want is the sub-plans be given legally-binding budgetary allocation proportionate to SC and ST population.
As far as states where our party is in power, Rajasthan has already done it in the last budget session and the Chhattisgarh CM (Bhupesh Baghel) informed the CWC that his government will be bringing legislation on the issue. Additionally, the Congress president has also written to the Maharashtra CM (Uddhav Thackeray) requesting him to bring similar legislation and she will be urging both Tamil Nadu CM (MK Stalin) and Jharkhand CM (Hemant Soren) to do the same.
Another significant suggestion, though it is not in the declaration, was your panel’s view that the party must push for reservation in legislatures and Parliament for OBCs, on the lines of SC and ST reserved seats. We’ve seen how OBC reservation or even reservation, in general, has been an emotive and often, in terms of social order, a polarising issue.
On OBCs, there are two major recommendations. First, the party will unequivocally back the demand for a caste census and put pressure on the Centre to make public data of the socio-economic caste census that was conducted in the final years of the UPA-II government.
Second, we want to launch a campaign demanding reservation in legislatures and Parliament for OBC candidates in the same way that reservation is provided for SC and ST candidates. We already have reservation for OBCs in government jobs and educational institutions, which is reflective of the need for affirmative action for this group. Why should the same not be reflected in the composition of our legislatures and Parliament?
Now why this has not been explicitly mentioned in the Udaipur Declaration is, perhaps, because the party leaders and CWC wanted to study this more deeply and understand the nuances before taking a final position on how much reservation should be provided. Organisationally, we will ask our PCCs to take into consideration OBC representation while short-listing candidates for assembly and Parliament polls.
There seemed to be a palpable discomfort on part of the Congress in directly addressing the problems being faced by Indian Muslims under the BJP regime across the country. Surely, the Congress could have given more direct assurances to the Muslim community, expressed solidarity with them instead of simply bracketing them under the overarching tag of minorities when talking about the need to fight sectarianism?
Under the present BJP regime, every religious minority has been persecuted and targeted in the most vicious manner. The Congress must speak against, and does speak against, this growing communal discord and targeting of Muslims, Christians and other religious minorities. This is also the message that we gave from the Chintan Shivir and the Congress president also spoke forcefully on the same.
Have electoral compulsions created by the BJP’s Hindutva majoritarian politics made the Congress wary of directly and visibly engaging with the Muslim community?
Our group made the recommendation that the Congress stand on violence against the Muslims should not just be consistent, but also unapologetically secular. This was the clear stand taken by our social justice panel and it was communicated in as many words in our recommendations submitted to the Congress president. I do wish that this was also articulated in the same manner by the CWC or in the Udaipur Declaration. But, for whatever compulsions or reasons, it wasn’t. Nonetheless, the intent was conveyed very clearly in the resolutions and the Declaration. I can assure you that the Congress will very strongly fight against the communal forces that are destroying our social fabric and brutalising Muslims or any other religious minority.