Congress holds Chintan Shivir: Cosmetic Changes, Stubborn Leadership

By Sudhir Kumar

US President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk that read, “The buck stops here.” But only a good leader has the courage and gumption to understand and accept that the buck must stop at his table if something goes amiss.

For the Gandhi family that has enjoyed an exaggerated sense of entitlement, such an aphorism simple does not exist in their political lexicon even as their Congress party has been blitzed spectacularly in 10 assembly elections in 13 months and parliamentary elections since 2014. India’s Grand Old Party is grappling with an unprecedented existential crisis, but its top leadership, instead of altering its internal dynamics, has, deftly or daftly, manoeuvred to give a short shrift to all talks of sweeping changes.

So, after the recent drubbing in the assembly elections in five states, including Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi held a chintan shivir (brainstorming session) in the balmy clime of Udaipur in Rajasthan to locate the reasons behind its failures, spruce up its image and get into shipshape to give a spirited fight to the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Expectedly, the three-day meet (May 13-15) petered out into a show of optics while the Gandhi clan (Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka) retained their imperious stranglehold over the party with a veneer of some organisational changes that hardly come in conflict with their supremacy. Ostrich-like, they are unable to come to terms with the reality on the ground: both the party and the situation are spinning out of their control. Anyway, hubris comes before a fall. And if you are unable to embrace failure, then the fall is a surety and success a mirage.

The outcome of the Udaipur conclave not only bristles with ambiguity but is also an attempt at spreading a fig leaf cover over the party’s deep-seated malaise. Worn-out clichés like preparations for the poll, representation of and bonding with the youth, and formation of a string of committees, were prescribed. However, the changes in communication and leadership, the two biggest issues bedevilling the party, were dwelt upon but subsequently swept under the carpet.  

How the brainstorming meet was shambolic in some respects is apparent from a few decisions. Ostensibly, the party tried to curb nepotism with the ‘one family one ticket’ rule, but it came with a rider: such a rule would not apply to anyone with five years of organisational work experience. Thus, two or more members of a family can fight elections on a Congress ticket if they have been in active politics for five years or more.

What was particularly disappointing was that the non-Gandhi leadership debate was put to rest at the conclave. All leaders from across country accepted the leadership of the Gandhi family, and nobody, including the G-23 (group of dissenters), said a word against it. The G-23 leaders like Ghulam Nabi Azad, Prithivraj Chavan, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Bhupender Singh Hooda and Manish Tewari – had raised the leadership issue in 2020, but they kept quiet in front of 430 selected Congress leaders. Sonia rejected the idea of collective leadership floated by the dissenters and kept silence over whether a non-Gandhi would be the party’s next president.

Thus, far from indulging into an honest introspection and creating an effective feedback system for resonating with people, the Chintan Shivir only succeeded in maintaining the Gandhi clan’s control over the party, even though it is becoming increasingly fractured, enfeebled and tenuous. In contrast, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said the BJP accepts dynasts at the entry level, but the top post in the Congress is always reserved for the dynast.

Surely, the speeches from the pulpit were lofty and galore. Rahul Gandhi, in his address at the Nav Sankalp Shivir at the conclave, talked about “transforming the nature of Congress party. Not the nature in terms of its thinking, not the nature in terms of its ideology but its nature of the way we do our work.”

For the record sake, the Congress took a string of decisions that were approved by the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the party’s highest decision-making body. One of these was the ’50 below 50’ formula to give more representation to younger leaders, right from the CWC to booth-level committees, with 50 per cent posts to those below 50 years of age. A cap of five years on term limit for all office bearers, and a system to monitor and evaluate performance and fix accountability were mooted. To address this issue, the party decided to set up three new departments — Election Management Department, Public Insight Department, and Department for Performance Assessment.

Further, the party will set up a National Training Institute to train the younger generation for various key positions and handle big responsibilities. A Leadership Development Mission will also be undertaken for weaker sections. A Political Affairs committee, a sub-group of the CWC, is to be set up for programme implementation and advice. There will be ‘Quota within Quota’ while Social Justice Advisory Councils are to be set up to aid and advise the Congress President on SC-ST, OBC, minority and women’s issues.

The revival or reconstitution of the Congress Parliamentary Board, which is the supreme body in the All India Congress Committee, did not happen. Instead, Sonia Gandhi opted for a Political Affairs Committee (PAC), whose members will be picked from the CWC. But leaders like Sachin Pilot, Kamal Nath, Ashok Chavan, D K Shivkumar, Ashok Gehlot, Bhupesh Baghel, and Shashi Tharoor are not part of the CWC. Effectively, the PAC members will have no connect with the masses.

Commenting on the proceedings, party spokesperson Pawan Khera said, “No other organisation does this kind of frank introspection, the way Congress did in Nav Sankalp Shivir. We did a thorough SWOT analysis and came up with some good remedial solutions and the result of the same will be seen in coming days.”

It is more than apparent that the Family will lead the Congress in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, and this should be music to the ears of the BJP top brass. The Congress has decided that Rahul will embark on Bharat Jodo Yatra, a mass outreach programme spanning from Kashmir to Kanyakumari that kicks off on October 2. However, it is unlikely to have a significant impact. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s barnstorming (she addressed over 200 public meetings before the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections) was a dismal failure: but the party could muster merely two seats in the 403-member assembly and a little over two per cent votes.

How Rahul Gandhi is estranged from the reality in India is evident from his statements in London at an event called the Ideas for India Conference, triggering derisive condemnation back home. He claimed that the people of India had come together to form a union and that is why it was described as a ‘union of states’ and not a ‘nation’. In his half-baked intellectualism, he glossed over the fact that such a statement amounts to the undermining of a civilisation that has been a touchstone for Indians for centuries.

Rahul’s disconnect with the people has been made egregious on several occasions through his speeches and electoral routs. In a rather belated realisation, Hardik Patel, a youth leader from Gujarat, bid adieu to the party right after the brainstorming meet.  Kapil Sibal, a prominent member of G-23 group of dissenters who was not even invited to the meeting, followed suit.

That is why it was of paramount importance for the party to settle its leadership issue, but that did not happen. In its hubris, the Congress thinks that it is the country’s political option by default. But in the process, it has been scripting its own nemesis as the BJP has been consistently winning elections, including two of the largest electoral mandates in history.

Poll strategist Prashant Kishor, who had prepared a blueprint for the Congress’ revival and was all set to join the party but it failed to materialise, was acerbic, insightful and prophetic in equal measure, on the party’s Udaipur conclave. “In my view, it failed to achieve anything meaningful other than prolonging the status quo and giving some time to the Congress leadership, at least till the impending electoral rout in Gujarat and HP!”

Short URL: