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Bad tidings at Burari


Instead of grand celebrations to mark its 125th anniversary, the Burari plenary session of the Congress was marked by defensive responses to the opposition's concerted campaign on corruption. After a spectacular run of six years, the grand old party of Indian politics seems to have hit a low point

Sonia Gandhi's combative speeches at the Congress party's plenary to mark its 125th anniversary did little to lift the 2G cloud hovering over the government she has nurtured since 2004. The session was to have been a celebration of the resurgence of the grand old party of Indian politics after its spectacular second coming in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. Instead, it tripped on the corruption scandals that have been dogging the party for the past few months.

A Congress leader succinctly summed up the disappointment of many of the 20, 000 odd delegates who trooped in from all over the country to the tented township specially erected in Burari on the outskirts of Delhi for the three-day jamboree. "In the past, Congress plenary sessions have always set the national agenda. But this time, the opposition set the agenda for us. Practically the whole session went in responding to their allegations, " he lamented.

There were inescapable ironies as party leaders put up a brave face and opted for offence as the best form of defence to the opposition's salvos. Even as Sonia unfurled an impressive-sounding five-point programme to cleanse the system and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared feelingly that he had nothing to hide, workers from Bihar staged demonstrations for two consecutive days accusing the general secretary in charge of the state, Mukul Wasnik, of selling tickets to aspirants for a Congress nomination in the November assembly elections. These were not opposition leaders on the warpath. These were protests from within against none other than a senior office bearer who was given charge of Bihar by Sonia herself. And despite her exhortations from the dais that party workers must be "seriously heard and listened to", the Bihar contingent was muzzled and not allowed to address the plenary. A disgruntled worker was heard asking whether this was the way the party dealt with corruption.

There were also nasty whispers about the cost of the arrangements with some leaders quoting fantastic figures for the price of the pandal, for instance, and then adding with a wink that the bills submitted to the high command were like the grossly inflated ones for the Commonwealth Games. It may have been the idle chatter of the disgruntled, but it reflects the cynical reaction of many a worker to the high-sounding speeches coming from the dais.

No matter how hard the speakers tried to dress it up, the crisis gripping the Congress was evident. As it enters its 126th year, it has two major causes for worry. One is an immediate concern. How does it salvage its government and the image of its squeaky clean prime minister in a season of scams? And how does it keep Sonia aloft on the pedestal on which she stood after she renounced the offer of prime ministership in 2004?

The other is a deeper cause for anxiety and presents a long term challenge. How does the Congress revive its crumbling organisation, which seems to be disappearing rapidly as its utter decimation in the Bihar polls showed? Today, the task before the party is not the need to regain its predominant position but to simply remain relevant as a national force. As one leader pointed out, "Just a few years ago, we had as many as 18 state governments. Now we barely have 10 and most of them are in the really tiny states like the ones in the north-east. We seem to be shrinking. "

The heartland seems to have moved beyond the party's reach. In most of the big states like UP, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, the Congress is barely a force. It's in the reckoning in Maharashtra only because of its alliance with the NCP. And it's staring at ruination in the only big state it had, Andhra Pradesh, where Jaganmohan Reddy is on the rampage in a determined bid to destroy his former party. If in today's fragmented India the outcome of a national election is the aggregate of state elections, the Congress should be worried. For, between them, these big states account for 291 of the 542 Lok Sabha seats.

"I am only too aware of how much work we need to do in some states, " Sonia acknowledged in her inaugural speech. "The recent election in Bihar has demonstrated that there is no alternative to earnestly begin(ning) the process of reviving the party from the grassroots. " This was not the first time she had talked of the need to strengthen the organisation. In fact, it has been a recurrent theme in all her speeches at party meets and even Rahul Gandhi has started mouthing the same lines. But there seems to be a severe paucity of ideas on how to go about it.

