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Congress fails to inspire hopes of revival despite Chintan Shivir’s lofty goals

Print edition : Jun 02, 2022 T+T-

Congress fails to inspire hopes of revival despite Chintan Shivir’s lofty goals

Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi at the Nav Sankalp Chintan Shivir in Udaipur. | Photo Credit: PTI

The Congress’ Chintan Shivir had ambitious goals, but the follow-up actions on the resolutions do not inspire hope about a revival in its fortunes anytime soon.

On May 24, 2022, approximately a week after the Congress held a “Nav Sankalp Chintan Shivir“ ( brainstorming camp for new ideas and resolutions), the party initiated a handful of measures described by many of its leaders as the first concrete steps aimed at advancing the new ideas formulated at the Shivir. The camp was held in Udaipur in Rajasthan on May 13-15. However, even as the measures were being announced, it became clear that the brainstorming did not throw up any new ideas or resolutions for the grand old party. In fact, the measures only underscored the party leadership’s recurring inability, manifest starkly over the past decade, to come to terms with new political and social challenges or undertake organisational schemes that would address the new realities.

Predictably, a large number of responses from party members and from political observers to the “first concrete steps” were marked by disapproval. In a move that seemed to encapsulate this sentiment, senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal announced his resignation from the party on May 25 and filed his nomination for the Rajya Sabha from Uttar Pradesh as an independent candidate supported by the principal opposition in the State, the Samajwadi Party.

Former Congress leader Kapil Sibal files his nomination papers for the Rajya Sabha in the presence of Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav in Lucknow on May 25.
Former Congress leader Kapil Sibal files his nomination papers for the Rajya Sabha in the presence of Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav in Lucknow on May 25. | Photo Credit: Nand Kumar/PTI

With Sibal’s exit, the Congress has lost five prominent leaders of the party in the past five months. Those who left the party were Sunil Jakhar, former Punjab State Congress president once considered to be a confidante of Rahul Gandhi; Hardik Patel, former working president of the Gujarat State unit; R.P.N. Singh, Uttar Pradesh leader who joined the BJP in the midst of the Assembly election of February-March 2022; and Ashwani Kumar, former Union Minister.

All these leaders had, from time to time, raised pointed criticism against the first family of the Congress: the interim party President Sonia Gandhi, her son and former party president Rahul Gandhi and current party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi. They sought far-reaching changes in the organisational structure and style of functioning of the leadership. Sibal had also joined hands with a group of 22 other senior Congress leaders forming what was informally termed as “Group of 23”, or (G 23), which included Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma and Bhupinder Singh Hooda. Formed in August 2020, the group intermittently raising the demand for a hands-on and proactive leadership, a top-to-bottom organisational restructuring and serious introspection of the party’s serial failures in Lok Sabha and State Assembly elections.

Sonia Gandhi with Rahul Gandhi and other senior leaders during the concluding session of the Nav Sankalp Shivir in Udaipur.
Sonia Gandhi with Rahul Gandhi and other senior leaders during the concluding session of the Nav Sankalp Shivir in Udaipur. | Photo Credit: PTI

The Nav Sankalp Chintan Shivir was apparently organised as a response to these demands. The leadership’s promise was that the conclave would come up with a road map to tackle the current challenges and also “pave the way for a resilient, strong and inclusive nation”. At the conclave, leaders including Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi made lengthy speeches admitting that the “Congress had lost its connect with the people” and that it needed to build up a new and dynamic leadership giving emphasis to youth.

Organisational initiatives

The leaders also came up with a number of organisational initiatives, one of which was that half of the leaders in the party structure, frontal organisations and committees would be under the age of 50. Three new departments would be set up at the party’s national level: “Public Insight Department”, “National Training Institute” and “Election Management Department”. Besides, “all vacancies at every level are to be filled in the next 90 to 180 days”.

The party will hold two national-level campaigns: the “Bharat Jodo Yatra” and the “Rozgaar Do Yatra”. Both were planned as political journeys covering all parts of India. The “Bharat Jodo Yatra” was to be a campaign against the divisive politics of the Sangh Parivar, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its governments at the Centre and in States. The Rozgaar Do Yatra is aimed at highlighting the mounting crisis of unemployment. Both campaigns will be youth oriented.

Congress interim President Sonia Gandhi addresses party leaders during the party’s ‘Nav Sankalp Chintan Shivir’ in Udaipur.
Congress interim President Sonia Gandhi addresses party leaders during the party’s ‘Nav Sankalp Chintan Shivir’ in Udaipur. | Photo Credit: PTI

One of the key resolutions was the “one family, one ticket” stipulation. But it had a caveat that for all practical purposes rendered it self-defeating:  members of the same family can contest if they have been working with the party for more than five years. Clearly, this ensures that multiple members of the Nehru- Gandhi family qualify for the party ticket, so also members of many other “Congress families”.  

