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Monday, August 15, 2022

Of Chintan Shivirs, Antony panels, and Anth-heen talks

Between 1996 and 2004, when the Congress was in the Opposition for a similar duration, the party held two chintan shivirs -- Pachmarhi in 1998 and Shimla in 2003 -- one AICC session and two AICC special sessions.

Written by Manoj C G | New Delhi |
Updated: May 10, 2022 9:54:35 am
Congress President Sonia Gandhi with party leaders Rahul Gandhi, Pawan Bansal and KC Venugopal before the Congress Working Committee meeting, at the AICC headquarters, in New Delhi, Monday, May 9, 2022. (PTI Photo/Kamal Kishore)

As the Congress top leadership heads to Udaipur in Rajasthan in a few days from now to search for big ideas to get voters back and find a way for revival in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, here is something to think about.

Between 1996 and 2004, when the Congress was in the Opposition for a similar duration, the party held two chintan shivirs — Pachmarhi in 1998 and Shimla in 2003 — one AICC session and two AICC special sessions.

Even when it was in power from 2004 to 2014, the party organised five conclaves — a chintan shivir at Jaipur, two AICC sessions, a plenary and a special session.

Strangely, in the last eight years — perhaps the most difficult phase in the party’s recent history – it has held only one national conclave, the 2018 AICC plenary session in Delhi. The Congress constitution on plenary session says a “session of the Congress shall ordinarily be held once in three years at the time and place decided upon by the Working Committee or the AICC as the case may be”.

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This breakdown in collective thinking, strategy making and soul searching is confounding given that the party has been losing election after election and has not been able to come up with a big idea or narrative to catch the imagination of the voters.

Let’s look at another aspect.

In 2007, soon after the induction of Rahul Gandhi into the organisation as a general secretary — in his case after he decided to be an office-bearer — Sonia Gandhi set up a 13-member group to look into future challenges. The group was a mix of veterans and young leaders and their task was to draw up the future road map of the grand old party.

Rahul too was a member as also veterans like M Veerappa Moily, Digvijaya Singh, Vayalar Ravi, Anand Sharma, Mukul Wasnik, Salman Kurshid and Jairam Ramesh and young guns like Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot and Sandeep Dikshit.

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The group in its report a year later reportedly called for intra-party reforms including internal elections and enhancing inner-party democracy to revamp the organisation, building a strong cadre base and reshaping the party into a strong grass roots organisation. The report had been gathering dust since then.

No one has seen the report and no one knows whether any of its suggestions have been implemented.

Then comes the famed Antony committees. After the 1999 general election defeat, Sonia Gandhi set up an 11-member committee headed by A K Antony to identify the reasons for the defeat. Among the members were Mani Shankar Aiyar, Motilal Vora, P M Sayeed and P R Dasmunsi.

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The committee reportedly suggested a series of organisational and structural changes.

That report was placed before the Congress Working Committee (CWC), which gave its approval, but not much changed in the party. The panel had suggested that the candidates for the Lok Sabha election be finalised, if not announced, six months in advance and those for Assembly polls be selected three months before, so that they get adequate time to prepare. This was never implemented.

Another key suggestion was to hold elections at all levels, including in the CWC, which the panel felt was no longer a representative body. But the CWC members continue to be nominated by the Congress chief. The report had also suggested firming up alliances in states where the Congress was exceptionally weak.

After 1999, Antony was given the job of introspection thrice — in 2008, 2012 and after the Lok Sabha defeat in 2014. But no one, not even the top leaders, have heard anything since. In fact, in Congress circles Antony committees are derisively called as ‘anth-heen (endless) committees’.

Rahul Gandhi too tried his hand at bringing changes.

He set out to “democratise” the Youth Congress and the NSUI, holding internal elections in its various state units to end the nomination culture, but there was resistance from the old guard. The two outfits still hold elections but in a completely different format. In fact, Rahul himself later admitted he was “crucified” for that.

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“I am the person who pushed elections in youth organisation and student organisation and got a serious beating in the press for that. I was literally crucified for doing elections. I was attacked by my own party people. I am the first person that says democratic elections within the party are absolutely critical, but it is interesting to me that this question is not asked about any other political party,” he said in 2021 during an interaction with a US university.

Interestingly, Rahul himself now faces charges of taking decisions in a unilateral manner with his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra without consulting other leaders.

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The letter by 23 senior leaders calling for changes and the presentation made by election strategist Prashant Kishor are the latest examples of ideas or suggestions for reforms facing resistance.

Last year, Gandhi had set up another committee to look into the party’s defeat in Assam, Kerala, West Bengal and Puducherry. The contents of the reports of that committee — which was headed by Ashok Chavan, with Salman Khurshid, Manish Tewari, Vincent Pala and Jothi Mani as its members — and action taken on it are also not known, like the numerous previous committees.

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So there has been no dearth of suggestions or ideas, or for that matter panels, groups or committees, but the fact remains that the Congress which as the main Opposition party should ideally be positioning itself as the change agent refuses to change and resists calls for reforms, both from inside and outside. So what will yet another chintan shivir accomplish is to be seen. No wonder a large section of the leadership remains sceptical of the party ushering in any meaningful change.

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First published on: 09-05-2022 at 07:17:48 pm

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