Sonia Gandhi was fairly candid in her address to party colleagues at the Congress Chintan Shivir in Jaipur that got underway today. “While we continue to be the nation’s pre-eminent party, we must admit that now we face increased competition, and inroads have been made in our traditional support bases.
There are some states where we have been out of office for too long and although I do believe being in power is not our sole political activity, this does have an adverse impact on our morale and organisation”, she said in her inaugural speech at the three-day-long meeting of the All India Congress Committee (AICC).
This is indicative of the party's clear unease over its shrinking political and social base. Sonia should know better than anyone else how difficult a challenge it was to keep UPA-2 going when it does not have the numbers and yet keep the morale of workers high when there is talk of polls.
While she did refer to some of the issues that have been agitating the minds of Congress workers, like erosion of its traditional social base, corruption, the impatience of youth, the party's inability to deal with new aspirations, flash protests and social media, she did not have clear solutions or guidelines for the various sub-groups constituted for the purpose of chintan (introspection).
Party spokespersons maintain that Sonia may have merely flagged off issues since it was the inaugural session, and she may have more to say when she addresses an open conclave of the AICC on Sunday, which will be attended by over 1,000 delegates. However, observers felt that she could have elaborated more on the issues in terms of where the thought process would lead.
A series of poll debacles in the larger states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, as also the break-up of the alliance with the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, have created a crisis in how the party is perceived in those states. The constant conflict between states and centre, and between allies and the Congress, on issues such as FDI and diesel prices came in for specific mention in Sonia’s speech.
“We have had a government at the centre for the last nine years; we are not governing in a number of states; and we face serious challenges in states long considered our bastions”, she said while talking about the importance of the meet.
Among the 12-odd states where the Congress rules, only Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Assam are big states. Maharashtra is a partnership with the NCP. Rajasthan will go to the polls later this year, as also Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi. Karnataka is the only state where the Congress can hope to make gains.
The ruling Congress in Rajasthan will face a stiff challenge from the BJP. Andhra Pradesh, which acted as a true propeller for the Congress in crossing the 200-seats mark in the 2009 parliamentary elections, is fast slipping out of the Congress’s grasp.
In Maharashtra, which sends 48 MPs, its alliance with NCP is on shaky ground. The party won last time due to the Sena split. But it still lost the Mumbai municipal polls in alliance with the NCP. Though there is no threat to the survival of the state government, there is constant conflict between the two partners. This does not augur well for popular confidence in the incumbent.
The Congress' real challenge is how it can build new alliances in order to repeat the 2009 numbers for a potential UPA-3. In states where the Congress is in alliance, the task is to strike a balance between allies' interest and Congress’s resilience, as also in coordinating policy, Sonia said.
But in the current political environment, even outside supporters like the BSP can dictate terms. The most recent example is in how the Congress has been pushing BSP chief Mayawati’s agenda of reservations in promotions for SC/STs.
The Congress’s inability to grasp and respond to two flash social movements, Anna Hazare and the Delhi rape case, has made the party realise that the social media and urban youth have come to play an active role in shaping public opinion in special causes.
The party does not yet know how to deal with the rise of internet-based media and mobilisation, and its own website is hardly an advertisement for its understanding of the social media. The politicians who are active in social media - ministers like Shashi Tharoor - are considered outsiders to the core caucuses in the party.
Her concluding words, asking the 350-and-odd delegates to speak “freely and frankly,” sounded just perfect for the brainstorming session. But as one Congress leader pointed out, “who has the guts to speak up in front of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi when every one gathered there would want to be on the right side of the command centre.” The first challenge for the party is to get it members to really speak freely and frankly.