"In the Congress, 70 is the new 40! Everyone is young"
Bhavdeep Kang | January 20, 2013
Change with continuity - rather than the other way around - emerged as the theme of the Congress chintan shivir in Jaipur. It was evident in Rahul Gandhi harking back to Mahatma Gandhi even while declaring that a young and impatient India wanted freedom from a political system stuck in the past. The new Congress vice president (and in all likelihood, its prime ministerial nominee in 2014) made it clear that he stood for change but remained rooted in the Gandhian ethos.
Also read: Rahul is Cong No 2
The party is wedded to its pro-poor image and giving voice to the "aam aadmi"- but the definition of the common man has changed, to include the urban, educated middle class. The welfare approach of the government will continue, even as the prime minister takes "hard" economic decisions which might impact the common man.
Interestingly, while praising the government for its accomplishments, he distanced himself from its failings by attacking hypocrisy and corruption. In operational terms, he will take over wider executive functions, with the party's overall direction and policy being shaped by Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
If the disconnect between party and government in terms of economic policy was evident at the shivir -- as Mani Shankar Aiyer observed, so was the disconnect between the youth brigade and the party veterans. The former were in celebratory mode, the latter subdued.
The new found cockiness of the Indian Youth Congress (IYC) and National Students Union of India (NSUI) and the party's young found expression in predictions of sweeping changes in the party organisation. Buoyed by the importance and representation given to youth at the shivir and in the Congress president's speech, they are clearly looking forward to a bigger share of party posts and tickets. Virtually every "young" minister in the party said the party organisation would now be recast to give greater representation to youth and women.
In response, an older minister quipped, "In the Congress, 70 is the new 40! Everyone is young". Party veterans acknowledged that there would be changes, in terms of party structure and personnel, but these would not be abrupt. Implicit in Rahul's new designation - vice president rather than working president - is that Sonia Gandhi will continue to play a hands on role, rather than that of a patron.
What is generally expected is that a business as usual attitude may not serve, with the young Gandhi insisting on more corporate style functioning by setting goals and targets and demanding accountability from party office-bearers. Rhetoric and sycophancy may no longer be a substitute for delivery.
The faces who occupied the dais at the Congress chintan shivir - the old guard - did not appear overtly worried. As a minister pointed out, Rahul Gandhi was already the acknowledged number two. He was bound to play a pivotal role at some point and with elections 15 months away, it could not have been further delayed.
Equally significant is the new focus on the urban, educated middle class - it found mention not only in Sonia Gandhi's speech but also in Jaipur Declaration. So far, the left-leaning Congress has ignored this segment - the very constituency that Narendra Modi, regarded as the BJP's prime ministerial contendor in 2014, is said to command.
Congress leaders, however, were touchy on the subject, strongly denying that "NaMo's" stamp on the shivir was evident in its expansion of "aam admi" to include the urban middle-class. "The subject has not come up. It did not even cross our minds," said a Congress general secretary. The fact remains that 2014 is likely to be a contest between "NaMo" and the "Yuvraj" - and the tug of war for votes has already begun.
It is in this context that the repeated emphasis on fighting the image of the Congress as a source of corruption must be viewed. Sonia Gandhi's reference to setting up a committee to examine the issue of electoral reforms and funding also follows from the focus on the middle class.
The Congress president's speech both before and after the shivir is being seen as highly significant in terms of government policy. While Rahul is said to be on the same page as the prime minister in terms of economic policy, Sonia's instincts have always been socialist and pro-welfare. She struck a fine balance between the two, reiterating the party's commitment to pro-poor programmes while pointing out that money for welfare schemes had to be found somewhere.
Time and again, the Congress president emphasized her commitment to upholding the initiatives she had taken, as head of the NAC: the RTI Act, the RTE Act, the Forest Rights Act and the MNREGA. This at a time, when the PMO feels that these laws have not only created a huge financial burden but also interfere with the business of economic growth.
So, while approving the diesel price hike and whatever other measures the PM may take in the three month window he has before the Karnataka assembly elections, she made it clear that the party remains committed to welfare schemes like the Right to Food. Economic growth and social justice are two sides the the same coin, she implied.
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