Congress Plenary Session: The view from Raipur
Were we expecting too much from an event, even as significant as a plenary?
A lot of hopes and expectations were riding the three-day Congress plenary at Raipur. Not the least because it came close on the heels of a buoyant five-month-long Bharat Jodo Yatra. The uplifting spirit of the Yatra didn’t just energise the Congress party, and its leaders and party workers, it also infused some hope among citizens that change was possible, that change may even be imminent. Of course, we’re talking here of citizens who want change, who think the current political drift is a one-way ticket to hell; we’re talking here, very broadly speaking, of Indians ranged on the side of an inclusive Indian society. Were we expecting too much from an event, even as significant as a plenary? Did it offer the hope that the Congress can be the fulcrum of a spirited political opposition against the powers that determinedly divide us? Not everyone is convinced it did enough.
Those expecting an electrifying spectacle of public connect were possibly underwhelmed. The decision of the steering committee to defer the election to the Congress Working Committee (CWC) till after the next general election has also been criticised by many as a betrayal of the ‘Udaipur spirit’. It was nevertheless quite an exercise for the grand old party to gather and engage nearly 15,000 core workers in that deliberative process. The 85th plenary session will also go down in history for a path-breaking push for social justice. The party amended its own constitution to reserve fifty per cent of its elected bodies for disadvantaged sections like the scheduled castes and tribes and OBCs, for minorities—and also, significantly, for women and youth, indicating that the party sees the need to allow these cohorts to shape its world view. The resolution on social justice also made the radical promise of ensuring reservations in the higher judiciary. It also promised a dedicated ministry for the empowerment of OBCs, the creation of a national council for social justice, the publication of an annual report on the ‘state of social justice’, and a Rohit Vemula Act for students from disadvantaged communities. This welcome move, coming three decades after the Mandal Commission and nearly two decades after the Sachar Commission recommendations, is an acknowledgement of persistent and deepening inequality and discrimination. The session promised a social security framework, consisting of legal guarantees of minimum income, a right to health, pension for single women, the elderly and persons with disabilities, besides quality schooling and maternity entitlements. In the words of the resolution: “The time has come for India to re-evaluate and re-prioritise its economic development roadmap”. Is there a flip side to the welfarist push? Was the party signalling at Raipur a disenchantment with industry or the private sector, as some commentators will doubtless point out? On the contrary, it acknowledged the vital role of the private sector in creating employment even while stating that the party stood firmly opposed to monopolies and cartelisation.
The jury is still out, though, on whether the resolutions of the party also create a basis to forge a common minimum agenda for the Opposition. Newly anointed Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge did talk about rallying “like-minded Opposition parties” but we don’t yet have a sense of how that unity may be forged or how the Congress will convince said Opposition that the bigger existential crisis of our time requires that all these parties set aside their differences and focus on a minimum programme they can all support. They do all see the pattern in the raids of the Enforcement Directorate, they do also see the ways in which the most opaque electoral bonds scheme is gaming election verdicts, they surely see the common thread and the common threat. The leverage that the ruling BJP has over electoral bonds and the impunity with which it uses the central investigative agencies to intimidate and defang the Opposition are open secrets. It’s a good start that the Congress has resolved to go all out to ‘identify, mobilise and align like-minded secular forces’ but it must get down to fleshing out that skeletal design into a series of confidence-building measures, both inside and outside the Congress ecosystem.