Congress president Sonia Gandhi and son Rahul taking a chartered luxury bus ride to the party's meeting made for an interesting photo opportunity yesterday. The bus ride perhaps wasn't so much as a symbol of empathy with the 'aam aadmi', the category of voter the party is fondest of during elections, as it was perhaps a hint of greater cohesion planned between the Manmohan Singh government and the party – that they were all riding in one bus.
However, the message that came out from the destination, Surajkund “Samvad Baithak (dialogue meet)”, was a clear indication that the ministers in the government and the functionaries in the party were not on the same page. This, despite the fact that the command of both the government and the party ultimately rest with Sonia Gandhi, who is the party president and the UPA chairperson.
With various political indicators pointing towards the possibility that the next parliamentary elections could be held earlier than the scheduled April-May 2014, senior office bearers in the Congress’s organisational structure want their government to shape government policies accordingly. The big brass in the government had its own compulsions, mainly tied to the global economic scenario, and thus it can’t always go hand in hand with ever populist mood of the party.
Sonia in her opening speech spoke on the conflicting expectations of those in the party and those in the government, but the big question is: has the day long dialogue session at scenic Surajkund resolved these conflicts and ego clashes?
In her presidential speech at Congress’s plenary meet last year in New Delhi, Sonia had asked the Congress' ministers to inculcate the habit of interacting with the party workers, visiting party offices while on tour and not to lose touch with the popular pulse.
But that did not seem to have the desired effect, something apparent from that fact that she repeated her suggestions at Surajkund meet. Speaking after the meet, party general secretary Janardan Dwivedi said, “After all it is the party which forms the government.” The party functionaries clearly want to reassert their position, but are still to find their demands being given any priority by ministers.
The disconnect between the government and party was apparent from the fact that the government's “reform” measures of rationing subsidized LPG cylinders to six came in for criticism and concern. The immediate pretext was the BJP raking it up as an electoral issue in Himachal Pradesh. Though the government is mulling over raising the rationing cap from six to nine, or even to 12, the existence of model code of conduct due to Gujarat elections has tied its hands. After the electoral results from the two states a decision may be too late.
The Congress leaders, particularly those in the government, had something to cheer though. Rahul Gandhi endorsed hard reformist decisions in the meet. However, it still isn't clear when he will become the official second in command in the party, and being elevated after Diwali may not be a good time, given the challenges of Gujarat would weigh heavier on him.
Beyond the dialogue meant for the 66 top most members of the ruling party, there was no message for public at large on the twin issues that concern them – price rise and corruption. It did not even figure in Sonia’s opening remark. Dwivedi referred to price rise in just a passing remark, attributing it to Sonia.
The raging issue of corruption did find mention but was referred to as being the Opposition’s conspiratorial disinformation. Sonia did not use the word corruption in her speech, but instead chose to refer to it as questions over “naitik aur niti (morality and policy)”, asking the assembled leaders to give a befitting reply to Opposition on the subject.
From the Cabinet reshuffle to the recent mega rally and the samvad baithak, one thing that is clear is that the party wants to live in self denial over allegations of corruption. It is hoping that the controversy surrounding BJP chief Nitin Gadkari will act as a leveler, and accusations by Arvind Kejriwal and others will not stand against the party's numerical might in electoral politics. The only concern for the party was managing the media and coming out more aggressively in the media to counter charges, albeit without going into substantive issues.