The Congress Nav Sankalp Chintan Shivir (brainstorming camp) in Udaipur last week was expected to come up with some credible course correction for the party to stay relevant. The outcome of the meeting, however, has been thoroughly disappointing, reflecting the malaise that afflicts the grand old party. It is clear that the party remains in denial, despite the so-called G23’s pleas for reform. A yatra to resuscitate and nurse back to health its grassroots connect sounds promising, but where is the foundation for it? For any such yatra to be successful, the party needs a well-articulated alternative vision and someone forceful enough to communicate that vision. The brainstorming session failed on both counts. While Congress president Sonia Gandhi lashed out at the Bharatiya Janata Party government for what she called fanning communal tensions, the party maintained a studied silence on how it plans to counter it. There was hardly anything new on the economic front either.
Congress spokespersons made a big deal of the party’s “one family, one ticket” resolution. But the caveat proved how hollow the claim is. The resolution allowed other family members to contest provided they have been working with the party for more than five years. This leaves out the Gandhis and most other families in the existing Congress set-up. The meeting also failed to fix accountability for the series of electoral losses suffered by the party, and, more importantly, it decided not to address the prevailing uncertainty on the leadership issue on the plea that the process for the year-end election of the party president has already been set in motion. What this effectively means is more of the same—that Sonia Gandhi will continue as Congress president while Rahul Gandhi will be the backseat driver. This is hardly fresh thinking, as Rahul Gandhi’s leadership of the party has not been inspiring so far. Making room for the young, the marginalised and women is nothing but a copycat approach, as other parties, including the BJP, have already promised to give proportional stake to each of these three segments.
The most prominent indicator of a lack of ideas within the party comes from its economic agenda. P Chidamabaram’s call for a “recalibration” of the liberalisation policies to attend to the problems of rising inequality, nutritional deficieny, etc, was well-intentioned. But the party almost immediately lost the plot. Apart from endorsing the need for a national farm debt relief panel, the party said it is in “firm support” of legislating minimum support prices, in total disregard of the folly of assured pricing, open-ended government procurement and the dire need of reforms in this space. The debt relief panel is continuation of a policy that not only stokes moral hazard on repayment, but has also failed to serve a large chunk of the truly vulnerable. A Nabard-funded study released last month found that in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and Maharashtra, which have had waivers since 2017, almost 40% of the ‘highly-distressed farmers’ had not received any benefit from waivers. Barely a quarter of the farmers in some states avail of institutional credit, meaning waivers solve very little purpose other than encouraging wilful default.
It is hard to figure out what prompted the Congress to support such regressive measures. The pledge to oppose “thoughtless” privatisation of profitable PSUs without providing for “the social justice element” they serve seems like a broken compass on privatisation/disinvestment. How does one quantify “social justice” served by PSUs? Overall, the party needs to take the right lessons from its rapid electoral decline. Instead of joining the rush of whetting voter appetite for bad policies like freebies, which force cash-strapped exchequers to cut corners in schemes that improve human capital, the Congress should have come up with some radical thinking, if it is to stay relevant.