The Congress, trying to come out of one of the worst crises it has faced in its 133-year history following a series of electoral setbacks, used its 84th plenary during the weekend to set itself an agenda for the future. The two-day conclave concluded with new Congress president Rahul Gandhi vowing to change the party to storm back to power. The plenary itself, which the party has described as historic, was marked by some features not witnessed in its previous 83 editions, from broken traditions and new interactive sessions to redefined issues for focus. Here are some of the key takeaways:
1: It has been a long tradition of Congress plenaries that a white mattress would be spread on the dais with veteran leaders seated on it. Not this time. The dais was empty except for the speaker. It is a symbolic change; as Rahul explained, he wanted to fill the stage with youth and talent from across the country who would bring the party back in order to change India.
The plenary also introduced panel discussions — on the media and on the party’s Vision 2030. Other additions included the screening of two short films — Ahimsa, depicting the Congress’s history that concluded with Rahul declaring that the “India Vision” would define the third-world view after the American and the Chinese views, and Daro Mat, in which Rahul is seen urging party men and women to work together for change, without fear.
2: It was on agriculture, employment and poverty alleviation. It not only tried to address the agrarian crisis that is rapidly turning into a key electoral issue, but virtually released a manifesto with promises for farmers. Although traditional slogans such as garibi hatao were missing from the resolution, the eight-page document listed measures that the party would take for farmers should it return to power at the Centre. The promises ranged from drafting a new insurance scheme to setting up a permanent Kisan & Krishi Majdooor Welfare Aayog with constitutional status, special scholarships for farmers’ children, review of the methodology for determining minimum support prices, and setting up of special agricultural zones.
3: The special resolution an agriculture, employment and poverty alleviation, as well as sections of the economic resolution, sought to send out a message that a party so far seen as “left of the centre” was presenting a more leftist outlook. The advocates of the trickle-down theory turned their focus to pro-poor and pro-farmer initiatives. Apart from the need to address the unemployment and agrarian crises, some of the major challenges that the Congress identified in the economic policy: providing high-quality education, healthcare and a social safety net for hundreds of millions of the very poor. It also promised that there would be “large investments by the state in education, healthcare and social safety nets and an efficient public service delivery system.
Private job thrust
4: With joblessness being projected as a failure of the central government, it was one of the primary thrusts of the Congress economic policy. It promised that a Congress-led government would involve the private sector for meeting this challenge. “Good, productive jobs can be created in large numbers by India’s private sector driven by trade, manufacturing, construction and exports.” Assuring that there will not be any tax terrorism and motivated litigation, the party also resolved “to win back economic freedom for Indian entrepreneurs, especially the micro, small and medium business persons, protect them from harassment and provide a stable business environment”.
Bottom 30 per cent
5: Asserting that a return to power in 2019 is possible for the UPA, the economic resolution said it “shall focus its poverty alleviation policies on the bottom 30 per cent of the population” and promised it would be caste-neutral. “Irrespective of their social background,” it added. In order to uplift those at the lower strata, the party said it would take from the rich. “The party shall create a National Alleviation Fund and would impose a 5 per cent cess on the incomes of the top 1 per cent richest Indians. This would be used directly to give education scholarships to the children from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other BPL families.”
6: With large sections of the public upset over the imposition of Aadhaar, the Congress alleged that the government has “distorted the concept and use of Aadhaar; instead of being an instrument of empowerment, it has been turned into an intrusive instrument to control and in many cases, of exclusion of the very poor”. It made a special reference to the death of 11-year-old Santoshi, whose family in Simdega district of Jharkhand was denied food from the local PDS outlet because their ration card was not linked to Aadhaar.
Secularism & Hinduism
7: In his concluding speech, Rahul did what few party leaders would have ever been bold enough to. He clarified his view of Hinduism, going much beyond the usual line of “Hindutva is not Hinduism”, and used anecdotes. He differentiated between the Hindu religion he and many others follow in the country and the one advocated by the Hindutva brigade or the RSS. He equated the RSS version of the Hindu religion to the criminal mindset of those who flogged Dalits in Una and circulated videos of it, to the mindset of telling Muslims who had never been to Pakistan and supported India that they do not belong here, to the mindset of asking Tamil speakers to change their language, and asking northeasterners to change their diet and women to dress properly or get thrashed. If Congress leaders were hesitant to speak about Rahul’s temple visits — which got BJP leaders claiming credit for “making Jawaharlal Nehru’s great-grandson go to temples” — Rahul made it clear that he would go to temples, masjids, gurdwaras and churches. Narrating his conversations with two temple priests in Gujarat, he said what he learnt was that that God does not reside only in temples. The bold assertion came at a time time when the BJP was trying to brand the Congress as an anti-Hindu, pro-Muslim party.
Judiciary & media
8: Among the discussions held in the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium over the weekend, two stood out – a reference to the “disquiet” in the judiciary, and a panel discussion on the media titled “Power of Truth”. Under the subhead “Judiciary” in the political resolution, the party said the “disquiet in the functioning of the judicial system” that has become a “matter of public debate” should be “urgently addressed to ensure the independence of the judiciary to protect it from the onslaught of the vested interests.”
Under the subhead “Media”, the political resolution talked about the media being “under serious cloud” today. “Subjugation of the free press through misuse of power and resources of the government, intimidation, economic discrimination and co-option of some is the new order,”it said.
More came in the panel discussion among former Union minister Kapil Sibal, Congress leader Randeep Surjewala, MPs Sushmita Dev and Rajeev Gowda, social media head Divya Spandana and journalist Mrinal Pande. The discussion was moderated by soon-to-be Rajya Sabha MP Kumar Ketkar. During the discussion, Sibal, drawing attention to the dangers of fake news, suggested that the party should make a commitment that it would take action against TV channels that promote false news and propaganda, when it comes to power. While Surjewala criticised the approach of news anchors, Sushmita was of the view that with the mainstream media being under the influence of “power of advertisements”, the credibility of the media is shifting towards social and online media.