The next AICC session, set to be held in April, may well position the Congress more to the left of centre in terms of economic ideology. Internally, what is also being discussed is whether the majority Hindus are feeling alienated because of the party’s perceived strong pro-minority image.
According to a cross section of party leaders, some of whom have been elevated in the recent organisational restructuring, there is less ambiguity now on the road to economic progress that a Congress under Rahul Gandhi might take. “It will be a pro-poor party,” said a leader who was recently made a state party chief.
Rahul’s supporters cite numerous instances, post-Lok Sabha polls, which clearly state his economic philosophy. At a Raigad rally last October, he said the NDA government was diluting pro-poor laws. “We changed an old legislation that allowed industrialists to grab land belonging to the poor. We changed that law to benefit farmers who would get right price for their land. The ruling party has now made gradual changes to the legislation,” he said.
The next month, at a rally in Palamu, he said, “Your fight for jal, jangal (water, forests) is our fight, the Congress party’s fight.” More recently, in January, ahead of the Delhi Assembly polls, he said, “Congress is a party for the poor people. We will stage a comeback and will hold the hands of the poor and bring the country on the right track.”
Many party leaders believe Rahul, the vice-president at present, will assume full responsibilities soon. “His recent statements are an indication of the outcome of the forthcoming AICC session,” said another recently-appointed leader.
The old guard, however, seeks to nuance this debate, stating that pro-growth policies actually help to lift people out of poverty. “We need to have a balanced approach,” said a former Congress minister who held an important economic portfolio, perturbed that the party would take an extreme Left position.
This unease is pronounced now that Rahul’s team members are readying for, and anticipating, “a 1969 moment” when Indira Gandhi was keen to wrest control of the party. This had led to a split, and a divide, on ideological grounds. The old guard, seen as the “pro-business” and more status-quoist in the party had to face a sharp “pro-poor” positioning, made memorable by the slogan of “garibi hatao”, which yielded great dividends in the 1971 elections for Indira.
But partymen are now slowly changing tack. Some former Congress ministers who opposed the Land Acquisition Bill originally proposed by Jairam Ramesh are now defending it.
“The UPA I announced a farm loan waiver. The job guarantee law and the Right to information Act also were during the first term. Under UPA II, the food security law and land acquisition relief and rehabilitation measures came,” said a former Congress minister. In effect, the Congress has always been pro-poor, he added.
While senior leaders including Digvijaya Singh and Kamal Nath and younger leaders such as Milind Deora and Sanjay Nirupam have openly said that it’s time for Rahul to be made the party chief, many others such as Veerappa Moily are still keen for Sonia Gandhi to remain at the helm. “Both Sonia and Rahul can be said to be ideologically on the same page. But Sonia listens to all, is consensus-driven; Rahul is not,” said a Congress leader.
What has also caused heartburn among older members who have been in the party for decades is Rahul’s insistence that he would only work with newly-elected “fresh” members. While they are loathe to see the “fight” in purely generational terms, Rahul’s supporters claim that “vested interests” do not allow the changes that he is keen to implement.
There is, however, agreement on the role of current Sonia Gandhi. She can help oversee the Congress revival or be the conciliator amongst various groups and interests that make up the Congress. Her role in the Congress Parliamentary Party would remain key to any challenge that the party would hope to pose to the Narendra Modi government at the Centre.
The organisational rejig will be clear during the AICC session, likely to be held on April 10-11. “It is likely that Rahul’s candidates are seated in the front row with him in the AICC annual session this April,” said a Rahul supporter, adding that his (Rahul’s) address would explain his absence at Manmohan Singh’s farewell hosted by Sonia last May, at the Congress Foundation Day later in December, and more recently his “leave of absence” during the Budget Session. “It will convince most of those upset with him now,” he added.
— With inputs from Seema Chishti