Democratic spirit within the Congress is what the Udaipur conclave signifies

The 'Chintan Shivir' is the fourth such session under Smt Sonia Gandhi as Congress President. Earlier similar 'Chintan Shivirs' were held at Panchmarhi, Shimla and Jaipur, writes Mallikarjun Kharge

Democratic spirit within the Congress is what the Udaipur conclave signifies

Mallikarjun Kharge

The ‘Chintan Shivir’ being organised by the Indian National Congress (INC) at Udaipur between May 13 and May 15, 2022 has generated much enthusiasm within the party. In the past such conclaves have been useful in assessing our strength and weaknesses, address new challenges and in coming up with fresh strategies. Conclaves at Panchmarhi and Shimla paved the way for the formation of the UPA, which won the general elections in 2004 and 2009.

The party has had a long tradition of holding such special conclaves involving leaders and workers besides the usual meetings of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) and the All India Congress Committee (AICC) to discuss organisational issues.

A special session of select leaders was first held in 1956 at Narora in UP. This was presided over by U.N. Dhebar. The then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru attended it for two full days to brief party leaders and address apprehensions and misundertandings over government policies and burning issues of the day.

Results of elections held for the five state assemblies in March this year were disappointing for the party. Discussions and post-mortems have already taken place within the party about our failure in effectively communicating the misgovernance by BJP-led state governments of UP, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur. In Punjab the party’s decision to change the leader failed to counter the strong anti-incumbency. The session at Udaipur is meant to carry forward the discussions and evolve by consensus a strategy for the elections to be held between now and 2024.

The Congress President has formed six coordination panels. The panel on political affairs is headed by me. Shri Salman Khurshid heads the panel on social justice and empowerment while Shri P. Chidambaram heads the panel on economic affairs. The panel on agriculture and farmers is headed by Shri Bhupinder Hooda, former chief minister of Haryana, while the panel on the organisation is headed by Shri Mukul Wasnik. The panel on Youth Empowerment is headed by our young colleague Amrinder Singh Warring.

Each of these panels comprises nine members. The panels are expected to come up with a set of recommendations. A summary of these recommendations will be presented at Udaipur. We are all hopeful that the three-day session will not only deliberate on the various social and political challenges facing the country but also help come up with ideas to strengthen the party organisation.

BJP Government at the Centre headed by Narendra Modi is about to complete three years of its second term in office. By now the glaring failures of this government in dealing with the economy and the pandemic are internationally known. But despite its failures on multiple fronts, BJP has been winning elections by polarising voters and dividing the polity on religious and communal lines. The ruling party has done nothing to curb the increasing crescendo of hate speech— which should have been a priority of any responsible government—but has been lending its tacit support to hate mongers. Creating tension in society, promoting communal dog whistles and fear-mongering have helped them reap political dividend.

While the Congress has been raising people’s issues, about rising prices and poor remuneration to farmers, they seem to resonate with the people less. Large sections of our population appear to have succumbed to majoritarianism and communal rhetoric. It is a dangerous trend and it has become necessary to stop this madness spreading like a plague.

There has also been a sea change in the political, economic and social realities on the ground since the previous Congress sessions at Panchmarhi, Shimla and Jaipur. The role of fake news, propaganda and massive use of social media and WhatsApp are more pronounced than ever. Relentless spread of false information that pass for news is used to influence public opinion. The false propaganda against the Congress continues. We need to respond effectively to such campaigns.

Right from the first Congress session in Mumbai in 1885, there were conflicts of ideas and ideology and sharp differences of opinion. The party encouraged leaders to articulate their differences and consciously took their views into account. It was this democratic spirit that enabled the party to remain united and emerge stronger. Under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, Congress also became a platform to fight social evils.

Remarkably, even when all the top leaders of the Congress were jailed, movements were sustained by party workers and the people. Congress has always been a party of the people and has sought to carry everyone along, been secular and democratic.

