Stirrings of a resurgence

Print edition : April 25, 2003

The national conclave of block-level presidents helps the Congress(I) fine-tune its strategy for the next round of Assembly elections and smoothen the on-going process of organisational revival.

in New Delhi

Sonia Gandhi addresses the party's three-day national convention in New Delhi on March 28, the inaugural day.-RAVEENDRAN/AFP

THE Congress(I), it appears, is finally getting its act together. Indeed, the party's display of its organisational might on the roads of the national capital on March 30 was awesome. It forced the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to hold a meeting of its constituents to discuss a political response.

The "Desh Bachao" rally marked the finale of a three-day national conclave of block- and district-level Congress(I) presidents - the first of its kind. Initiated by Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi to gather feedback from the grassroot level, the conclave offered an opportunity for the party to fine-tune its strategy for the next round of Assembly elections, to be held in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi later this year, and possibly the general elections next year. The idea that the party should return to the "garibi hatao" mode found expression in a new slogan, "Congress ka haath, garib ke saath". The party has redefined secularism, focussing on the "liberal and pluralistic" character of Hindu Dharma, which is contrary to what the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal are preaching and propagating in the name of Hindutva. The conclave vowed to defeat the "political misuse of religion" and preserve "sarv dharm samabhav" which, according to it, is the essence of secularism.

The conclave saw a new and more confident Sonia Gandhi, who listened to the proceedings with rapt attention, took note of every detail, and showed a level of aggression that had never been seen before. She was unhesitating in her attack on the NDA government, and pitted the Congress(I) directly against the BJP. Sonia Gandhi seems to have sounded the bugle for the next round of electoral battle by positioning the Congress(I) as the only alternative to the NDA at the national level.

In her speeches at the conclave, she never mentioned Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee by name. Instead, she focussed on the government's poor performance on various fronts. She criticised the government for its failure to control cross-border terrorism and prevent Pakistan from resorting to terrorist activities across the country, despite all-round political support to the government on the issue. Jaswant Singh's trip to Kandahar in 1999 when he was Minister for External Affairs to release three terrorists (in the context of the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane) was a recurring theme in Sonia's speeches. According to her, there was only one area where the government had performed well in the matter of scams. She said that the BJP's rule was marked by a plethora of scams, and she listed them.

That the government was stung by the criticism became obvious when the Prime Minister, who had ridiculed the Congress(I)'s "garibi hatao" slogan only a day before, called a meeting of the NDA. At the meeting, it was decided that all the NDA constituents would stay together for the next round of elections.

Sonia Gandhi seems to have realised that the BJP's Hindutva campaign, which swept the party to power in Gujarat, can be countered only by raising issues that are of real concern to the people. She focussed on issues such as eradication of poverty, employment for the youth, succour for farmers who are reeling under the effect of a severe drought and government policies, political representation, social emancipation and legal equality to women and the welfare of the most oppressed sections of society, namely Dalits, tribal people, Other Backward Classes and minorities. These issues, she emphasised, were the basic concerns of the Congress(I). She substantiated her point with examples of various steps taken by Congress(I) governments in different States. The employment guarantee scheme in Maharashtra, the scheme to build houses for all Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe families in Karnataka by 2005, the education guarantee scheme in Madhya Pradesh, literacy programmes for women in Rajasthan, computer training programmes for young tribal women in Chhattisgarh, and programmes to diversify agriculture in Punjab were some of them.

Until the Gujarat elections, good governance was the main element of the Congress(I)'s strategy. Sonia Gandhi said that good governance meant maintaining law and order, building a sensitive and humane bureaucracy, implementing programmes effectively, enacting legislation for the welfare of women and children and other vulnerable sections of society, and providing an open and accountable administration marked by efficiency and honesty.

What is significant in Sonia's approach is that unlike her predecessors, she has kept the party above the government. This changed mindset stems from the fact that she took the reins of the Congress(I) at a time when the party was down in the dumps. Today, it is either the ruling party or part of the ruling combine in 14 States.

"Political parties form governments, governments do not dictate the agenda of political parties. We must always honour this fundamental democratic reality... It is the party organisation that provides the bridge between the people and governments," Sonia Gandhi said. She exhorted the participants of the conclave to make people realise that "the Congress is the only party that mirrors India in all its diversities, reflects the plurality of India in all its majesty... belongs to every Indian". Her advice for party workers was: "Think of the country, act for the party." If the cheering that greeted Sonia's speeches is any indication, this mantra will infuse new life into the party apparatus, which has remained moribund for several years.

However, her address evaded several tricky political issues. For example, she failed to clarify how she intended to revive the organisation in States such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, where the party is in limbo. She did not spell out her party's stand on coalitions - whether it will continue to form coalitions on an ad hoc basis as in Bihar, Maharashtra and more recently in Jammu and Kashmir, or admit the fact that the era of coalitions had arrived.

Significantly, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra were not present at the conclave; on all such occasions in the past, Priyanka had been an active presence around her mother. Perhaps it was a deliberate decision on the part of Sonia Gandhi, especially in view of the recent media speculation about the participation of her children in politics.

From being a political novice five years ago, Sonia Gandhi has matured into a leader with charisma. She has metamorphosed into a sharp politician, as was evident in her deft handling of the political situation in Jammu and Kashmir immediately after the Assembly elections. Her foreign origin would seem to have become a non-issue; even arch-rival Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party, has accepted the inevitability of working with her. Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav is learnt to have grudgingly accepted Sonia's leadership at the national level. The Left would seem to have softened their approach to her in recent days. If the trend continues and the party remains at the high pitch to which Sonia Gandhi has taken it, then the next round of elections could bring the Congress (I) centrestage again.