Chintan Shivir: How Sonia ducked the real issues facing Cong

After a long spell of listlessness on its economic ideology, the Congress appears to be finding its groove. The series of measures on the economic front from UPA in recent times suggests that the party has bridged the gap with the government and it is prepared to take calculated risks on the reforms front. It’s a neat arrangement - the government wins back the good headlines and, as a trade off, the party gets something hugely populist as the Food Security Act.

It’s a win-win arrangement, at least from the Congress’s perspective. It ensures concerns of people at both ends of the economic spectrum are addressed and provides something concrete to both the government and the party to go to people with during elections.

It could not be random acts of thoughtlessness that the Congress president and the party top brass would support FDI in multi-brand retail, hikes in railway fares and more recently, the partial deregulation of diesel prices. All these moves are perceived to be fraught with great electoral risk.

Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh at the Chintan Shivir. PTI.

Also, it can be no accident that the government agrees to push the expensive Food Security Bill, which has been facing a lot of resistance within. Now that both have come together there is some semblance of order in decision-making. For a long time, the UPA II has been facing flak from all quarters for lack of coherence in policy matters, particularly in the context of the economy. With the current spate of announcements, it seems to have silenced its critics.

However, the party-government equations are a lesser worry for the Congress from a long-term perspective. Its biggest challenge is to bridge the growing distance between the party and the organisation. It needs no overemphasising that the organisation has all but collapsed in most major states.

In states like Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Gujarat it has been out of power for a long time. In other states the party structure stands depleted and party workers demoralised. Unless the party unleashes revival efforts fast by way of building connect with the rank and file, there is slim chance of it staying a strong political force for long.

Curiously, Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s address at the Chintan Shivir in Jaipur missed the point completely. She spoke about the lack of connect between the party and the youth. She said the party must recognise the new India. ”The younger generation is more demanding and less tolerant," she added. However, there was no word on the disconnect within - the growing gap between the party’s leaders and the workers at the bottom and the middle of the structure.

It’s possible that the Congress has decided to maintain its ostrich-like approach to the bland reality staring it in the face. It’s not clear whether it would discuss the lack of strong leaders at the state level and the responsibility of the central leadership in landing the state units in such a mess.

But without taking the issues in the states head on, there is little hope that the party would come up with something meaningful. In any case, the party is notorious for dumping the recommendations emerging from the Chintan Shivirs.

The party’s real problem are its middle level leaders and their handlers in the central leadership. As the recent election in Gujarat and earlier one in Uttar Pradesh reflect, well-connected middle-level leaders could and do manipulate the ticket distribution process for selfish ends and it hurts the party’s prospects. It’s a nexus that runs deep in the party and it has been going on for a long time.

It has, in the process, created deep-entrenched interests. Though aware of the problem through several elections, the top leadership has shown no inclination to change the situation. Not long ago, desperate party workers in Uttar Pradesh complained to Rahul Gandhi about the indifference of state level leaders. It was the same in Bihar. However, the ground situation has hardly changed.

The party has problems: it does not have the confidence to communicate with people; it is inept at handling the new media; and it fails to inspire trust. However, these are issues that could be handled. The real issue confronting the party is the disconnect between the party leadership and the organisation. Unless the Congress finds a solution to that it is doomed to fail.

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