Congress: ‘Chintan Shivir’ (Brainstorming Session)

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Congress:   ‘Chintan Shivir’ (Brainstorming Session)

The three-day Cong¬ress ‘Chintan shivir’ (brainstorming session) at Udaipur, Rajasthan last week avoided any meaningful introspection on the series of electoral defeats the Congress has faced. This is the general impression.


Forging an “actionable strategy”

However, there was some serious discussions and decisions. Rahul Gandhi in his address at the ‘Nav Sankalp Shivir’ (New pledge session) talked about “transforming the nature of Congress party. Not the nature in terms of its thinking, not the nature in terms of its ideology but its nature of the way we do our work.”

And the “to do” list approved by the Congress Working Committee (CWC) fleshed out the detailed strategy as to how the party plans to “transform the nature of the way it will function in future.”

To begin with, proposals that got the go-ahead from the CWC, the party’s highest decision-making body, addressed two key issues -- how to strengthen the organisation and be battle-ready for elections. The proposals that got CWC’s stamp of approval include:

'50 below 50’ formula: The Congress decided that younger leaders will be given more representation, right from the CWC to booth-level committees, with 50 per cent posts given those below 50 years of age.

Fixed tenure: A cap of five years on term limit for all office bearers and ‘One Family, One Ticket.

‘One Family, One Ticket’ formula, with a rider of mandatory five years of experience doing organisational work for the second aspirant.

System to fix accountability: A system to monitor and evaluate performance and fix accountability was a considered.

Constitution of Political Affairs committee: A sub-group of the CWC to for programme implementation and advice. Public Affairs committees will be set up in the party’s state units too.

A decision to fill all all vacant posts from block to ‘Pradesh’ (State) Congress Committee level in 90-120 days.


Outreach drive

The vote share of the Congress in the last three Lok Sabha polls -- from 2009 till 2019 -- was between 10-12 crore, which is a consistent vote bank. According to a CWC member, “This means most of the ‘new’ votes were going to other parties, the reason being that Congress wasn’t able to connect with the new generation. And to address this biggest concern, Rahul Gandhi announced major mass connect programs by way of ‘padyatras’ (marches), complete overhaul of the communication department and [poll] tickets based on proper scientific feedback.”

Rahul Gandhi, in his speech said that there are ‘no shortcuts’ and the party must reach out to people by way of mass contact programs including 'Bharat Jodo Yatra’ Unify India march).

“We must have a mass contact program, where all of us, regardless of our age, our position goes to people of India, understand what they want and tell them Congress has done and what party plans to do,” Gandhi had said emphasising that ‘connect' with people and within party must be restored.


Other Conclusions

The Gandhis will lead the Congress from the front in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, starting with the Bharat Jodo Yatra, a mass outreach programme spanning from Kashmir to Kanyakumari that kicks off on October 2.

Rahul Gandhi emphasised running the organisation in a scientific and professional manner. Decisions will be based on proper scientific feedback.

On alliances, Rahul Gandhi has sent the message that they want to give space to regional aspirations in states, but when it comes to the national level, only the Congress can take on the BJP.

In short, Congressmen feel an “actionable strategy” has been forged.



The conclave, writes Arun Ram (Resident Editor, The Times of India) “doesn’t appear to have come up with a clear strategy to stop the saffron juggernaut or reverse the Congress’s march to oblivion. What’s clear, however, is that this could well be the party’s last chance to save itself from its not-so-slow extinction. Look how the party’s representation in the Lok Sabha has shrunk – from 404 in 1984 to 52 in 2019. Its national vote share has dipped from close to 50% to less than 20%.”

The Udaipur session came at a crucial juncture, when the party is to face assembly polls in 10 states in the next couple of years. These include such crucial states as Gujarat (this year), Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram (next year). “If the Congress fails to retain the Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh that it won in 2018, it could well write its own obituary,” says Ram.


Regional leaders better than Rahul to take on Modi

“It’s time the Congress looked beyond a hesitant yet energetic Rahul Gandhi and consider building a united opposition along with the party,” says Ram.  “If the idea is to take on Narendra Modi, regional leaders such as M K Stalin, Mamata Banerjee and K Chandrasekhar Rao are a better bet.

The Times of India agrees, “Rahul Gandhi’s assertion that only Congress and not regional parties can lead the ideological fight against BJP and RSS flies in the face of their comparative track record in recent elections. Since its three-state victories in the Hindi heartland in 2018, Congress has lost successive head-to-head electoral contests with BJP. In the same period, regional parties like TMC, DMK, AAP and BJD have checked further advances by BJP. Congress, meanwhile, stands exposed as the weak plank in opposition unity efforts after its failure to tap anti-incumbency against BJP in Assam, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur. Neither could it retake Kerala from CPM.

“……Consequently, regional parties no longer consider Congress their spearhead. None of these parties is obsessing overtly with ideology, as Rahul would want them to. They are betting on welfare policies, organisational strength and popular connect.”

The paper also makes the point that  the BJP exploits weakness for most regional parties - personality cults, nepotism and indiscipline. “Nonetheless they are still better off than Congress, which doesn’t have enough workers in most states to even organise a flash strike against inflation, forget carrying a long-haul ideological message to voters.”

Rahul’s obsession with ideology: Also, writes The Times of India, “Rahul’s obsession with ideology isn’t shared by voters either. The Lokniti 2019 post-poll survey revealed that less than 1% of respondents listed Hindutva and various communal themes as the most important political issue for them while voting (economy and good governance were cited the most). With its weak organisational presence and finite resources, Congress will be wasting time and effort if it operates by Rahul’s ‘ideology’ thesis……. Lazy diatribes on ideology – in a country where just 5% of citizens file income tax returns and crores more could do with a leg up via better governance – just isn’t good oppositional politics.”


