TRANSLATED INTO English, the word ‘chintan’ means to reflect or meditate upon. Even the most ardent admirer of the Congress, India’s Grand Old Party, will have to admit that it is in dire need of some chintan. It has simply lost its way after a famous victory in the 2009 General Election. The party meets for two days in Jaipur for a Chintan Shivir it hopes will give it a strategy for rejuvenation and make it battle-ready for 2014.
This is the party’s first Chintan Shivir in almost 10 years. If the list of invitees is any indication, it will rewrite the narrative of the Congress in a manner that has not happened for some 30 years. It was in 1980 that Sanjay Gandhi’s youth brigade took charge of the Congress and a number of Sanjay’s followers became key MPs or chief ministers. In the following two or three years, Rajiv Gandhi, Sanjay’s brother, left his stamp on the party too. After that, there has been no organised generational change, not till now.
This time, of the 350 invitees for the Chintan Shivir, about 150 are from the Youth Congress and the National Students’ Union of India and are being referred to as the Rahul generation. In that sense, the party is betting on the future and on an attempt to understand and appeal to an electorate that is younger than ever before in India’s history.
However, several conundrums remain and it is not as if simply a new lot of people and new faces and names will fashion amagic wand. Officially, the issues to be discussed at the Chintan Shivir have been divided into five categories:
• Political challenges
• Socio-economic challenges
• India and the world
• Organisational strength
• Gender issues
While this is a broad spectrum, the meat of the discussion will be on winning power in the set of state elections that will culminate with the 2014 General Election. How does the party win back non-Congress-governed states? How does it defend Congress-run states? What should it do to overcome the defeatism that has gripped even senior Congress ministers in recent months as the countdown to the Lok Sabha election has begun?
For better or worse, the party believes its record in government is not as bad as is being projected. In the past nine years, the UPA government has pushed ahead with 42 flagship welfare programmes — such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme, the Mid-day Meal Scheme, the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission, the National Rural Health Mission, the Rajiv Gandhi Swasthya Bima Yojana — and there is a perception that these achievements have not been correctly transmitted. A gap between the government and the party has been diagnosed as the biggest problem.
An idea that has been mooted in the run-up to the Chintan Shivir is to appoint individual secretaries of the Congress as monitoring agents for specific flagship programmes of the government. This is being planned to bridge the gap between the government and the party, and also to put a system of oversight to check on tardy implementation or leakage of funds, which has emerged as an area of worry. The idea of such close coordination is a good one in theory. Yet it also runs a risk. In the final year of the government, with too many people attempting too many things, it could equally become a recipe for confusion.
Nevertheless, the party believes this is a chance worth taking. A sneak preview of this approach was provided recently when Rahul addressed presidents of District Congress Committees on the direct cash transfer scheme. The scheme has just begun to be rolled out by the UPA government in 51 districts across India.
IT MAY be too late to redress this, but the Congress does realise that its principal problem is that the government and party leadership are seen as out of sync with a citizenry that is getting younger and more restless by the day. Youth voters, worried at what a slowing economy is doing to their future, are taking to the streets on one pretext or the other, the immediate cause — such as the Delhi gangrape incident — being the trigger for a larger anxiety.
A government leadership that is not communicative or demonstrative and is seen as ageing is proving to be a handicap in this situation. All this has fuelled the feeling that the Congress is out of touch with contemporary India and its concerns.
This background is apparent in the design of the Shivir. The 350 invitees have been divided into 16 groups, with four groups to discuss four different issues under each of the four broad categories reserved for brainstorming. One of the groups will discuss issues related to social media. It is telling of the state of politics as well as the state of the Congress that a ruling party has to devote significant time and political capital to try and formulate a response to social media challenges.
The Congress feels its point of view is virtually absent on Twitter, Facebook and other avenues of social media. In contrast, the BJP/Hindu Right, the new Left, the Islamic groups and even free-market middle-class youth are all visible and active on these forums.
It has taken the party some time to realise that social media is not some fringe activity confined to a small elite, but is increasingly influencing traditional media and general drawing-room discourse. Since Parliament is non-functional much of the time — due to disruption — many parties and political individuals use Twitter or blogs to convey their message. The Congress has scarcely ever attempted this.
The social media issue is a sample of the larger problem of communication and unambiguous messaging. Senior Congress functionaries admit these are two issues that require immediate attention. Whether it was the Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev protests of 2011 or the tumult following the Delhi gangrape case, what could have been defused with astuteness and deft communication was allowed to balloon into an existential crisis.
Absurd statements from the home minister and the prime minister’s week-long silence (in the case of the rape protests) and a contradictory position whereby party spokespersons on television were abusive while government negotiators were bending over backwards (in the case of Hazare and Ramdev) ended up crippling the Congress. This has severely alienated the party from the young voter and the urban voter. These were important constituencies for the Congress in 2009. Especially in a period when the party is headed for a series of state elections where it is in direct competition with the BJP — including in Delhi — this could be very damaging.