Three days, three takeaways from Congress ‘Chintan Shivir’

After three days of intense brainstorming, the three big messages that emerged from the Congress’s “Chintan Shivir” are that it is still circumspect on its approach to engaging with the Hindu religion to counter the BJP’s Hindutva push; it seems to be preparing the ground for Rahul Gandhi’s return at the helm; and its attempts to reach out to Dalits, Adivasis, and minorities remain half-hearted.

That the party’s communications system is not a match for the BJP is an accepted fact. Its election management also leaves much to be desired. So, decisions to spruce up its communications apparatus and set up a department for conducting regular surveys to gauge people’s mood were the need of the hour for the grand old party.

The party’s decision to keep its doors open for alliances wherever necessary is also a pragmatic call, notwithstanding what Rahul Gandhi feels about regional parties (he said regional parties could not fight the BJP as they neither have an ideology nor a centralised approach).

How to counter Hindutva?

The elephant in the room at the conclave, as reported by The Indian Express, was the question of how the party should engage with Hinduism to counter the BJP’s Hindutva politics. For instance, many Congress leaders have argued over the years that the party should establish contact with the Arya Samaj, which is outside the influence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

That the party has to stand with minority communities is accepted by everyone in the Congress, but the question of how to get religious Hindus back into its fold remains unresolved.

Over the three days, several leaders, notably Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, argued that the party should not shy away from celebrating Hindu festivals, participating in religious-cultural activities, and establishing a connection with religious groups.

The issue proved to be contentious as several delegates from south India opposed this. Those from the north, where the party has been wiped out, said those from other regions did not understand Hindi heartland politics. After vigorous discussions, the Congress panel on political challenges — which suggested that the party should establish contact and engage with all social and cultural groups, NGOs, trade unions, think tanks and civil society groups — kept religion within “square brackets”. In the final declaration that was adopted, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) omitted the word religion.

Organisational changes

The big push to bring in young leaders (those under 50 years) into leadership roles at all organisational levels is being seen by political observers and party insiders as a move to pave the way for Rahul Gandhi’s return as Congress president in August.

The party was also not willing to give in to the demands of the G-23 group of dissident leaders, particularly on reviving the Parliamentary Board mechanism. In a signal to them and to placate veteran leaders who might find themselves out of the CWC because of the entry of youth leaders, Sonia Gandhi announced an advisory group. But she underlined that the group was not a “collective decision-making body”, a clear signal to the G-23 leaders who have been pushing for collective decision-making as one of the reform measures.

The advisory panel will function somewhat like the BJP’s margdarshak mandal. Sonia Gandhi will handpick the group’s members and she can disband it whenever she wishes.

Dalit, minority outreach

Thirdly, the party wants to reach out to Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST), Other Backward Class (OBC) communities, and minorities, but could not decide on their representation quota in the organisation. At present, the party constitution says “not less than 20% of the seats shall be reserved at different Committees for SCs/STs/OBCs and minorities.” The push was to increase it to 50 per cent but that did not happen.

The attempt to reach out to tribals, Dalits and OBCs is seen as an antidote to Hindutva. Signalling that it will reach out to these sections, the party decided to set up a Social Justice Advisory Council to aid and advise the Congress president on issues related to SCs, STs, OBCs, minorities, and women, demand proportional representation for women from these sections in the Women’s Reservation Bill — in other words, quota within quota — and run a leadership development mission for these sections.

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