Question of leadership ignored

Importantly, the three-day brainstorming session stayed clear of the leadership issue despite the fact that the emergence of the G-23, an informal group of dissidents, has put the spotlight on the leadership record of the Gandhi family.  A clear takeaway from the conclave is that the Gandhis continue to exercise total control over the party. The G-23 fell silent.

It seems, writes Zainab Sikander (political observer) “as though the Congress keeps going round and round the same circle, expecting a different outcome. They keep discussing elevating younger leaders to lucrative posts but inevitably end up with the same leaders discussing the same questions with no definitive answers. Merit is barely factored in, which should be seen above the age of the leader or the family he or she comes from.”

Rahul’s role:  Thus, although Rahul Gandhi’s role as heir to the 137-year-old Congress Party is very apparent, political observer Shikha Mukherjee writes “the unsettled question, however, is what is his role, responsibility and accountability in a party that has pledged to restructure itself through a democratic dialogue which promises transparency, but is blithely opaque about the leader and how that leader will be elected or stealthily inserted……

“Like the Caesars, who established a dynasty over republican Rome, the Gandhis cemented their ownership of the run-down party through the ‘Chintan Shivir'. As long as the Congress and the Gandhis fail to achieve a separation and Rahul gets away by saying that from his perspective, ‘you are my family’, the prospect of revival and reconstruction is bleaker than ever before……”

In conclusion,   Mukherjee says “the outcome of the intensive exercise in reflection produced no seismic shift on the crisis of leadership and strategy.”


Congress has lost connect with people: Rahul Gandhi blames a poor communication strategy

But to be fair to Rahul Gandhi, he himself admitted that the Congress has lost connect with people. This, according to some analysts,  raised hopes that reality is finally dawning upon the party. He  blamed a poor communication strategy for the disconnect and promised a revamp. However, the loss of touch with the masses may not necessarily be the outcome of strategy, writes The Indian Express.  “The problem also lies with the message and the messenger. Despite being out of office at the Centre for over eight years, the Congress is yet to reinvent itself as a party of the Opposition. Its politics has been more reactive than a proactive one of setting the agenda or building its own narrative. The incapacity to articulate in a coherent manner what the party stands for is curious since there is no dearth of articulate leaders in that party. While the party’s message is incoherent and often contradictory, the messenger has been a failure in amplifying it or bringing clarity to the message. Rahul Gandhi, the party face for some years, will need to shoulder more than a little blame for this……

“….What is being communicated is triggering the party’s collapse. No amount of spin can work for systemic failings like the fatigued decision-making, the personalised pick-choose-drop inconsistencies, the trademark last-minute ticket chaos, lack of aggressive, intelligent counter to doubtful government decisions, and the failure to forge a cohesive Opposition strategy. Burning issues such as calling out communal forces and seeking answers on skyrocketing prices require a relentless, united front, not staggered voices that get easily muted. The continuing departure of a string of top leaders, once touted as the rising stars, should prompt serious introspection on the absence of a roadmap for them and not mere derision for their being too ambitious or not being ideologically committed. The efficacy of reserving half the party posts for those under 50 is doubtful.”


Still some hope!

There are nevertheless, some positives from the brainstorming session, that the media sees. Zainab Sikander for example, is not so unkind to the Congress. Although the last decade has seen Congress at its lowest point, electorally, “the history of 137 years makes us want to believe that perhaps the party is still not at the end of its rope. The ‘Chintan Shivir’ is an attempt in that very direction, to ensure that Congress doesn’t dissolve into oblivion. The party has finally realised that something is wrong with them and they need to fix it.”

No reason for hope: Neera Chandhoke (political scientist) however, writes the the deliberations of Congress leaders in Udaipur “give no reason for hope. As usual, the leaders are relentlessly caught in a time warp. They either seek to replicate the hard, cold world of Hindutva which is without compassion, tolerance or high-mindedness. Or, they want to go back to familiar strategies…..”


If the Congress is revived, the BJP could be in trouble

However, Vir Sanghvi (print and television journalist, author, and talk show host) makes an important point. “Even though the Congress goes down in defeat after defeat in election after election, it remains the primary focus of the BJP’s attacks……

“The short answer is: when it comes to forming the government in Delhi, no single regional party matters. Assume the Trinamool Congress gets 40 seats. That is still not a significant enough number to worry the BJP.

“On the other hand, if the Congress is revived, then the BJP could be in trouble. There are 150 to 200 seats that are direct BJP-Congress fights. That’s where the Congress has been more or less wiped out in the last two Lok Sabha elections.”

If  the Congress were to  get its act together, the party  will pose a much more potent threat than any single regional party. According to political strategist Prashant Kishor even a semi-revived Congress will cut into the BJP’s majority and force Modi to rely on allies—something he is not comfortable doing.

“Even the stuff Rahul said about regional parties having no ideology—which regional leaders are so agitated about—is largely accurate. Most regional parties are identity-based. They win votes because of caste or ethnicity factors. Ideology does not have much to do with it……

“So, despite the abuse he has received, Rahul is right. Only the Congress can defeat the BJP. Regional parties, on their own or even as a Third Front, cannot do it unless it backs them.”


But, Congress can never defeat the BJP till Rahul Gandhi is around

Singhvi comes to the heart of the matter. “Rahul says he knows that only the Congress can defeat the BJP. So why then doesn’t he realise that he is one reason why it hasn’t happened yet? Does he not see how badly he has screwed it up at two different parliamentary elections? Does he not think that the honourable thing to do would be to step aside?

He is a bright guy. He must know that none of the things he says he cares about (fighting ‘fascism’ etc.) will ever happen, simply because most people will not vote for him. Until he steps aside, the Congress can hold a million ‘Chintan Shivirs’ and still, nothing will change.

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