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The challenge after Chintan

  By Vijay Darda | 24-01-2013

On a personal note, it was unfortunate that I could not attend the Congress party’s Chintan Shivir at Jaipur last week due to health reasons. But this personal absence does not detract anything from the level of involvement either from the process or the course that shall follow from its outcome.

After the Jaipur deliberations were over I had the privilege of an exclusive meeting with prime minister Manmohan Singh that afforded me the opportunity to have a broad perspective of the recent developments. 

Through this meeting it emerged that the prime minister was very candid about accepting that price rise was a big challenge for the government. But he also emphasized that in the last eight years the UPA government had increased the minimum support price for various food grains and where-as this move was certainly in the interest of the farmers, it had an impact on the consumers as well. 

Clearly, the rest of the team has failed to convey this message effectively to the people and thus the government has to face the people’s wrath on this subject. Then the negative perception about the government is not entirely due to its performance, some of it has come about due to the communication failure on the part of the government, the party apparatus, and overdrive in the media on certain issues. 

In the similar vein, more clarity emerged from my meeting with the prime minister on the usage of the expression ‘poison’ in the context of power by Rahul Gandhi, conveyed so poignantly by his mother Sonia’s midnight visit in a highly emotional maternal exchange. Obviously, there is the background of the ultimate sacrifices by his grandmother and father, and to that extent it also explains the reluctance of the entire family to take up positions of power. But then this also lends an altogether different connotation to his decision to actually take up the vice-president ’s post in the party.

However, 2013 is not 1984 or 1991 and India is an emerging super-power and this changes the entire power equation. Without doubt, the high point of three-day event at Jaipur was the decision to formally appoint Rahul Gandhi as the party’s vice-president -the designated number 2 after the undisputed number 1, his mother Sonia Gandhi. Indeed, there was never any doubt about his status within the party, but the outsiders had to be given a clear message.

There is usually a tendency among the critics of the Congress party to scoff at such devel- opments and run down the significance by describing them as dynastic succession. But let’s not make any mistake. To look at the leadership process within the Congress party as a mere dynastic development is to forget the reality. Let us not forget that Indiraji was taunted as a ‘goongi gudiya’ in her initial days. Then the initial reactions to the leadership roles of Rajivji and Soniaji are too well-known to be recounted here. The Gandhi family ’s leadership of the Congress party may come easily in the first instance, but then it has to be proved against all odds. The doubting Thomases are spread all over.

It is quite natural for the Congress workers to be overwhelmed by the emotional references in Rahul Gandhi ’s acceptance speech that came the day after he became the vice-president. Indeed, as he rightly observed, the Congress is not a political party in the strictest sense, but more like a family with no fixed set of rules and regulations. Even otherwise emotions play a more than ordinary role in the lives of us Indians. After everything is said and done, the emotional factors do come into play, and often have an over-riding impact.

But then establishment of Rahul Gandhi’s leadership role at Jaipur’s Chintan Shivir is just one of the steps that have been taken by the party. It has to be recognised that with one-and-half years to go for the next general elections, this ‘chintan’ – the Hindi equivalent of meditation had become imperative as the party looks ahead to govern for another five-year term. It does not require much punditry to make this assessment, given the poor shape of the Opposition, even if we do not take into account the positive achievements of the UPA-2, even if things may change by the time the polling takes place.

Now successfully governing a country of the size of India is a tough task in any situation. More so after eight years of good growth, that has had several positive repercussions including that of hiking the people ’s aspirations and making them vocal as never before, the challenges are almost of level never seen before. Then there have been errors of omissions and commissions during the two cumulative tenures. Above all, there is the changing demographic profile of the country that makes it the youngest in the world.

The Jaipur event showcased all that, and focused on these issues in a manner that has never been witnessed even behind closed doors in the party. The youth represented in full strength gave voice to their concerns the foremost being the lack of job opportunities and institutions of higher learning that force them to compromise on their ambitions and career goals. Corruption that is endemic in the society also got its full share of attention as the party debated the socio-economic challenges.

The debates in the five subgroups on different challenges -political, socio-economic, organizational, India and the world, and gender related issues -saw the participants even challenge the highest authority in government. This dispelled the notion that this was just an exercise in seeking an endorsement from a dumb group that indulges in an exercise of giving an uninformed assent by mere show of hands. As the discussions began a day after the government had decided to gradually do away with the subsidy on diesel, the participants questioned the wisdom of moving towards a mechanism that is at the mercy of the markets for a party that talks of welfare of the poor. “Are we a party of the poor or of the capitalists?” said a fellow MP.

As Rahul Gandhi openly admitted there is a lot that needs to be changed -in other words a lot that is wrong and therefore needs to be fixed. The realisation that there is a need to change, is often the first step towards change. In Jaipur, the first giant step has been taken. The challenge beyond Jaipur and indeed beyond 2014 is to lend form and substance to this desire for change, and to make sure that it works.

One also goes back to Rahul Gandhi ’s keyword – ‘hope’ as we look ahead. Hope stemmed from the leadership that was provided by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. There was always an assurance that they are not guided by any partisan agenda when they take momentous decisions. In this spirit of political enterprise, Panditji gave universal adult suffrage to a country of illiterates, Indiraji abolished the privy purses and nationalized the banks, Rajivji brought in the computer and telecom revolution and reduced the voting age to 18, Soniaji ushered in a rights-based regime for the common people conferring upon them the right to information, and education as well as work. Naturally, as Rahul Gandhi ’s leadership role evolves, it could be hoped that it would bring in its wake lasting changes that would have an impact beyond generations.

He has already emphasized that for him regional leaders like the Delhi chief minister Shiela Dikshit who have delivered high quality governance are more important than mere chief ministers of bigger states who do not leave their imprint on administration. The unspoken message for such chief ministers is loud and clear as Rahul Gandhi makes it clear that the sluggish business as usual approach would not be tolerated. 

The challenge beyond Jaipur is to usher the systemic changes that have been promised as a part of the Jaipur Declaration, as well as prepare the party to measure up to these challenges. In the process, Rahul Gandhi has to improve his connect with the masses cutting all the barriers of region, language and caste. The people should get a feeling that he listens and responds.


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