A long time observer of Congress plenary sessions and AICC gatherings talked of the growing disconnect between the leadership and the workers. For instance, Sonia and Rahul barely mixed with the crowd milling around the venue. Yes, they talked to some prominent state leaders, but not to the ordinary workers. Not to the wizened old party loyalist who had fascinating tales to tell of previous plenary meets. Not to the women who sat quietly hanging on to every word their leaders spoke. Not to the bright-eyed young boys clutching the Congress tricolour in their hands. Aam aadmi is a nice concept to weave a speech around, but is he a real person?

The observer also noted that the plenary discarded tradition by not inviting delegates from state units to speak. This is one party forum that used to encourage voices from the ground to make themselves heard to give play to fresh ideas and views. This time, the mike was given only to the top rung consisting of ministers, MPs and spokespersons.

It was evident though that more than the organisational challenges, it was the current storm that was at the top of everyone's mind. The aggressive tone of the speeches suggests that some kind of strategy is taking shape to counter the opposition's offensive on the corruption issue. Digvijaya Singh's harsh comparison of the RSS to Hitler's Nazis was perhaps crafted to splinter opposition unity by reminding the non-BJP parties of the communal past of their saffron comrades, while Sonia raked up corruption scandals in the BJP as if to emphasise that the other side is no better.

This is the old Congress game of dividing the opposition to rule. It has worked in the past, but today, deep internal fissures have appeared within the Congress too. One sign of dissonance was Manmohan Singh's surprise offer to appear before the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament to answer allegations about the 2G scam. It seems to have been a suo moto offer, without prior consultations within the party. It was not there in the original text which he shared with the high command before the meet. It was added that morning on a sheet of paper hurriedly stapled to copies earmarked for circulation, indicating that the PM had kept it under his hat.

Senior leaders are unsure of what to make of the PM's bombshell and are worried that the way he sprung it on the party may be an indication of a rift at the very top over how to tackle the opposition's campaign on the 2G scam. In fact, the party's paralysis as the opposition went hammer and tongs at the government for the entire duration of the winter session of Parliament sprung from deep differences within. These differences have been showing up in conflicting voices on policy issues and frequent sniper fire between ministers and between the government and the party. The latest salvo came from Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Ahluwalia who is known to be the PM's right hand man. He chided environment minister Jairam Ramesh for his "go, nogo" policy on mining licenses. It hits growth, he said, adding, "I hope Jairam understands the implications. "

There is intense jockeying for positions within the Congress today. They are jockeying for the number one slot in case of a post-Manmohan Singh scenario;they are jockeying for the post of President after Pratibha Patil's term finishes in 2012;they are jockeying for a place in the sun in a Rahul-led Congress. All this subterranean activity is generating tensions and giving the impression of a lack of cohesion.

GOPs don't fade away just like that. And no-one can say that Sonia is not a fighter. She has tackled many odds in her life and come up trumps. As both her inaugural and closing speeches at the plenary showed, she seems to be in combative mode. The biggest advantage the Congress has today, despite the clouds hovering over its government, is the TINA (there is no alternative) factor. No political party wants a midterm poll and there is no Jayaprakash Narayan or V P Singh like figure around which the opposition can coalesce.

With three-and-a-half years left of its term in office, the Congress has ample time to get its act together and fight to live another day. The five-point plan that Sonia unveiled at the plenary is a good beginning. The question is: can she see it through? Asking chief ministers to give up their discretionary powers to allot land is like snatching a lollipop from a child's mouth. These are the loaves and fishes of office that every politician dreams of. It will require a Herculean effort on Sonia's part to make her chief ministers fall in line.

The onus of putting things back on track is squarely on her. A sycophantic party like the Congress lacks the spine to take responsibility. So far, Rahul too has shown little inclination to sully his hands with the nitty-gritty of party running. If there was a message from an otherwise lackluster plenary meet, it was this: the Congress will have to do much more than engage in a war of words with the BJP to tackle its current woes.

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