February 16, 2020
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Reinventing The Party

Sonia at Panchmarhi: "There is nothing permanent about uncertain mandates and coalitions"

Reinventing The Party

IT is a time for introspection," said Sonia Gandhi kicking off the three-day conclave of the Congress party in the salubrious climes of Panchmarhi in Madhya Pradesh on September 4. What she didn't put into so many words, was that it was also a time for reinvention. Over two decades after the party's first 'brainstorming' session at Narora when Indira Gandhi was prime minister, the Congress sought last week once again to position itself as the party of governance. The focus, therefore, was on attempting to be all things to all people—something which the party had managed with a degree of success for nearly half-a-century.

Marked by an almost brutal, if overdue, self-criticism, the Congress grappled with ways to replicate the all-encompassing social coalition it represented in the past and which made it such a monster at the hustings. The means of marrying socialist rhetoric with "well thought-out" liberalisation and of reclaiming the party's secular moorings formed the thrust of the debate.

The immediate concerns of realpolitik were clear at the outset: the party's priority was the assembly polls and not destabilis-ing the BJP government. But, added Sonia Gandhi in her inaugural address, "if and when the need arises" the Congress would fulfill its responsibility and "provide stability and progress". Meanwhile, it should concentrate on addressing its shortcomings "freely, fairly and responsibly". Thus emboldened, Congress leaders proceeded to let their hair down, though ever so cautiously. Some of the self-inflicted barbs were close to the truth. A former PCC chief described the Congress as the political equivalent of Jurassic Park—complete with dinosaurs.

SHARP differences were the order of the day, especially on economic policy, there was also a measure of consensus—particularly on strengthening the organisation. In her hard-hitting inaugural address, the Congress president admitted to setbacks on several fronts. That the 'general perception' was that the party had compromised on secularism. It had failed to accommodate the aspirations of a new generation of Dalits, STs and OBCs (reasons for the Congress decline in the north). It had engaged in intra-party feuds at the expense of responsiveness in public life. The party, she felt, needed to "restore its ethical and moral foundations".

The 250-odd delegates were split into five groups to discuss the Congress strategy on the political scene, foreign policy, economy, organisational matters and agriculture. Under Sonia's watchful eye, there were no fun and games. The approach papers, in preparation for weeks, had been drafted and redrafted. The changes reflected the differing opinions in the party. For instance, the party's stand on 33 per cent reservation for women was diluted at Panchmarhi—from an absolute commitment to the "need for discussion with various groups" with a view to bringing it about. And on the CTBT, the wishy-washy first draft gave way to strong opposition to signing the treaty.

The political paper admitted that the Congress "seems consumed by a desire to perpetuate itself in power" and that "coming to power regardless of means and methods has affected the image and electability of the Congress". It acknowledged that the party failed to share power with disadvantaged sections, tending towards "a closed circuit controlled by oligarchies, factions and certain manipulative personalities at different levels". Addressing the question mark on Sonia Gandhi's electoral saleability after the Lok Sabha polls, it said the party was overly dependent on a single charismatic leader.

One-party dominance was admitted to be a "thing of the past" and the paper advocated talks with other parties. But Sonia questioned the premise that coalition politics is here to stay: "There is nothing permanent about uncertain mandates and coalitions". The approach paper noted with relief that anti-Congressism, represented by the alliance between fundamentalist forces and the Left in 1989, seemed a thing of the past. The new atmosphere had to be taken advantage of without spelling out the party's relationship with potential partners.

Significantly, a majority of leaders didn't seem eager about a coalition government. If it did become necessary, then the Congress would be the main party. And most felt that alliances should be avoided. Yet, as former party vice-president Jitendra Prasada pointed out, the situation in states such as UP and Bihar—where the party has been virtually decimated—was qualitatively different.  The Congress' public stance on the issue of constitutional changes has been that it is against any tampering with the Constitution and Indian parliamentary democracy. In Panchmarhi, while sticking to this line, it admitted that there is need for reform of the parliamentary system.

The strongest attacks on the ruling BJP coalition were reserved for its foreign policy. The BJP was charged with wrecking the good relations built up with China. The paper stressed that foreign policy impacted on all spheres of national life including the economy, and wasn't the preserve of diplomats. Many Congress leaders admitted the party had smelt blood on the CTBT issue: "Since the CTBT is not comprehensive and it is not integrated to the time-bound elimination of nuclear weapons, it is unacceptable to us. Pokhran II can't be allowed to negate this position of principle. No commitment made by the present transient government in this regard will be binding on us as a party unless it is preceded by consultations within the country."

The sessions on the economy saw the most lively debate—though only 25 delegates attended it—and Sonia Gandhi spent most of her time there. The approach paper attempted a balancing act between Manmohan Singh's liberalisation with a safety-net approach and the Arjun Singh-Balram Jakhar support for a more socialist model of development followed by the Congress for nearly five decades. The draft unambiguously stated: "We must feel grat-ified by what was achieved by the 1991 reforms. India was saved from a grave economic catastrophe but more importantly, the economy emerged stronger and more resilient. Many challenges remain but there is no need to be defensive about what was accomplished."

But as soon as the session commenced, an eight-page rejoinder attacking Manmohanomics was in circulation. The Congress president, too, sought a middle-of-the-road approach, saying the party's economic philosophy would have to be multi-dimensional, as no single dogma could override others. Even that old bugbear of all reformers—an increase in agricultural subsidies—was strongly pushed by a section led by Balram Jhakhar. Back to 'Garibi hatao' seemed to be the message. "But with some surreptitious liberalisa-tion on the side," a Congress strategist had told Outlook in Delhi even before the conclave.

Perhaps fittingly for a conclave that was meant to "reinvigorate the party", the sessions on organi-sational matters attracted the maximum number of delegates—and engendered the least differences. There was a widespread consensus on the need to amend the Congress constitution, to do away with the system of dual membership and a proposal that no new members should hold elective office for two years. The suggestion that compulsory elections from primary units to the top, with office-bearers not permitted more than two terms, also found a modicum of support. So did the proposal for the expansion of the AICC and the CWC. The ticklish question of limiting MLAs to three consecutive terms, Lok Sabha MPs to two terms and Rajya Sabha MPs to one term, however, didn't find too many takers.

As the Congress sought to set itself an agenda for the 21st century—in the form of the Panchmarhi declaration—Sonia Gandhi warned party colleagues against extremes of pessimism and complacency. A measure of both were evident at Panchmarhi. But so was a sense of cautious optimism.

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