Column | Time for another huddle by Congress leaders to find a way forward

Column | Time for another huddle by Congress leaders to find a way forward
Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, leaders Kapil Sibal and Ghulam Nabi Azad. File photo

Once again a demand has grown from some Congress leaders for a deep introspection within the party after the latest debacles of party candidates in the recent legislative assembly elections in Bihar and in the bypolls in Madhya Pradesh and other states. The most outspoken leader in this regard has been lawyer-politician Kapil Sibal, who was a union minister for years and was also part of the firefighting operations during the final years of UPA-2. He has become the voice demanding accountability and change in the grand old party even as the interim party president Sonia Gandhi has been appointing several committees to look at the ideological and organisational challenges confronted by the party. Meanwhile, preparations for elections of the Congress president and the Working Committee are reportedly on.

Sibal was the principal draftsman of the open letter written by a group of 23 leaders led by Rajya Sabha opposition leader Ghulam Nabi Azad demanding the party should address the rot that had set in by holding elections at all levels. Azad and his deputy in Rajya Sabha, Anand Sharma, both of whom were ministers in the two Manmohan Singh governments with Sibal, have also raised questions about leaders close to the Gandhi Family. Ironically, Azad has been a member of the inner circle ever since Sonia Gandhi became the party president in 1998, but the Kashmiri is feeling left out of the Rahul Gandhi circle.

Sonia's decision to appoint three new committees to advise her on specific subjects of economy, foreign relations and national security has not impressed the change-seekers, as the Congress has full-time departments for economic affairs and foreign relations for a long time. Further the Congress party in the Parliament has had its own internal groups to discuss these sectors for several decades. Since these committees would be giving "for your eyes only" reports to Sonia Gandhi and there is no clarity on whom these committees would consult, there is not much of enthusiasm. They say these committees and reports would end up like the multiple postmortem reports conducted by senior Congress Working Committee members after every election debacle. In the last two decades, majority of these analysis committees were headed by senior leader A K Antony, but his reports were not shared outside the Working Committee. The utmost secrecy in the Congress president's office has led to questions being asked whether the party had the courage to confront and correct the reasons shown for the loss of voter support, or the failure of its messaging.

There is also a demand that the party should go back to an invention of Sonia Gandhi to get back its ideological focus. This is the concept of holding 'chintan shivir' (brainstorming session) where a selected group of national and state level leaders are invited for a huddle where subject-specific groups discuss their subjects for two or three days. There have been three such camps during Sonia's first tenure as Congress president from 1998 to 2017.

The first was held in Pachmarhi hill station in Madhya Pradesh in 1998, soon after she took over the Congress leadership, following two humiliating Lok Sabha election defeats under the leadership of P V Narasimha Rao in 1996 and Sitaram Kesari in 1998.

The Pachmarhi session was attended by party leaders who were economic reformers or socialists as well as secularists or traditionalists. Sonia asked the attendees whether the party had lost its social base, and had failed to attract the new generation among dalits, advasis and backward classes, and also whether it had failed to enthuse the urban middle class.

In the group led by Manmohan Singh there were fierce discussions with socialist leaders like Vayalar Ravi on economy, questioning the rightward lurch from Nehru and Indira's socialist principles, while a group under Arjun Singh debated whether the party was becoming a soft Hindu party. Interestingly, the organisational reform group was led by Azad which demanded higher representation for women and backward castes, holding that under previous presidents that the Congress had neglected its social base. Another intense discussion was on whether coalition politics was deemed inevitable in the short term.

The next one was held in 2003 in Shimla when the Congress was confronted by the entrenched NDA government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee but also due to the convulsions in the country over the Gujarat riots. Sonia who had been in the saddle for over four years was more comfortable in talking to other opposition leaders and started building coalitions with big parties like DMK and RJD, which helped the Congress and allies to pip the NDA in next year's Lok Sabha elections.

The third 'chintan shivir' was held in Jaipur in early 2013 when the UPA government had been beset with scandals and controversies and it was losing allies. But the shivir proceedings were overshadowed with the election of 42-year-old Rahul Gandhi as the Congress vice president and the articulation of his vision for a new India.

For the last seven years, much has happened to Congress including big defeats in two Lok Sabha elections, loss of several states, desertion by prominent leaders as well as workers, failure to cobble together opposition parties inside and out of the Parliament.

On the organisational front, the party has seen big changes including the short presidentship of Rahul Gandhi, the induction of Priyanka into the organisation, and return of Sonia as interim president. As Sonia currently takes the fresh air of Goa, away from the polluted air and politics of Delhi, she has many key decisions to make, including whether a 'chintan shivir' should be held before the scheduled organisational elections.

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