Congress Plenary 2018: A young India’s tryst with destiny 

The Congress party is looking to Rahul Gandhi, the first Congress president of this century, to kindle the hopes and aspirations of a young India

Photo by Sipra Das/India Today Group/Getty Images
Photo by Sipra Das/India Today Group/Getty Images
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MV Rajeev Gowda & Varun Santhosh

In the 2014 general elections, one in five Indians voted for the Congress party, while nearly one in three voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi.

Now, after four years of a government mired in incompetence and divisiveness, a significant number of voters who voted for Modi, are disillusioned. Acche din are nowhere on the horizon. Practically every election promise has turned into a jumla. Hatred and violence are becoming the dominant forces in society, something that most Indians did not bargain for when they thought they were voting for sabka saath, sabka vikas.

This has led a large number of voters to wrestle with cognitive dissonance over the choice they made in 2014. Cognitive dissonance is the psychological phenomenon where people struggle with internal logical and ethical inconsistency, finding it hard to justify their actions to themselves. Instead of the nation leaping forward economically, taking advantage of the solid foundation laid down by the UPA, Modi has squandered the opportunities for transformation that comes with the first single-party Lok Sabha majority in 30 years.

All in national interest?

The fact that the nation did not erupt into riots during reckless measures like demonetisation, demonstrates the accommodative and nationalist ethos of Indians. People were willing to undergo unimaginable hardships, trusting the intentions of the Modi government and giving it time to deliver, all for the sake of national interest. We witnessed the first signs of large-scale protests only after the hasty implementation of GST.

Now, after four wasted years, large parts of India, especially farmers and youth, are concluding that all Modi managed to do is to slow down growth, hurt the most vulnerable, and diminish India’s power and credibility internationally. The Gujarat elections, the by-polls in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, youth unrest and agitations in various states, and the unprecedented farmers’ mobilisation have signalled the undercurrent of discontent. The latest results from the North East are an aberration largely driven by local context.

Across the country, farmers are experiencing severe stress. Divisions in society have deepened. Inequality is rising. 150 million youth in the age group of 18-24 who are eligible to vote are staring at dashed hopes of employment. Many are first-time voters. Most of them are not committed to any ideology other than pragmatism — they want themselves and the country to do better. Overall, youth are restless, farmers are feeling hopeless and the nation is yearning for a fresh narrative that is credible and actionable.

This is the context behind the 2018 plenary session of the All India Congress Committee. A large number of Indians want the Congress party to step up, fulfil the role of a strong challenger to Modi and the BJP, and provide a vision for the future. It is at this historic moment that we have a new President, our first in the 21st century. The Congress is looking to Rahul Gandhi to kindle the hopes and aspirations of a young India, and together meet India’s tryst with destiny.


1985 AND 2018

At this historic moment, it is opportune to look back at 1985. Then, as the party celebrated its centenary in Bombay, the Congress was at a euphoric high. While Rajiv Gandhi had swept to power under tragic circumstances, he had gone on to transform the nation’s mood and aspirations. He symbolised a new generation of leaders who deployed technology to revolutionise governance and people’s productivity. He warned against power brokers who had diminished the party and committed to cleansing the political and electoral system

Congress as a fighting machine

In that 1985 speech, Rajiv Gandhi reminded us that the “history of our party tells us that, at each critical turning point, we took stock of our weaknesses and strengths to decide the direction we must take … Mahatma Gandhi visualised the Congress as a fighting machine. … This is our tradition. We have to revive this tradition to fight for the poor and the oppressed. Only by doing so shall we gain the strength to create the India of our dreams. …

The revitalisation of our organisation is a historical necessity. At this critical juncture, there is no other political party capable of defending the unity and integrity of the country. There is no other party capable of taking the country forward to progress and prosperity.”

Those prescient words are even more relevant today. But the times could not be more different. Congress has to rebuild itself after the electoral defeats in 2014 and in many states since then. Since the 2013 Jaipur plenary when he became Vice President, Rahul Gandhi has focused on making Rajiv Gandhi’s unfulfilled vision a reality, building on the nearly two-decade long legacy of inclusive growth ushered in under our outgoing President, Sonia Gandhi.

Now, as he takes charge fully, Rahul Gandhi is balancing the wisdom of the elders while tapping into the energy and idealism of the youth. That his nature represents compassion, decency and an improved public discourse is already evident. He is acting on his commitment to opening up the party and democratising conversations with the people.


ORGANISATIONAL REVAMP

Rahul Gandhi is preparing the party for the electoral battle in 2019, and the larger challenge of reclaiming the Congress party’s and the nation’s cherished ‘idea of India’. His recent organisational changes are strengthening the party.

