The Congress today begins its two-day-long 'Chintan Shivir' in Jaipur to plan for the 2014 polls, banking on its younger leaders and hoping that its economic policies will be enough to carry it through the next election despite the shadow of scandals and a political decline across many key states.
The two-day meet is expected to be the Congress' biggest meeting since the 2003 meet which led to the party and its allies coming to power in 2004, but after a thumping win in 2009, the fortunes of the party have been on the wane thanks to its tenuous ties with its regional allies.
A key focus of the meeting will undoubtedly be the economic decisions that the Congress has taken during its tenure, including the relatively 'bold' ones including putting a cap on the LPG cylinders and setting the stage for diesel price hikes, and promoting itself as being the saviour of India's economy. While it's unlikely to praise itself over these decisions, the Congress would perhaps like to claim credit for rescuing the economy and showing indications of a revival.
Economic decisions held back due to allies, like raising railway fares and allowing FDI in multi-brand retail, have also been pushed through despite the widespread opposition and though there haven't been any tangible benefits of these decisions so far, the Congress party is likely to formulate how to maximise its gain from it.
In policies of inclusion that it widely preaches, the Congress has an ace in the hole with its direct cash transfer scheme for subsidies, that even if only partially operational by the next elections, can easily be one of its biggest vote winners. The aam aadmi has also been targetted with decisions like raising the minimum support price for wheat, a decision that is certain to be trumpeted along with others like the Right to Education Act and quotas for promotions in government jobs.
However, while it has made economic decisions that it can attempt to take credit for in the next elections, the Congress will have a lot to discuss about its political future given its tenuous ties with most of its allies and the absorption of new allies ahead of the next polls.
The bastion that was Andhra Pradesh stands demolished, ties with the NCP in Maharashtra remain tenuous, the DMK shows no signs of being a major contributor from the south, allies like Mamata Banerjee are unlikely to return to the fold of the UPA any time soon and regional leaders like Mulayam Singh would like nothing better than to step over the Congress to grab power.
The Congress also needs to discuss the potential decision of forming the new state of Telangana, what it would mean for the party and whether they need to ally with former bete noir Jaganmohan Reddy to ensure survival in Andhra Pradesh.
However, apart from these worries, there's another crucial factor that Congress leaders will be playing close attention to. Chief 'leader in waiting' Rahul Gandhi continues to remain an enigma when it comes to what role he will play in the next election, despite numerous Congress leaders taking out the time to give encouraging soundbites about him being the next prime ministerial candidate. While he may not show any signs of running for the top job, his influence over the party can't be ignored anymore, including at the 'Chintan Shivir', where it will likely be on display.
Of the 350 invitees for the Chintan Shivir, close to 150 are from the Youth Congress and the National Students’ Union of India, a direct result of Rahul Gandhi's involvement in the youth affairs of the party. While not all the senior leaders are happy at being left on the sidelines, they have little choice but to grin and bear it.
"It will be RG's ( Rahul Gandhi) vision and theme that will be displayed at Jaipur. This chintan shivir will bear the stamp of Rahul Gandhi,” a leader associated with the meeting told the Business Standard.
Rahul, according toCNN-IBN, has a curious desire, like his mother in 1998, to go it alone in most of India in the next polls, but is unlikely to see that happen given the party's results of fighting a lone battle during the Uttar Pradesh elections. Given the condition of the party in many states, including some of its allies being the biggest liabilities, the idea is likely to be given a patient hearing.
Another topic of discussion is likely to be the possible emergence of Narendra Modi as a national leader, potentially even a prime ministerial candidate in the next elections. The Congress could hope his emergence would divide the NDA, potentially throwing up allies like Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) and Naveen Patnaik's Biju Janata Dal, but for now they will have to wait and watch.
The Congress is also reportedly set to discuss going online to address issues, like the Delhi gangrape, through social media instead of relying on traditional media to get a message across, something that has gone horribly wrong in the past. What this would also mean is a larger role for 'younger' leaders who would need to be heard more in public.
Given the political turmoil the Congress finds itself in, its unlikely the party will come up with a definite strategy for 2014 in the two-day-long meet. What it can do however, is hope to come up with a strategy to restrict the impact of the severe anti-incumbency it is likely to face in 2014.