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On the defensive

Print edition : Jan 14, 2011 T+T-

The Congress uses its two-day plenary to find ways to wriggle out of the political mess created by the several scams.

at Burari in Delhi

MUCH sound and fury on corruption and communalism. This was the impression one got at the conclusion of the two-day plenary (December 19-20) of the Congress, held at Burari on the outskirts of Delhi to mark the 125th year of the party. The hype around the session and the event itself left one wondering what it aimed to achieve, considering the fact that this was the third plenary since Sonia Gandhi took over the reins of the party in 1998. What is the political message that was sent across? What is the direction the ruling party wants to take in the coming days?

With corruption scandals coming out one by one and the Opposition stalling the proceedings of the entire winter session of Parliament, the beleaguered Congress tried to wriggle out of the political mess by adopting an offensive strategy. Being combative on corruption has become a political compulsion for the party in the face of a united Opposition onslaught in the wake of the 2G spectrum allocation scam.

The diarchy the Congress has tried to establish since 2004, making a clear distinction between the party and the government, could not have been more visible anywhere than at the just-concluded plenary. Here a clear distinction was made between the political weapon the party needed to wield against its main opponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the stance the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was expected to adopt on the issue of corruption. Sonia Gandhi outlined a five-point formula to deal with corruption. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised to carry it forward.

Sonia Gandhi said corruption was a disease spreading through society, with the poor paying a heavy price for it. She said the issue needed to be confronted head on both by the government and by the party, and suggested some measures that needed to be taken in this regard.

*There should be a new system of fast-track courts that handle cases of corruption by public servants, including politicians (and that includes all of us, she reminded), as corruption cases, which dragged on indefinitely, corroded people's faith in the system. There is the need for closing these cases in a defined time frame;

*Full transparency in public procurement and contracts through legislation and clear procedures so that there is no subversion of due process and, should it come to pass, full protection to whistle-blowers;

*All Congress Ministers, both at the Centre and in the States and all Congress Chief Ministers, should relinquish discretionary powers, especially those involving land allocation, as this breeds corruption;

*Formulating an open and competitive system of exploiting natural resources; and

*Congressmen and women holding high office should follow an austere, simple lifestyle and refrain from indulging in vulgar display of wealth.

This formula found support from not only the Prime Minister, who promised to take all necessary measures to stem the rot, but also party general secretary Rahul Gandhi. Rahul Gandhi said the country could become a strong power only when there was accountability and transparency in the system. Corruption, he said, was the symptom of closed and opaque economic and political structures, which denied the common man the right to equal opportunity and connectivity with the system. We can never build a strong nation until the common man has a connection with the system, he said, adding that the corrupt, irrespective of their party or stature, should be punished.

Interestingly, the plenary also provided the Congress president an opportunity to reiterate her support for Manmohan Singh. This is significant as the Prime Minister's long silence on the issue of corruption, especially after the Supreme Court's terse comments about his inaction on a plea to prosecute Telecommunications Minister A. Raja in the spectrum allocation scam, had made his position look vulnerable. Giving a clean chit to the Prime Minister, Sonia Gandhi said the BJP's personal attack on him was downright despicable as Manmohan Singh was the embodiment of sobriety, dignity and integrity and should be complimented for his wise leadership, for remaining calm amidst the storm and for his unwavering devotion to the progress and prosperity of the nation.

In response, the Prime Minister offered to depose before the Public Accounts Committee, which is examining the Comptroller and Auditor General's report on the 2G scam. He said he had nothing to hide. But like Caesar's wife the Prime Minister should be above suspicion, and so he was willing to face any probe although there was no precedent for it, he said.

In contrast to the wholehearted support to combat corruption, the issue of communalism, especially the one involving the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), was left to be tackled by general secretary Digvijay Singh, who has of late been hinting at a link between the RSS and some recent terrorist activities. He said the bomb blasts at Malegaon, Modasa, Ajmer Sharief and Mecca Masjid and on the Samjhauta Express had exposed the RSS' connection with terrorist activities.

Digvijay Singh said the biggest challenge facing the country today was the narrow, communal mindset of the BJP and the RSS, which were targeting Muslims as Hitler had targeted Jews. He said BJP leader L.K. Advani's rath yatra was at the root of terrorism in the country and it was no coincidence that all Hindus caught in connection with terrorist activities had links with the RSS.

He said it should be examined how people associated with the RSS, having narrow sectarian mindsets, had infiltrated the judiciary, educational institutions, and even the Army. He also hinted that there appeared to be a deal between the BJP and the naxalites since the BJP was winning all elections in naxal-dominated areas.

Although the rhetoric against communalism emerged as a political tool, there was little evidence of a concrete action plan to counter communalism. Even after Digvijay Singh's tirade, the issue just remained a talking point. Sonia Gandhi made a brief mention of it, saying that organisations of the majority and of the minority communities that indulge in communalism and thrive on spreading religious prejudice and incite people to violence using religion as a cover need to be defeated. Without mentioning names, she said communalism was dangerous. All those who were trying to misuse religion to mislead people and incite them into violence, for narrow gains, needed to be exposed and thwarted, she said.

The Prime Minister skirted the subject completely. The rest of the proceedings ended up as vacuous verbosity. The political resolution adopted at the conclusion of the plenary declared that the Indian National Congress would continue to lead India with social, political and economic stability, blending tradition with modernity and leading to a just and inclusive India.

The economic resolution promised everything for all jobs, education, food, health and home but offered no explanation for the skyrocketing prices. It merely said inflation was likely to come down to 6 per cent by the end of 2010-11 as a result of the monetary and administrative measures taken by the government. What these measures are is not clear.

The conclave was able to achieve one thing: it emphasised the importance of grass-root workers. Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi called upon Union Ministers and Chief Ministers of the Congress to spare some time to engage with ordinary party workers.

It is the primary responsibility of those in office to be sensitive to the voices coming from the party organisation and ranks. Party workers must be seriously heard and listened to. We must not forget that it is the ordinary worker who is our ear on the ground, our hand on the pulse of the common man, the party president said.

This drew applause from the delegates, who had tried to disrupt the speakers on several occasions in order to be heard