History is witness to initiatives by the Congress that range from unifying the princely states, abolition of zamindari and setting up of PSUs in the core sector to land reforms, bank nationalisation the Green Revolution. The long list of pioneering work ranging from space research and setting up IITs and IIMs to empowering people through MGNREGA, RTI and Right to Education can scarcely be denied.

Time and again Congress has proved the prophets of doom to be wrong. Each time they predicted the imminent demise of the Congress, the party bounced back with renewed vigour. Congress went through a serious political crisis after losing the general election in 1996. But once Smt Sonia Gandhi took over the reins of the party in 1998, things fell into place. A lot of hard work went into instilling confidence in the workers. The result was formation of a winning coalition to take on the NDA and successive victories in 2004 and 2009 general elections.

That the party consistently fought for upholding the interests of the poor, Dalits and Adivasis is also undeniable. It fought against communalism, fought for land rights of the people and agriculture credit for farmers and villagers. The UPA introduced rights-based legislations and implemented the Common Minimum Programme strictly.

The party has been ably led by Smt Sonia Gandhi. With remarkable clarity of mind, she has been consistent in her political beliefs and remained steadfast to the core values of the party and secularism. Winning or losing elections was of less concern to her than upholding the integrity of public life and service.

Some Congressmen did oppose coalitions and felt the Congress must contest elections alone. But a consensus in favour of a rainbow coalition emerged in the Bangalore session of the Congress and was endorsed at the party conclaves at Panchgarhi and Shimla. The Congress willingly ceded political space to forge a coalition to take on the NDA and its ‘India Shining’ campaign.

The country is witnessing a fresh phase of communal frenzy and hatred. The ruling BJP and the Sangh Parivar are deliberately creating fissures on questions of food, faith, festivals, on clothes people wear, languages they speak or the people they love. Use of provocative language and violence have increased with the ruling establishment looking away.

Fringe elements, petty and desperate leaders are being encouraged to spread communalism, fear and hatred. Provocative speeches and slogans before festivals have become commonplace with the police looking on as spectators. What is alarming is the conspicuous silence of the Prime Minister. While he loves to speak and does speak endlessly, he has spared no word yet to condemn the bizarre public threats of killing, rape and genocide. His sustained silence has emboldened these fringe elements.

Inflation has meanwhile crippled the poor. The steep rise in prices of fuel and cereal, vegetables, fruits and edible oil etc. have broken the people’s back. But the BJP Government does not want to address these concerns. It has taken recourse to diversionary tactics, headline management and browbeating the opposition. It has been busy promoting one emotional and divisive agenda after another.

The Government has also avoided discussions in parliament. Legislations are passed with little deliberation. The government has forced several legislations in great haste, overruling Opposition demands to send the Bills for scrutiny to Parliamentary Committees. We wanted a discussion on the withdrawal of the three farm Acts which the government had imposed through ordinances in the first place. But the legislation withdrawing the farm laws took three minutes in the Lok Sabha and four minutes in the Rajya Sabha to pass.

Ruling this country through ordinances, in the seven years since 2014, on an average 11 ordinances were promulgated by the Union Government each year. Over 80 ordinances have been promulgated since 2014. While 70% of the Bills during UPA’s time were referred to Parliamentary committees for scrutiny, the percentage since 2014 is less than 10%.

The government is defying parliamentary norms and conventions. The number of sittings of both Houses has declined sharply and during the last eight years the average number of sittings has been just 63 days annually.

The Indian National Congress has seen several ups and downs in its glorious and long history. But whenever it was down, dedicated Congress supporters worked tirelessly and revived the party. These are undoubtedly trying times and the challenges are many. But there is no substitute to unity and discipline. We must go to the people with a record of our past and a convincing blueprint for the future to win their confidence.

INC is still a central force in Indian politics, the only party which has a presence in every corner of the country. It still has a connect with all sections of the people; and that is why it is my firm belief that the Udaipur conclave will prove to be a turning point and show us the way forward.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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