If there was one overwhelming emotion at the Congress Working Committee meeting on Monday, it was a deepening sense of despair.
Party leaders who, in normal times, are not given to saying anything that might even remotely be construed as criticism, particularly in the presence of Sonia Gandhi, miraculously found their voice enough to channel their angst. Despite Sonia Gandhi‘s valiant attempts to prop up the morale of her troops by putting a positive spin on the UPA government’s record in office and a blistering attack on the BJP and unnamed “anti-Congress forces”, the prevailing mood was one of despondency.
Critically, so down-and-out was the morale of party leaders that they said they did not want to hear “textbook” analyses — but political and administrative responses to the many crises that confronted the government.
Leader after leader appealed to the government to “wake up” and check the erosion in the government’s image from the corruption charges, and feel the pain of rising prices. Some of them even made bold to demand leadership changes in the party – at both the central and the State levels.
Of course, given the dynastic reflexes of the party, it only found expression – as for instance in Ajit Jogi’s remarks - in seeking a bigger role for Rahul Gandhi in the party.
Some of the most outspoken criticism came from Ramesh Chennithala, party leader from Kerala, who candidly said that the decline in the party’s popularity owes much to the string of corruption charges against the government, and the spiralling price rise. But reflecting the kneejerk resort to populism that comes instinctively to a lot of Congressmen, he criticised the “decontrol” of fuel prices, which gave oil marketing companies too much leeway to raise prices, the political burden of which fell on the government.
Chennithala also criticised central leaders of the party, including Union Ministers, for being “inaccessible” to party units at the State level. That prompted others to call for pulling down the “Chinese wall” between the party and the government – and for the revival of the ‘Kamaraj Plan’ of the 1960s, under which Ministers were drafted for party work.
A few others were equally candid in acknowledging the government’s failings, but blamed alliance partners who were behaving more like Opposition parties for this.
Some leaders urged the government to undertake bold reform efforts: Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari, for instance, said the government should move fast and push some “big ideas” on some key issues “even if it means a change in the political landscape”. The issues that he flagged were FDI in multi-brand retail (which had been announced and shelved earlier), banking reforms, and pension reforms. Tewari, however, faulted the government’s tattered image to the excessive exertions of the Comptroller and Auditor-General, who he claimed was acting in a “partisan” manner.
Sonia Gandhi too had some concerns of her own: they related to the very real threat of factionalism working to cleave the party. “If we spend half of the time and energy we waste on factional fights and other useless activities on working for the party, our strength will double,” she said.
“We should understand that political assessment is not done on the basis of individuals but on the basis of organisation. We are examined as a Congressman or woman. People will judge us according to the party’s image. Not understanding this is a grave mistake.”
For all the brave face that the party puts on itself, desperation is running high within it. Like tormented souls, its leaders are busy pointing fingers at everyone, including some within their own ranks. Perhaps they can already smell the faint whiff of failure. Something’s gotta give… and soon.