The most obvious takeaway from the October 16 Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting was Sonia Gandhi's “if you allow me to say so” message to the change-seekers, popularly known as the 'G-23' leaders who want an "effective and full-time" leadership in the party. Sonia was blunt when she said that she is a "full-time and hands-on" party president who appreciates "frankness" but who feels that there is no need to speak to her through the media. The last 186 words of Sonia’s 967-word introductory speech stamped the Gandhi family’s authority over the party and made clear her displeasure over the rebellion against Rahul Gandhi.
But this nearly four-hour-long meeting was not just about pushing the rebels to a corner but also about setting the stage for the return of ‘ideology’ to the centre-stage. Rahul, the former party president, made a “brilliant” intervention during the meeting espousing the ‘ideology’ of the party, if at least three senior members of the CWC are to be believed. Soon after, the CWC finalised a “continuous” training programme for leaders and workers from “top to bottom” on “party ideology, policy, expectation from party workers, election management and countering propaganda” among others. A first-of-its-kind for the Congress!
With Rahul indicating that he would consider returning to the hot seat, the fresh focus on ‘ideology’ assumes significance, as its successful roll-out would have a bearing on his authority. At the CWC meet, he emphasised the need for party functionaries to have “ideological clarity and firmness”. With the desertions to the BJP, including by Jyotiraditya Scindia and Jitin Prasada, who were close to him, apparently weighing on him, Rahul highlighted that the party workers need to be ideologically and intellectually equipped to counter the BJP/RSS. He told them that only the Congress could choose a Dalit or a woman or a minority community member to be a chief minister, a bridge the RSS would not dare to cross.
Post-2014, the Congress has been in confusion on what course it should take to counter the Hindutva surge. There was a sort of identity crisis following the right-wing surge across the globe. The realisation that the majority community has tilted towards the BJP/RSS prompted a section in the Congress to temper its pro-minorities stance while some others wanted it to become a ‘Hindu party’, with the North Indian Hindu votes in mind, against the Sangh-sponsored Hindutva. Rahul himself did temple-hopping, was described as a ‘janeu-dhari’ Hindu and did not shy away from proclaiming himself a Shiva devotee. Priyanka Gandhi recently opened her speech at a rally in Varanasi with a Hindu hymn. With waning electoral success, many in the Congress were also seen less enthusiastic about countering the BJP/RSS, a perennial complaint Rahul had.
Rahul himself provided an example of the differences of perception within the party at the CWC meeting. In October 2015, he had wanted to meet the family of Akhlaq, who was lynched by a mob on suspicion that he had stored beef at his home, but a section of senior leaders were against Rahul doing so. They tried to convince him against visiting the family, fearing that his visit could be politically counter-productive. But he did visit the family. This was not the first time that he expressed his dismay at the way the leaders thought the party should fight the BJP. His resignation letter after the 2019 Lok Sabha election debacle amplified his anguish: “At times, I stood alone, and am extremely proud of it,” he had written.
While the party seeks to turn a new leaf, it may not be easy for the leadership to bring the focus back on what the Congress stands for. Its young supporters are unhappy at the drift in the party and impatient at the way the anti-BJP counter is designed, with many feeling that the seniors’ approach has passed its expiry date.
For long, the Congress has been a loose confederation of ideas where every thought has space. But with the political landscape changing drastically with the election of a government under Narendra Modi, a section in the Congress believes that it cannot remain the way it was. However, there is division within this group. One section feels that Rahul is pushing the Congress to the left from the centre, sometimes going a bit too far. They argue that Congress is a centrist party and it should not take a radical turn. They view Rahul’s dalliance with the left in the country suspiciously and detest the new presence of people like Kanhaiya Kumar in his circle.
Many are also keenly watching to see what line the Congress will take on the economy. With the country’s exacerbating economic woes, especially after Covid-19, the Congress has tweaked its priorities. Rahul himself made a rare admission this September when he said that the economic reforms ushered in in 1991 had run their course by 2012 (the UPA lost power two years later) and that a new approach is needed to come out of the mess India is in. He said the Congress knows the way out but did not spell it out. An out-and-out left turn is not anticipated, but one cannot miss the party’s stand on the farm laws and labour issues in recent times, which a senior leftist parliamentarian says is very surprising as he had not expected Congress to take such a stand.
The political situation requires out-of-the-box thinking. The Congress knows that winning is important but realises that ideology-less functioning with just elections in mind, which election strategists sell, will not work. The party’s focus recently shows that it realises that the fight is based on the political economy. However, it is aware of the role caste and religion play in Indian democracy. It also acknowledges that the BJP has taken the political space the Congress once held and added its majoritarian tinge to it. A challenging task stares the Congress in the face. If it has to win, it will have to ideologically equip the cadre to take on the BJP/RSS on the political economy while ensuring that it does not lose the plot on issues of caste and religion.
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