The announcements of May 24 also belonged to this self-defeating pattern. Central to the announcements were the formation of three committees with the professed aim of getting the Congress “battle-ready for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections”. The committees were the “Political Affairs Group”, the “Task Force-2024”, and the “Central Planning Group”, whose immediate task would be to plan the “Bharat Jodo Yatra”. Every one of these committees failed to fulfill one important commitment made at the Chintan Shivir, that of ensuring 50 per cent of the members were under 50. Sunil Kanugolu, a poll-strategist-turned politician is the only person under 50 in the Political Affairs Group and Task Force-2024. However, the Bharat Jodo Yatra Planning Group has some young leaders such as Sachin pilot, Jothi Mani and Ravneet Singh Bittu.

Leaders belonging to the G-23, such as Ghulam Nabi Azad and Anand Sharma, have been accommodated in the Political Affairs Group. Interestingly, while announcing the decision to form this group at the Shivir, it was made clear that the group would only be advisory in nature and would not beable to take executive decisions. The structure of the two committees clearly indicates that  “Task Force -2024” is the powerful body with powers to take executive decisions.

AICC general secretaries Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and K.C. Venugopal with senior Congress leaders P. Chidambaram and Jairam Ramesh at the first meeting of the party’s Task Force-2024 in New Delhi on May 24.
AICC general secretaries Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and K.C. Venugopal with senior Congress leaders P. Chidambaram and Jairam Ramesh at the first meeting of the party’s Task Force-2024 in New Delhi on May 24. | Photo Credit: PTI

Task Force-2024 includes P. Chidambaram, Priyanka Gandhi, K.C. Venugopal, Mukul Wasnik, Jairam Ramesh, Ajay Maken, Randeep Singh Surjewala and Sunil Kanugolu. It was also announced that each member of the group would be assigned specific tasks relating to organisation, communication and media, outreach, finance, and election management. The Political Affairs Group, it was stated, would counsel the Congress chief on key issues and day-to-day matters.  The group also includes Mallikarjun Kharge, Digvijaya Singh, K.C. Venugopal and Jitendra Singh. The Central Planning Group will coordinate the Bharat Jodo Yatra, the Congress’s biggest non-electoral campaign. It will also include K.J. George, Pradyut Bordoloi, Jitu Patwari and Saleem Ahmed.

Mixed reaction in party

Commenting on the May 24 follow-up of the Chintan Shivir, a veteran Congress leader from Bihar, who has served for long as a  Union Minister, told Frontline that it was in keeping with party’s track record on such matters. “Our Chintan Shivirs are essentially spectacles, sometimes big and sometimes small. Many ideas are thrown around and some of them seem appealing or good on paper. But implementation is always done as per the whims and fancies of the high command. The pattern is continuing even now.”

However, V.D. Satheesan, Leader of the Opposition in the Kerala Assembly, told Frontline that the overall direction given by the Udaipur Chintan Shivir was positive and that the party apparatus would “get into proactive mode in due course”. “Leaders, grassroots workers and well-wishers of the party have to give some time to overcome the evident organisational glitches that are there. There is little doubt that the party leadership can turn things around and make the organisation fighting fit,” he said.

Congress interim President Sonia Gandhi with senior party leaders Mallikarjun Kharge, P Chidambaram, Bhupinder Hooda and others during submission of reports by convenors of the coordination panels in Udaipur.
Congress interim President Sonia Gandhi with senior party leaders Mallikarjun Kharge, P Chidambaram, Bhupinder Hooda and others during submission of reports by convenors of the coordination panels in Udaipur. | Photo Credit: PTI

Notwithstanding the optimism of younger leaders like Satheesan, the feedback that Frontline got from several State units of the Congress was marked by scepticism. The one common question was whether the party had been able to chart out a credible course of action to recapture social and political relevance. A senior leader from Uttar Pradesh wondered whether the Congress had the organisational foundation to carry out a political yatra across the county. “The very task of organising the yatra physically is daunting. How are we then to hope for overall revival at the grassroots?”

He went on to add that while the Congress president made a forceful presentation against the BJP’s communal politics, her speech was bereft of any concrete solutions. “The lack of an alternative vision or policy is evident at the level of economy-related issues, too. Former Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram did talk about recalibrating the economic liberalisation policy adopted by the Congress since the early 1990s, but what are the tangible measures needed to do it? There is no word on that,” he said.   

Another veteran from Kerala, a former PCC president, was of the view that the constant evasion in terms of fixing accountability for party’s serial electoral losses is a major deficiency. “Clearly, the leadership of Rahul Gandhi has not worked, and that needs to be acknowledged upfront. But there is no sign of this happening. Unless and until we have clarity on our limitations, how can we plan concretely for the future? The very reluctance to be upfront on the leadership’s failures is a clear indicator that there cannot be a turnaround in the future,” the veteran leader said.

Clearly, the responses to the Chintan Shivir and its follow-up actions do not evoke confidence that a quick revival of the party is on the cards. The overall sense that political observers get from the goings-on in the Congress is that there is need for a more in-depth and comprehensive introspection covering organisational, social, economic and political affairs at both the macro and micro levels.

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