There was a lot of hype and coverage around the Congress Party’s introspection meet, or the Chintin Shivir held in Udaipur recently. But let us take a look as to whether this exercise was worth the hype.
Yes on paper decisions were taken. Such as the one to deny more than one ticket (to contest elections) to members of the same family. This was immediately watered down with a proviso – unless the second family member has spent five years working in the organisation. This gives a clean chit to all the three Gandhi family members, and most other families as well. Conditions were also laid down to reserve representation of youth (50 percent under 50) in the CWC, as well as reservations for Dalits, minorities, and tribals. This, in a sense, is to bring back the umbrella coalition that was the hallmark of Congress. Of late, this is a vote bank that has deserted the Congress in favour of regional parties, as well as the BJP. The BJP under Prime Minister Modi has been aggressively wooing the OBCs as well as the tribals with its pro-poor schemes. A sizeable chunk of Muslim women also voted for the party not just for its subsidies and ujjwala schemes but also for progressive legislations like banning Triple Talaq. If the Modi government brings in the UCC then this will further attract the Muslim women vote.
The Congress leadership has realised that it needs to win back the traditional vote bank of the Congress and remould it back to its socialist, secular moorings instead of competing with the BJP on a capitalist, Hindu platform. It has to go back to the Congress of Nehru and Indira instead of competing with the BJP of Modi and Shah. Given that the BJP is arguing that it is now time to remove the words socialist and secular from our Constitution will this gambit have any takers in Modi’s India. (Last week in an interview to ITV Network, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma argued that while socialism has been rejected worldwide, the word secularism too should be dropped as India has always been secular— not in the western meaning of the word, but ‘dharam nirpeksh’. So where was the need to state the obvious, argues Sarma.) This is a cry that will be picked up by other BJP leaders as well. The Congress of Indira and Nehru was not the Congress of Rao and Manmohan. The aspiring middle class was not its vote bank, but it was in the poor and the backwards. Can Rahul walk the party back a few decades?
Certainly, his over 3000 km long Bharat Jodo yatra is aiming to do that. My concern about Rahul Gandhi is not that he will not be able to undertake the strenuous walk. He will do it for he knows that this could well be his last chance to reinvent himself. He will also be able to undertake the physical rigours better than any other Congress leader because he has kept himself physically fit. My concern is whether Rahul will be able to make an emotional connect with the people from Kashmir to Kanyakumari that he encounters on the way. Rahul’s main problem has been the lack of an emotional connect with the rest of India. Maybe it’s due to his slightly formal, westernised mannerisms, but whatever the reason, Rahul does not come across as a spontaneous, instinctive leader, and the public can sense that. The first thing Rahul should do is throw away his mobile when he embarks on this yatra for he needs no distractions.
The other shift at the Chintin Shivir was the prominence given to other Congress leaders and not just members of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Apart from hoardings of Nehru, Rajiv, and Indira there were also hoardings of BR Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh, Subash Chandra Bose, Abdul Kalam Azad, Dr Rajendra Prasad, Sarojini Naidu, and Mahatma Gandhi. What is even more interesting is that even Narasimha Rao found a mention in a hoarding as did Dr Manmohan Singh. Clearly a much more inclusive outlook than the earlier family focus. And it could not have come soon enough, at a time when the BJP and regional parties are appropriating Congress leadership icons.
And of course, those who were hoping that the Shivir would throw up a leadership alternative were in for some disappointment because the one message that came through loud and clear is that the Gandhis are very much in control with Sonia paving the way for a Rahul Gandhi take over. For all its hype and hoopla the G 23 failed to make an impression (did they even try?) at the Chintan Shivir. The election for party president— whenever it happens— will be a token exercise at best, for it does seem that Rahul Gandhi is firmly in place as the leader of the Congress party, with or without allies.