A debate without direction

Print edition : September 12, 1998

The Congress(I)'s "brainstorming session" at Pachmarhi failed to chart out a political strategy to revive the party or even to provide clarity to its ideological positions on a number of issues.

CONGRESS(I) spokesperson Ajit Jogi, who played guide to a group of journalists proceeding to Pachmarhi in Madhya Pradesh on September 4 for the party's "brainstorming session", was a picture of exasperation. Security personnel at the Police Training School, the venue of the session, could just not agree on where on the campus the busload of mediapersons were to be allowed in: they directed the bus every which way - backward, forward, left and right. "Darwaza hi thay nahi ho raha hai" (the door of entry is just not being decided), said Jogi, giving vent to his irritation. Finally, the bus was made to return to the main gate, and Jogi and the journalists were asked to make it on foot to the venue.

The same kind of lack of direction seemed to mark the proceedings of the three-day, closed-door session, which ended on September 6 with the adoption of the Pachmarhi declaration that highlighted a 14-point plan of action. Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's inaugural speech, followed by the debates on the concept documents on political and economic issues, agriculture and rural development, party organisation and foreign affairs, generated a lot of sound and fury. Several ideas came up in the debates, but the suggestions on just which way the party should proceed were as confusing as the directions given by the security personnel on the opening day. Many leaders and participants lamented that while the conclave had delineated the party's larger goals and identified the path to reach them, the "door of entry" had not been decided.

The objective of the Pachmarhi session, organised on the model of the Narora camp conducted in 1974 under the leadership of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was to iron out the party's ideological and organisational inconsistencies and to evolve guidelines for the party's political advancement in the short, medium and long term. The session was announced in June and committees were constituted to formulate concept documents.

A significant section of the leaders and other participants believe that the session points towards a clear plan of action, which is bound to instil new life in the party. "A new Congress was born here," said Congress(I) Working Committee (CWC) member and former Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma. But many other senior leaders stated that nothing concrete had emerged from the deliberations.

A NOTABLE aspect of the conclave was the complete sidelining of Sharad Pawar, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and CWC member. Pawar was not among those who led the subcommittees that steered the deliberations. The subcommittee on political affairs was headed by CWC member Arjun Singh and the one on economic affairs by former Finance Minister Manmohan Singh. Other subcommittees were headed by Pranab Mukherjee (foreign affairs), Balram Jakhar (agriculture and rural development) and Ghulam Nabi Azad (organisation). According to one of the leaders, Pawar was kept out because he "did not have an understanding of larger policy issues and lacked drafting skills."

Pawar told Frontline recently that Pachmarhi would evolve a solution to the problem of managing a coalition of disparate forces such as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Left parties if the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government collapsed.

Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi delivering the inaugural address at the Pachmarhi meeting on September 4.-SANDEEP SAXENA

However, there was no discussion on this at the session, although Sonia Gandhi's speeches and the Pachmarhi declaration contained references to the formation of an alternative government The official draft document on political affairs did not even refer to this issue. In her inaugural speech, Sonia Gandhi repeated her oft-made statement that the Congress(I) would not be found wanting in fulfilling its constitutional responsibility. This did not mark any advance on the Congress(I)'s position of the recent past. With no real value addition to the political thinking on this front, the subcommittee on political affairs confined itself to charting long-term strategies to restore the Congress(I) to its "past glory". The session thus failed to provide clarity on evolving a short-term strategy to challenge the BJP-led coalition politically.

The Pachmarhi declaration and Sonia Gandhi's valedictory speech touted the "official" view - that coalition politics would mark only a temporary phase, and that the Congress(I) would have to view coalitions as a short-term tactic. The declaration said that "coalitions will be considered only when absolutely necessary and that too on the basis of agreed programmes that will not weaken the party or compromise its ideology." Sonia Gandhi was a trifle more forthcoming. "In the interim period," she said, "coalitions will be needed." But the party should not compromise on its basic philosophy, she added.

In fact, the 26-page basic political document circulated among the participants gave no clue as to how the party proposed to fight the immediate political battles against the BJP and the Central Government. Much of the document was given to raising a series of questions: "Is it true that the era of one-party rule has ended and there is no alternative to government by coalitions? Should there be a realignment on the lines of the secular/non-secular divide? Is it legally feasible to ban fundamentalist parties? How to work on the agenda to eliminate regionalism without compromising on the fundamental principle of unity in diversity? How are we to set about responding to the emerging trends towards progressive elimination of anti-Congressism from the political life of the nation?"

All these questions were left to be answered by the participants, without the party leadership clarifying what it thought was the solution. However, there were certain admissions about "past mistakes" such as the one that said, "The blurring of the ideology of the party in critical areas like democracy, socialism and non-alignment has caused confusion not only among the electorate but even within the ranks of the party as to what exactly the party stands for." The document also admitted that at times the party had given a "disproportionate priority to wealth and social status" and shown a tendency "to affiliate and identify itself with particular social groupings." Such "temptations", the document suggested, must be resisted.

It was Sonia Gandhi's inaugural speech that set the tone for the admission of mistakes. It acknowledged that the Congress(I) had not "successfully accommodated the aspirations of a whole new generation" of Dalits, Adivasis and people belonging to the backward classes, particularly in the northern States. This failure, she said, was one reason for the decline of the Congress(I) in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar; in her view, this in turn had done great damage to national-level politics. "Electoral reverses are inevitable and are, in themselves, not cause for worry. But what is disturbing is the loss of our social base, of the social coalition that supports us and looks up to us," Sonia Gandhi said. As a long-term manoeuvre to overcome this reverse, she proposed that the Congress(I) take the "social justice movement to its next phase", one that stressed "basic issues of health, education, food security, nutrition and family planning."

