The Congress Working Committee (CWC), reconstituted by party president Rahul Gandhi last Tuesday, met for the first time on Sunday. Among the barrage of issues flagged at the meeting was the important question of alliances.
Before discussing what happened at the meeting, a few words about the new CWC would be in order. The main body, consisting of 23 members, is not really a huge departure. In the mix, the ‘old guard’ still predominates. The new entrants, like Siddaramaiah, Tarun Gogoi and Oommen Chandy, all former chief ministers, don’t exactly impart to the CWC a youthful profile. The only surprise has been the induction of Kumari Selja, but she must by any account be counted as a veteran.
The ‘young’ members have been brought in as permanent invitees or special invitees, thus Jyotiraditya Scindia, RPN. Singh, Gaurav Gogoi, et al, as permanent invitees and Deepender Hooda and Jitin Prasada as special invitees. The institutionalisation of these two categories is a relatively recent development. Their role is mostly to broaden the debate in the CWC, and provide inputs and feedback. It can, therefore, be assumed that the old guard still holds the balance of power in the Congress.
We shall see in a bit that on the question of alliances, this balance has had a curious impact. First, though, we could run quickly through the pretty heavy agenda of the meeting, which lasted five-odd hours. Agriculture, unemployment and economic growth rates were discussed; the government’s failures in this area were noted. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pointed out that it would just not be possible to double agricultural incomes as promised by the prime minister.
The plight of the tribal people, Dalits, backward sections and women was also discussed, with promises for a more inclusive regime on offer. The dismantling of institutions was noted, and the restoration of institutional integrity promised. This point is crucial. Rhetoric will not do. Rahul Gandhi and his party will have to convince people that they mean to do this. The best way to do this is to begin restoring institutional integrity within the party itself.
This will mean recreating Congress committees bottom upwards: from villages, towns and cities, through the mandals (blocks), districts and 'pradesh's (states) to the All-India Congress Committee. Once a simulacrum of a coherent organization is in place, intra-party elections have to be started and re-institutionalised. This might sound utopian, but if the will exists, there is no reason why it can’t be done, though it might take some time.
Leaving aside some other very specific matters, is the crucial matter of alliances. Rahul Gandhi was authorised to begin the process of building bridges. The Congress president told reporters after the meeting that the process had already begun; a committee had been formed to take the work ahead. Sonia Gandhi, too, is believed to have said at the meeting that the party was committed to forging alliances.
But this project may not run smoothly. In the first place, there is a caveat: something to the effect that allies will be sought where necessary. Curiously, some of the younger leaders, Shaktisinh Gohil, who is a permanent invitee, Sachin Pilot, who is not a part of the CWC in any capacity, and Ramesh Chennithala, who is not exactly ‘young’ anymore and is not a part of the new set-up, tried to dilute the alliance line. They argued that the party should continue with strategic alliances but remain at their centre, and that Rahul Gandhi should be the face of any alliance the party may form. Chennithala apparently added, for good measure, that Rahul Gandhi should be projected as the prime minister.
If this line prevails, the project of Opposition unity will be dead in the water. Fortunately for the Opposition, the Congress president has indicated that the Karnataka model, in which the Congress gave up its claim to the chief minister’s post despite having more MLAs than the Janata Dal (Secular), could be the template. Opposition leaders who are entrenched in their states will not easily accept the Congress’s tutelage: Mamata Banerjee in Bengal, Mayawati and even Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh and Naveen Patnaik in Orissa, if he joins a putative ‘federal front’, have administrative experience, which Rahul Gandhi doesn’t. With the exception of Akhilesh Yadav, they have been in politics for much, much longer than Rahul Gandhi.
Most of them have clearly indicated that Rahul Gandhi will not be an automatic choice as the leader of an alliance or front, if he is a choice at all. The only way that the Congress can claim pre-eminence for its president is by winning a lot of seats; enough to stamp its authority on the alliance. We are talking here of, say, something in the region of 130 seats.
It is difficult to understand why some younger leaders are still harbouring delusions of grandeur. It would have been somewhat explicable if the older leaders, fed in their younger days on the fading illusions of Congress hegemony, had argued for the party’s predominance. The younger leaders have only experienced a fractured political space in which the Congress had already been obliterated from large swathes of the country, notably the Hindi heartland.
It was reported recently that while the Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh units of the Congress were open to an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party and others, the Rajasthan unit, headed by Pilot, was not. Clearly, Pilot felt he was on a good enough wicket, while the others felt the need for an alliance. But coalition politics cannot work on the policy of cherry-picking.
Rahul Gandhi has to understand that. And as he goes about trying to revitalise his party, he has to convince the doubters that the Congress must shed its delusions and work with allies as equals.
Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.
Updated Date: Jul 22, 2018 20:42:17 IST