From Sonia’s ascension in 1998 to Rahul’s in 2013: A look back at previous Congress ‘Chintan Shivirs’

The top leadership of the Congress from across India has assembled in Udaipur, Rajasthan, for a three-day “Chintan Shivir” — the fourth in the past two-and-a-half decades — that begins on Friday to find ways to win elections and end the party’s recent history of setbacks and internal discord. But the context of this conclave is different from the previous ones and Congress leaders say the circumstances that compelled the party to get into a huddle are unprecedented and unparalleled. The leadership issue hovers about and the party has no credible answer to the polarisation politics of the BJP. The Congress has also seen an exodus of leaders, both young and old, signalling that many see no light at the end of the tunnel.

Addressing the Congress Working Committee (CWC) earlier this week, Congress president Sonia Gandhi said there were no magic wands that could help the party revive. “The party has been central to the life of each and every one of us. It has expected our total allegiance and has been good to each and every one of us. Now, when we are at a crucial juncture, it is imperative that we step forward and repay our debt to the party in full measure,” she added.

Sonia in Pachmarhi

Gandhi expressed similar sentiments back in 1998 too. In her first address to the All India Congress Committee (AICC) session as Congress president, on April 6 that year, she said, “I have come to this office at a critical point in the history of the party. Our numbers in Parliament have dwindled. Our support base among the electorate has been seriously eroded. Some segments of voters — including tribals, Dalits and minorities — have drifted from us. We are in danger of losing our central place in the polity of our country as the natural party of governance.”

The Congress had slumped to 141 seats just a month earlier in the general elections. It had suffered a defeat two years earlier too.

Emphasising that she was no saviour and that the party must be realistic in its expectations, Gandhi said “the revival of our party is going to be a long-drawn process, involving sincere hard work, from each and every one of us…”

She asked the party to “shun what is expedient and stand by what is right” and said the leadership must emerge from the grassroots and reflect its aspirations.

That September, the Congress held a “Vichar Manthan Shivir” in Pachmarhi, Madhya Pradesh. In her inaugural address, the Congress president said, “Electoral reverses are inevitable and are, in themselves, not cause for worry. But what is disturbing is the loss of our social base, of the social coalition that supports us and looks up to us. What is also worrisome is that intra-party discord seems to take up so much of our time and energy when it ought to be channelised for working together to regain popular support and public credibility.”

She added, “The question we must ask ourselves is whether we have in any way diluted our commitment to the fight against communal forces. It would perhaps be tempting to say we have not. However, there is a general perception that we have at times compromised with our basic commitment to the secular ideal that forms the bedrock of our society.”

At the conclave, the Congress’s decision to shun alliances made headlines. The party believed that the coalition era was a “transient phase” in Indian politics. Gandhi, in her concluding remarks, said, “The fact that we are going through a coalition phase at national level politics reflects in many ways the decline of the Congress. This is a passing phase and we will come back again with full force and on our own steam.”

The Pachmarhi declaration echoed the remark, affirming that “the party considers the present difficulties in forming one-party governments a transient phase in the evolution of our polity” and pledging “to restore the party to its primacy in national affairs”.

The Congress decided that “coalitions will be considered only when absolutely necessary and that too on the basis of agreed programmes that will not weaken the party or compromise its basic ideology”. The party said it would “unflinchingly meet the challenge of the communal forces as represented by the BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar, such as the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, and those outside, such as the Shiv Sena, with no compromise or dilution of the well-established principles and practice of secularism, defined and evolved by the party as crucial to our nationhood”. Fast-forward almost 24 years and the party now shares power in Maharashtra with the Shiv Sena, reflecting how much the political landscape has changed.

At the end of the brainstorming session, the Congress adopted a 14-point plan of action for revival and resolved to forestall and oppose any move to dilute reservations. It called for the filling of vacancies, promotions and preference in government employment for Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), Other Backward Classes (OBCs), weaker sections of society, and minorities, and said there should not be any discrimination against such communities. It said if these communities face any atrocities, stern action should be taken against the guilty.

The party decided to recognise the importance of empowering the youth and noted the lack of attention to the question of voluntary population control. It decided to make it a key element of the party programme and said, “Any party member who becomes the parent of more than two children after January 1, 2000, will be ineligible for selection or election to any party office or for selection as a party candidate for any election.”

