Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi will be given a tutorial in governance at a meeting of party chief ministers being held in the capital on June 9.

The meeting has been called by party president Sonia Gandhi to take stock of the performance of the state governments, their handling of the current agrarian crisis and the status of the various social sector schemes following budgetary cuts in these programmes by the Modi government.

This is the first such meeting of Congress chief ministers after the party’s humiliating defeat in the last Lok Sabha elections. The day-long interaction will also flag issues on which the chief ministers can corner the ruling National Democratic Alliance at the Centre with special focus on the land acquisition bill. Besides this, the discussion is expected to focus on organisational matters and improving coordination between the party and the government.

This is the stated agenda of the meet. But, in effect, it is an exercise in educating Rahul Gandhi.

Rebuilding efforts

Having continuously rejected former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s requests to join the United Progressive Alliance government, the Nehru-Gandhi scion has had no exposure to government functioning. All these years, he has evinced more interest in organisational matters, focusing particularly on conducting internal elections in Youth Congress and the party’s student wing, the National Students Union of India. His lack of commitment earned him the reputation of being a part-time politician who took up issues only to lose interest shortly thereafter.

Now that Rahul Gandhi has undergone a transformation and is displaying signs of being an active long-term political player, it is seen as natural that he should have greater exposure to matters of governance. Next week’s meeting of party chief ministers will provide him an opportunity. Each chief minister will make a presentation about his government’s achievements and its unfinished agenda at the beginning of the meeting. This will then be followed by a discussion.

This practice of calling a conclave of chief ministers was initiated by Sonia Gandhi when the Congress was in the opposition. Seen as a novice in politics and under constant scrutiny because of her foreign origins, the Congress president had used these meetings to improve her understanding of the implementation of various government schemes and get an update on the status of the state party units. And as the Congress added more state governments to its kitty, these meetings also served as an occasion for the party to showcase its growing footprint in the country.

Unfortunately, the Congress can no longer make such claims. The party is in power only in nine states – Karnataka, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Assam, Uttarakhand, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Manipur. Of these, Kerala and Assam are headed for assembly elections next year. Faced with strong anti-incumbency in both states, the meeting will provide an opportunity to undertake a frank appraisal of the functioning of these state governments and the correctives which need to be put in place in the run-up to the polls.

Passing the baton

The last time Congress was in opposition such conclaves were a regular feature. In fact, there was a flurry of activity in the party then as its working committee also met regularly to take stock of organisational matters and brainstorm on the future political strategy. The sessions, however, became less frequent when the party came to power in 2004. Party chief ministers met only twice – in Nainital and Chandigarh – during the UPA regime while the working committee meetings were not convened as often. This resulted in a yawning gap between the party and the government and between the leadership and the workers.

Surprisingly, the party’s highest decision-making body has met only once since the Congress’ mauling in the last general election. Instead of introspecting on the reasons for its electoral setback, the meeting had ended up as a demonstration of sycophancy after Sonia and Rahul Gandhi took moral responsibility for the party’s poor showing and offered to step down.

Now that Sonia Gandhi has completed her mission, it is now Rahul Gandhi’s turn to take some lessons, particularly since he is slated to take over as party president by this year’s end. While the Congress vice-president will attempt to get a measure of how governments function, the chief ministers will also get a chance to get acquainted with him in his new avatar.

Shedding his earlier tentativeness, the Nehru-Gandhi scion has been leading from the front, displaying unusual aggression in taking on the Modi government. Having set the pace, the chief ministers will, in turn, be instructed to emulate the Congress vice-president and up the ante against the ruling alliance at the Centre.