The Congress party’s highest decision-making body – its working committee – is meeting on Tuesday after a seven-month gap. But the announcement of the meeting has failed to generate any excitement in the party as nothing substantial is expected to emerge from the discussions.
Congress office bearers and party cadres have, by now, accepted that the working committee is no longer a forum for a serious political brainstorming. The committee meetings once provided an opportunity for senior leaders to deliberate party policies and lay down a roadmap for the way ahead. When Sonia Gandhi took over as party president in 1998, the working committee was convened at regular intervals, conferences of Congress chief ministers were held periodically and All India Congress Committee sessions were held according to schedule. Although all these interactive sessions were aimed at “educating Sonia Gandhi” , they did prove useful in providing a direction to the party.
But, over the years, especially after 2004 when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government came to power, the panel has been rendered redundant and irrelevant. It met primarily for obituary references following the death of party leaders. Except for a few senior leaders, the committee is usually packed with junior party members who are grateful for being inducted into the high-powered panel that they rarely voice an independent opinion on any issue. In fact, the working committee meetings are rarely convened and when the panel does meet, the deliberations are rehearsed and choreographed to ensure that the members stick to the script.
This is exactly what had happened at the meeting convened last November. In a stage-managed show, former defence minister AK Antony was fielded to request Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi to take over the reins of the party. Predictably, his suggestion was endorsed by the other members, including former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It was then decided that the committee’s views would be conveyed to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who did not attend that meeting because she was unwell. Rahul Gandhi, who presided over the meeting, was said to be amenable to this proposal. It’s a different story that the timing of the Nehru-Gandhi scion’s elevation remains a subject of intense speculation both in the party and in the media.
Like the previous meeting, the working committee deliberations on Tuesday will be a mere formality. It is not likely to spring any surprises. The apex panel is slated to endorse the time-table of the organisational elections, which are to be completed by October-end. Sonia Gandhi is also expected to brief her party colleagues about her discussions with other opposition leaders about fielding a common Presidential candidate. The agenda also says that the committee will discuss the current political situation which, essentially, means critiquing the Modi government.
It is an acknowledged fact that several senior party leaders are not and have never been in favour of coalition politics. These leaders believe that instead of aligning with regional parties, which have actually occupied the space once occupied by the Congress, the party should focus on strengthening its organization and retrieve its lost social base. “We are only admitting to our dependence on regional forces when we talk about larger opposition unity and the formation of a joint secular anti-BJP front,” said a senior working committee members with reference to Sonia Gandhi’s recent efforts to bring together like-minded opposition parties on a common platform with an eye on the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. It will, however, be surprising if working committee members will feel emboldened to air their views frankly at the Tuesday meeting.
The working committee is meeting for the first time after the party’s disastrous performance in the recent Uttar Pradesh assembly elections but it is unlikely that the members will discuss the reasons for the poor show put up by the Congress or suggest corrective steps for the future. The fact is that the party’s apex body has yet to deliberate on the outcome of the 2014 general elections when the grand old party was reduced to a mere 44 members in the Lok Sabha.
In the past, the Congress leadership often convened “chintan shivirs” or open brainstorming sessions to enable party members to air their grievances and for the leadership to receive inputs from the grassroots so that it could devise a strategy based on this feedback. Sonia Gandhi did set up a committee under the chairmanship of AK Antony to talk to state leaders and party members to elicit their views on the reasons for the Congress shock defeat and suggest remedial measures. The Antony committee report was submitted to the Congress president nearly two years ago but it has yet to be discussed by the working committee.
“Our organisation is weak, our support has eroded, our pro-poor plank has been hijacked and we are yet to come forth with a counter-narrative to take on the BJP,” lamented a senior Congress office bearer.
On the other hand, the Congress is still struggling to resolve its leadership issue and is focused on organisational changes. Meanwhile, its chief political rival, the BJP, has not allowed itself to become complacent after its electoral victories. The party has already started planning for the next round of assembly polls in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. At the same time, the BJP is working on strengthening its organization to expand its footprint in states like Odisha, Kerala, Telangana and West Bengal where it currently does not have a presence.
Clearly, the Congress has a lot of catching up to do.