Her speech also emphasised the need to end intra-party bickering and to attract "good people" and "youth" into the Congress(I). Further, she said, the Congress(I) must constantly reinterpret its economic philosophy "without succumbing to any kind of dogma" so as to eradicate poverty and ensure high levels of growth. She also said that the common people must be made aware of the ramifications of foreign policy formulations and changes. All these points were incorporated into the Pachmarhi declaration and the plan of action it unveiled.

But all these generalisations that characterised the declaration and the posing of questions in the political document did nothing to address the immediate challenge faced by the party on the way to regaining political supremacy. The debate essentially revolved around the perception that the Congress(I)'s political fortunes were on the ascendent, especially in the past four months, but that there was much more to do. There was unanimous agreement that the party's revival at the national level hinged on resurrecting its mass base in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. The participants also felt that the Congress(I) could hope to win back its mass base in these States in the long term through sustained efforts, but that no miracles could be expected in the short term.

Although it was accepted that there should be a via-media tactic for the short term, there was no agreement on just what this tactic should be. A small section of participants, including Rajesh Pilot and Chandrajit Yadav, advocated an alliance with secular parties such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). But while Pilot felt that the Congress(I) should go in for such alliances only as a major partner or as an equal partner, Chandrajit Yadav argued that in the era of coalitions, the Congress(I) would have to be a lot more realistic and lower its expectations.

However, former Union Minister Kamal Nath and CWC members Arjun Singh and Jitendra Prasada disfavoured any sort of alliances for now. In their view, alliances need to be contemplated only at the time of elections; in the meantime the Congress(I) should try to regain its social base, which it had lost to the S.P. and the BSP.

SIMILAR confusion prevailed in respect of the deliberations on economic policy. A section of the participants interpreted Sonia Gandhi's reference to the need to reinterpret economic philosophy so as to alleviate poverty as a positive signal to Left parties, who have demanded a rollback of the Congress(I)'s economic policy if they are to support a Congress(I) initiative to form an alternative government. Others, however, saw it as a general statement that could be interpreted either as an expression of continued support for the liberalisation process or otherwise. Significantly, the concept document on the economy persisted with the pro-liberalisation line. This led to some fireworks.

Rajesh Pilot and former Kerala Pradesh Congress(I) Committee president Vayalar Ravi moved a rejoinder to the concept document, which questioned the fundamental premises on which the official document was prepared. Ravi argued that in the name of liberalisation, the Congress(I) should not run down the philosophy of socialism, "the basic ideology of the party". Quoting official figures, Ravi said that food and agricultural subsidies were essential pro-poor measures and that public sector units were not as big a failure as was made out by the advocates of liberalisation. The rejoinder also opposed the concept document's call for the denationalisation of banks, the opening up of the insurance sector, reduction of subsidies and disinvestment of public sector units. The two leaders demanded a discussion in a wider forum before economic policy guidelines were formulated.

The Pachmarhi declaration is a peculiar amalgam of all these conflicting points of view. It reasserts the Congress(I)'s commitment to socialism, first made at the Avadi Congress in 1955. At the same time, it appreciated the "remarkable recovery of the economy" brought about by the economic liberalisation of 1991-96. The sum-up paper, which was prepared prior to the adoption of the Pachmarhi declaration, stated that growth by itself would not remove poverty, but that without growth, unemployment and poverty could not be eliminated. Subsidies for the poor, the needy and the disadvantaged should continue and profit-making public sector units should be strengthened, it added. The conclave, it said, realised the need for greater public investment in agriculture and irrigation.

Little progress was made at the session in the matter of restructuring the party organisation. It had been made known that the session would give guidelines for three initiatives: reservation of party posts for the oppressed classes such as Dalits and backward classes besides women; restructuring of the CWC, and increasing the number of CWC members from 21 to 33 or 35; and setting a time-limit for office-bearers' term in office. All three issues were debated, but no directive was issued with regard to the second and third ideas in the final draft.

A section of the delegates. Many Congress(I) leaders felt that while the session delineated the party's larger goals, it did not chalk out a short-term political strategy.-SANDEEP SAXENA

There seemed to be some complication with regard to the concept of reservation too. The final draft spoke only about "33 per cent reservation for women at all levels" and "respectful representation" for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. One of the positive suggestions to emerge from the debate was that an election authority be institutionalised to conduct organisational polls.

Despite these shortcomings, sections of the leadership, including CWC members, are happy with the Pachmarhi conclave, which marks the first time in decades when the party witnessed free and frank discussion on political and ideological issues. Sangma told Frontline: "Our motto used to be: follow the leader, whatever that person did or said. But Pachmarhi gives the signal that this is changing. There was an open give-and-take of ideas. This is good for the party."

A former CWC member from southern India told Frontline that for the party president, the conclave was essentially an exercise to find out the ideological orientation and personal calibre of the leadership, especially at the middle level. "Soniaji has adopted Indira Gandhi as her model, but does not have the same thorough comprehension about the personal quality of leaders at various levels. This exercise would have removed a vacuum in her understanding," the leader said.

The other gain from the session, in the view of a number of leaders, is that it would give a fillip to the party organisation all over the country and particularly in Madhya Pradesh, which is to go to the polls in November. But there are reports within the party that Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, the "host" of the conclave, himself is in favour of alliances with other secular parties. In Madhya Pradesh, an alliance with the BSP would, in his reckoning, ensure the Congress(I)'s return to power. But the participants at Pachmarhi, in their wisdom, decided against taking a policy decision on this issue. Electoral calculations are being made, but the numbers are evidently not adding up.

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