The Congress Plenary at Raipur will be known more for what did not happen than for what took place. The key non-event being the absence of the Congress Working Committee elections. Most Congress leaders were expecting this as a logical extension of elections to the post of the party President. Some had even thrown their hat in the ring and planned to contest the said polls (at least 12 of the 24 seats are meant to be elected). Instead, the Congress panel passed a resolution asking Mallikarjun Kharge, the recently elected party chief to nominate the entire CWC and also added an amendment ensuring that former party chiefs, prime ministers and leaders of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha get a permanent place in the committee.
There is an argument against holding elections at a time when crucial state elections are around the corner as is the 2024 General Election. Others pointed out that the BJP’s Parliamentary Board (which on paper is meant to be the party’s highest decision making body, just like the CWC) is also all nominated and not elected. So then did the Congress err so much in not holding the CWC elections?
The jury is out on that one, for having touted the fact that it was the only national party that held elections to the post of the party chief, the Congress should have completed that circle with CWC elections. Now whenever Congress leaders will claim a moral high ground on the presidential polls, the (non) CWC polls will make an awkward postscript.
What was also missing was the fact that the party failed to come up with an adequate narrative to counter the BJP. The Congress has to stand for much more than a successful Bharat Jodo Yatra. What Rahul could have done is taken all the feedback he got from the people on the ground, and used that to come up with an effective manifesto or an ideology statement for the Congress. During his speech, Rahul focused more on the yatra as a self discovery tool for himself rather than for the party. He also kept the focus on Adani, China and the fact that going to Kashmir was like “going home”.
While am not sure why he keeps harping on the last point, for all it does is to buttress the BJP’s claim that after withdrawing Article 370, Kashmir has become so safe that the Gandhi scion can now go “home”; China and Adani are more concrete issues with which he can take on the Modi government. Though for the Adani issue to click with the public at large, he will have to prove that there was a direct quid pro quo between the controversial businessman and the Prime Minister’s Office. That was the final nail in the Bofors case which brought down the Rajiv Gandhi government in the elections that followed and though the allegations against Rajiv Gandhi have since been struck down by the Supreme Court, the verdict came too late for both the former Prime Minister and the Congress. As of now, the allegations of nepotism, crony capitalism etc against Adani are not filtering down to the masses. For instance, will it be an issue in the coming state elections in Karnataka, Telangana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh? Gautam Adani was not an issue during the recent round of polls in the North East.
Regarding China, this could become an emotive issue with the public, but it remains to be seen how the Prime Minister and BJP responds to the Congress charge of not safeguarding our borders. For, in narrative building, especially on matters of national security, the Prime Minister always manages to have the last word. Hence, while the Congress is right in raising these issues and the lapses therein, it needs to find a larger, emotive connect with the masses to trump the apna-pan (one of us) that Modi shares with the 140 crore janata that have wrapped a “protective shield” around him. (If you will recall this is how he countered Rahul Gandhi’s speech in Parliament recently when the Congress leader raised the Modi-Adani connection. Instead of addressing that, the PM spoke about all that he had done for the people of India and the love and protection he got in return. As I said earlier, the Congress has a long way to go before it can beat the PM in narrative building.)
Judging by the feedback, it was not Rahul or Mallikarjun Kharge who made the most stirring speech; instead it was the party presidential contender Shashi Tharoor who pointed out that the Congress should have taken a more effective stand on Bilkis Bano, attacks on Christian Churches, murders in the name of cow vigilantism and bulldozer demolitions of Muslim homes. Tharoor underlined the point that the Congress needs to stand up for its foundational values and for an inclusive India.
He is right. This fear of not speaking up in favour of the minorities just so they don’t antagonise the majority is not the Congress way. Look at how Indira Gandhi reached out to both communities. In other words, instead of competing with the BJP on Hindutva, the Congress would be better off redefining its own secular credentials.