At sixes and sevens

A MARKER of recent changes in the Indian National Congress is the growing irrelevance of the All-India Congress Committee, its highest agenda-setting body. From 1885 until the late 1960s, AICC sessions used to be unfailingly held annually, barring turbulent years like 1942 or 1947. They met over days to debate strategy and tactics and were addressed by all major leaders.



By Praful Bidwai (India Vision)

Published: Sat 24 Nov 2007, 8:25 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:30 AM

The sessions have become infrequent. Only four were held between 1972 and 1983, and none between 1985 and 1992. Since 1992, sessions have been organised once every four or five years. They were replaced by "conclaves", which lack their institutional character and broad agenda.

The November 17 AICC meeting in Delhi, held a year after the Hyderabad session, was to change this. But it met for just one day and witnessed no substantive debate. Its function was to warn the Congress of a possible mid-term election, and announce the ruling dynasty's heir apparent, Rahul Gandhi.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described Gandhi as someone who can "take the Congress party and the nation to new frontiers and new heights of glory". Party president Sonia Gandhi didn't demur at this, but merely warned that she and her son don't have "a magic wand".

Rahul Gandhi made a colourless speech stressing "youth power" and "meritocracy". This emphasis on "merit" is bizarre in a party which is hopelessly dependent on one family, and equates "youth power" with its own leaders' progeny! "Youth power" didn't help it avert a defeat in the recent Uttar Pradesh elections, where it finished last.

The AICC says it's for coalition politics, but coalition-building "cannot be at the cost of the revival of the Congress itself...." Many Congress partners see in this an aversion to "coalition dharma".

The central question is whether the Congress is well-placed to revive itself in major states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, and whether it can win next month's Gujarat elections.

There's no unambiguous answer to this. But its revival in the major states will be a long haul. The Congress long ago stopped relating to the fundamental conditions underlying caste-identity-based politics in UP and Bihar, ethnic-linguistic issues in Tamil Nadu, and class- and land-related competition in Bengal.

In Gujarat, the Congress does have a fighting chance. Polls suggest an upturn in its prospects in four of Gujarat's five regions. Besides, major castes like Patels and Kolis have deserted the BJP.

The Tehelka disclosures, which indict the BJP for the 2002 carnage, offer potent ammunition if the Congress decides to fight communalism - as it should. But the Congress fears that demanding justice for the pogrom's victims would help the BJP consolidate the largely-mythical "Hindu vote".

Such convoluted thinking is calculated to facilitate a "soft-Hindutva" line, which ensured the Congress's rout in 2002. Yet, the Congress is timid in confronting Narendra Modi. Its 88-page "chargesheet" against his government only contains 7 paragraphs on the 2002 violence, exclusively focused on relief and rehabilitation.

So desperate is the Congress not to be branded "anti-Hindu" that senior party leader Rajendra Patel expressed sympathy with the first lot of people convicted for 2002-for slaughtering Muslims in Panchmahals. It's giving tickets to a dozen former BJP MLAs. With such candidates, the Congress could well snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Three conditions are necessary for the Congress to revitalise itself nationally. First, it must make a decisive break with neoliberal elitism and embrace an inclusive economic policy, which raises public investment in agriculture, emphasises small and medium industry, and promotes employment-intensive growth with equity.

Second, the Congress must launch a major effort to attract subaltern sections like the "most backward classes" (MBCs), comprising small but numerous occupation-based groups such as nais, kewats, mallahs, and bhishtis. They are grossly under-represented in most parties, including Dalit and OBC organisations. The MBCs comprise half the population of most states.

The Congress must also relate to the urban poor, rural landless, and Adivasis-earlier part of its core-constituency.

Finally, the Congress must implement the Sachar Committee's recommendations for affirmative action for Muslims. It must not be apologetic about this. The committee has established that it would be impossible to harness India's social and economic potential without affirmative action.

Muslims are falling behind even Dalits and Adivasis in literacy, education and access to healthcare. Their representation in government employment is abysmally low. And their political representation is sinking to the point of enfranchisement.

This unacceptable situation calls for aggressive promotion of education for Muslim girls, public service provision targeting the poor, special recruitment drives in government, and a comprehensive sub-plan for Muslim welfare integrated into the 11th five-year plan now being finalised.

However, the Planning Commission has unconvincingly rejected such a sub-plan, while approving sub-plans for Dalits and Adivasis. All the government has is the Prime Minister's 15-Point Programme for the Welfare of Minorities, which includes targeting 90 "minority districts" to provide basic amenities, a few thousand scholarships, minor skill generation programmes, etc.

But these "minority districts" cover only 30 per cent of the Muslim population. The government is silent on universalising education, promoting higher learning for Muslims, and improving their representation in government. In a tokenist gesture, it has set up two committees, to construct a "diversity index" and propose an "equal opportunities commission". But this misses the affirmative action imperative.

Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and commentator. He can be reached at praful@bol.net.in


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