The move toward one General Secretary incharge of a state with a support team of Secretaries, who work closely with Pradesh Congress Committees and frontals with a high degree of autonomy and accountability. Strong state leaders are being reinforced, as in Punjab and Karnataka, where Capt. Amarinder Singh and Siddaramaiah have the full support of AICC. As in Gujarat, the Congress is tapping into the energy of mass movements across the country, and amplifying their voices, both tactically and strategically.

The Congress President has also initiated a series of new departments and frontals to expand the outreach of the party to various groups like fishermen, unorganised workers, adivasis, NRIs and professionals. He has also revamped some departments to reflect 21st Century imperatives.

The Research and Data Analytics departments are part of the initiative to modernise the party with information and insights which strengthen the efforts of front-line warriors, including party workers, the Communications Department, and the social media cell. The newly launched ‘Shakti’ project in Rajasthan will connect every Congress worker and sympathiser to the party and its leadership.

It is imperative for the party’s revival to know who our workers and sympathisers are, and to provide them with platforms to organise, and ammunition to take the ideology of the Congress to every Indian.

NSUI is already achieving results

The frontals like Mahila Congress, Youth Congress and NSUI have all been injected with fresh energy. The commitment towards women’s representation in the party is moving ahead. NSUI is already achieving results by winning key elections in Delhi, Punjab, Rajasthan and Assam. The years spent in the trenches by Rahul Gandhi by democratising the Youth Congress and NSUI through internal elections have resulted in a pipeline of young leaders. They are now ready to take key leadership positions as the Congress President endeavours to substantially reduce the age of AICC and PCC delegates, reflecting India’s young electorate. Youth Congress has achieved a level of efficiency in conducting elections that it can have an entire new committee in place within 3 months, when required.

Rahul Gandhi’s style of leadership combines the best of idealism and pragmatism. He is committed to devolving power and empowering grassroot workers, as concentration of power in the High Command can weaken the party. He has imbibed lessons from the election processes introduced in frontals and the primaries experiment.

Under him, the party will rebuild with renewed focus on local body elections in municipalities and panchayats to help induct grassroots leaders into the party. Thus, over time, as the organisation catches up with the new President’s vision, we can expect more initiatives, possibly including elections to the Congress Working Committee and primaries to select party candidates for elections.


THE BATTLE AHEAD

This year, elections in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram offer the party crucial opportunities to stop BJP in its tracks and shift the momentum towards Congress in the run up to the 2019 general elections.

In May, the Congress is set to buck Karnataka’s 32- year trend of anti-incumbency and return to power. The Siddaramaiah government has delivered inclusive and innovative governance and has tirelessly championed Kannada and Karnataka. The BJP’s state unit is a divided house with a disastrous track record. The broad-minded, inclusive Kannadigas will soundly reject BJP’s divisive campaign driven by Hindutva.

A win in Karnataka will boost the already reviving fortunes in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram. The BJP has a limited talent pool and is floundering in governance, given it has become beholden to one man and his personality cult. In contrast, Congress has experienced bench strength and can showcase its range of leadership effectively inside and outside of Parliament. This will project a team effort in stark contrast to the two-and-a-half men NDA government.

Indians disgusted by BJP’s track record of naked crony capitalism, violence, vigilantism, vandalism and brazen distortion of truth, history and Hinduism seek an alternative. The plenary is a platform for the Congress party to reconnect with the masses by crafting a narrative and ideological construct that go beyond identities like caste or religion.

Committees convened under senior leaders are drafting resolutions for the Congress party. The party will stand for courage, justice, empowerment and pluralism while tapping into the aspirations of youth, and preparing India for the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century. The party will be the vanguard of an opposition alliance and partner with social movements and civil society to craft a wide coalition.

Focus on farmers, women and youth and addressing their challenges will be important.

Health, education, alternative economic approaches that build on small and medium businesses, appropriate technology, meaningful job creation and entrepreneurship hold the key. The party also needs to focus strongly on rapidly urbanising India. It needs to showcase how business and the economy benefited under Congress. It must shape new paradigms for social justice, inclusion and decentralisation.

The details of the action plan to reclaim and revive India will eventually come from a bottom-up process of widespread consultations representing the myriad voices of India. The Congress party’s vision will reflect an India for all, not only the few.

The Congress has already embarked on a path to strengthen itself and to win back the confidence of the people before 2019. But with renewed belief in itself, fire in its belly, resurgent leadership, aided by a failing Modi, the Congress will turn its fortunes around. Together, we will.

(Prof. M.V. Rajeev Gowda is a Member of Parliament and Chairman of AICC Research Department. Varun Santhosh is his Adviser.)

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Published: 17 Mar 2018, 12:00 PM