Organisationally, the Congress decided to accord “the highest priority to the revival and renewal of the party” in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Tamil Nadu and approved a proposal to establish a Congress Election Authority composed of eminent, impartial, and highly respected senior leaders to ensure free and fair elections “at all levels of the party”.

Election to all levels in the Congress is a demand that the G-23 group of dissident leaders has made repeatedly.

Over to Shimla

The Pachmarhi conclave failed to revive the party. Its electoral performance worsened in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections and the party ended up with 114 seats. Soon after, the Congress underwent convulsions, with senior leaders Sharad Pawar, P A Sangma, and Tariq Anwar raising a banner of revolt against Gandhi. It ended with their exit. In 2000, senior leader Jitendra Prasada challenged Gandhi when she stood for re-election for the post of Congress president.

By the time, the Shimla conclave took place in July 2003 — barely a year before the 2004 general elections — the Congress had been out of power at the Centre for seven years, almost like how it is now. But the stark difference between then and now is that the Congress at the time had 15 chief ministers while now it rules only two states.

At the “Shimla Shivir”, the party significantly adopted a nuanced stand on coalition politics and called for the unity of secular forces. This indicated its openness to sharing power at the Centre. More importantly, the party put forward an alternative model of rights-based governance, promising to enact a national rural employment guarantee act, ensure food and nutrition security for everyone at more affordable prices, and introduce social insurance and other schemes for the protection and welfare of all workers, particularly for those in the unorganised sector. The party also promised to accelerate the implementation of land reforms; launch programmes for the economic advancement, social empowerment, political representation, and legal equality of Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs, and minorities; and start a purposeful dialogue with private industries on how India’s social diversity could reflect in the private sector through different ways such as reservations and fiscal incentives.

In Jaipur, before the decline

By the time, the Congress found itself at the Jaipur “Chintan Shivir” in January 2013, a year ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it was a Rahul Gandhi show. The party was in power at the time, unlike the previous two conclaves. It was in Jaipur that Rahul, then an AICC general secretary, first termed power a “poison”. He has expressed the sentiment in various other ways since then.

At the conclave, Rahul was elevated as Congress vice president with much fanfare. But, with the Anna Hazare movement at its peak, the central message in Jaipur was directed more at the Manmohan Singh government that was buffeted by corruption charges.

With the party getting ready to face the Lok Sabha elections the following year, the Jaipur declaration said, “Congress will go to the people on the basis of the performance of the Congress-led UPA government, the promise of stability and good governance, and a restatement of its core values and ideology – secularism, nationalism, social justice, social cohesion, and economic growth for all, especially the ‘aam aadmi’ representing the poor and the middle classes.”

The declaration spoke of the various initiatives of the UPA government, including rights-based legislation such as the Right to Information Act, the Right to Education Act, the MGNREGA, the Forest Rights Act and the ones that were on the anvil — the Land Acquisition Act and a food security law.

But organisational problems that hampered the party then exist even now. And some of the remedies also remain the same. For instance, the Jaipur declaration said the leadership at the block and district levels should emerge from elected members of panchayats and nagar palikas, with significant representation for SCs, STs, OBCs, minorities, and women. The party is still having discussions about the representation of these groups.

The Congress’s communication strategy also remains a drawback. The Jaipur declaration said, “The party needs to be in a better position to harness new information technologies and use them to communicate effectively to the people through the traditional and the social media. The social media can give the party useful feedback on how the people perceive the government and what they expect from it. Regional and local media will also be actively engaged. The party will also deepen and widen the use of IT in the organization by setting up IT cells right up to the block level.”

In states where it is not in power, the declaration said the party would draw up a list of current and locally relevant issues and conduct aggressive demonstrations and agitations consistently. The Congress said it would ensure that it presents itself as a credible alternative to the parties in power in such states. But the Congress has lost state after state since then.

“Nepotism in the organisation’s structure is a cause of great concern and there is a need to arrest this tendency firmly,” the party declared but there has not been much headway on the matter.

Even small things that were mentioned in the Jaipur declaration have not been fully implemented. The suggestion to create a new organisational unit at the panchayat level as a link between the booth and the block is now part of the proposals for organisational reform that will be discussed in Udaipur.

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