There was more than one reason why the recent plenary session of India's main opposition party Congress stood out as an important political event. First, it was the first plenary after Rahul Gandhi took over as the party's President from his mother Sonia Gandhi marking a generational change in the top leadership of the country's oldest political party. Second, the passing of the baton to a much younger leader was a prelude to the same down-the-party hierarchy if the seating arrangement on the dais at the plenary venue is anything to go by; and third, and the most important is that it brought out the main components of the party's strategy to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party in general elections due early next year.
The plenary comes at a time when Congress finds itself in the throes of a crisis. Four years ago, it was reduced to its worst ever performance in general elections with just 44 of the total of 543 Lok Sabha seats. As if this was not enough, the party lost at the legislative assembly elections in the states, including in some of its traditional bastions. The Congress' pan-Indian presence in the corridors of power across India has shrunk badly. Today, the party rules just three of India's 29 states. The impressive show in the assembly elections in Modi's home state Gujarat in December last year and some parliamentary by-elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh states earlier this year may have brought some cheers back to Congress, but the party has a long way to go in meeting the challenges in its battle-readiness against BJP.
The speeches of Rahul and Sonia Gandhi and the political and economic resolutions passed at the plenary set the core agenda of the party: to get back to power in 2019. Rahul delivered his most combative political speech, not only through the topics chosen—farm crisis and joblessness, the two issues on which the BJP government finds itself on a sticky wicket—but also with personalised attacks on Modi, BJP President Amit Shah and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. By this, Rahul projected the 2019 national elections as a duel between him and Modi.
The plenary adopted a special resolution on the agrarian distress, which was the main reason for the sharp fall in BJP's tally of seats to 99—its lowest in the last two decades—in Gujarat polls, rolled out a slew of promises for farmers including a new insurance scheme and a new methodology for determining minimum support prices for food grains. The resolution also proposed a five percent cess on the income of the top one percent richest Indians for creating a national poverty alleviation fund. The economic resolution's thrust was also on the employment front and spoke about involvement of the private sector for creating “good, productive jobs in large numbers.” The party also promised large public investments in the education and healthcare sectors and in social nets. All this combined to give a pronouncedly further Left-ward tilt to the traditional Congress' left-of-the-centre orientation and marked a major outreach to farmers and youth which had drifted away from the party towards BJP in the 2014 national poll.
Another key change in Congress was evident in Rahul's dour defence of his visit to Hindu shrines in an apparent bid to counter BJP's sustained bid to project his party as appeasing religious minorities. The old guard in the Congress may have squirmed and recalled that it was Rahul's father Rajiv Gandhi who as Prime Minister had done the shilanyas at the disputed site in Ayodhya in 1985–86. A senior BJP leader had last year took a dig at Rahul's temple visits by saying that when the people have “original Hindutva” party why go for the “clone” (Congress). But Rahul was far from defensive and showed that he is not hesitant to face the secularism versus Hinduism debate which many old-timers in the party feel could give BJP a handle for polarising the voters.
The political resolution of the Congress plenary also marked a key change in its stance on the issue of coalition politics in vogue in India since late 1990s. While sticking to its 2003 decision to go for coalition when Sonia was the head of the party, Congress under her son was silent on the issue of leadership of that coalition this time. Congress was the undisputed leader of United Progressive Alliance which had ruled India for a decade at a stretch from 2004, winning two successive national elections. There is a recognition in the party now that it is no longer the political force that it was five years ago. Secondly, it does not want to alienate its potential allies in the form of regional parties which are flexing their muscles and trying to build a non-Congress, non-BJP federal front. A number of regional parties like Telugu Desam Party, Telangana Rashtra Party, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party are the main rivals of Congress in their own states. It is precisely to reach out to the regional parties that the Congress plenary session's surprise decision to endorse their demand for reintroducing paper ballots in place of electronic voting machines in elections was taken.
The Congress plenary also witnessed another break from tradition. Conspicuous was the absence of the older generation leaders on the dais this time. Only the speaker was on the dais at a given point of time. Rahul made it a point to explain the change by saying he wanted to fill the dais with the “talented” youth, a large segment of whom had become disillusioned with the Congress in the run up to the 2014 parliamentary elections. Only time will tell whether this will remain symbolic or can be translated into action. Congress has clearly switched into battle mode.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent of The Daily Star.