Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr | Congress plenary: The real stuff behind the headlines
The Congress Party’s resolutions ratified — a nominal procedure — at the 85th plenary session in Chhattisgarh’s capital Raipur on February 25-26 show that much thought has gone into them, and there is a serious rethink on many of the substantive issues. The cynical way of looking at them is to argue that the resolutions are not worth the paper they are written on, and they do not matter in the realpolitik of intra-party affairs. Of course, it is true that power tussles within the Congress are notorious but it would be a folly to think that the party is just that — an arena of endemic infighting. And it should be conceded that compared to the monolithic ruling party, the BJP, the Congress is seething with rivalries from inside, and it is quite good for political democracy. The BJP is both disciplined and mindless.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the self-appointed source of all thinking and articulator of whatever there is in the party and its ideation. In contrast, the Congress is doing some real thinking on the national agenda, though it might turn out to be ineffective if the party fails to win in the 2024 general election.
But no one can deny that there is a need to apply one’s mind to the many challenges at the political level, and talk about them intelligibly and intelligently.
So, there is much more to the Congress carnival at Raipur than the speeches of Sonia Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Rahul Gandhi, though all the three spoke well and in different tones. Sonia Gandhi remains an admirable European social democrat who can speak with conviction about liberty, equality and fraternity. The only other Indian politician who uttered these words with conviction was Babasaheb Ambedkar. Priyanka and Rahul, in their speeches, reflected the Nehruvian impetuosity with their impatience with party conventions and rituals of resolutions.
But that is not a problem as long as there are others in the party who are doing the job of thinking on policy and ideas. In more ways than one, the apparently lackadaisical Congress president, Mallikarjun Kharge, connects the “leaders” with the party organisation, a job that Sonia Gandhi managed over the past two decades.
The major shift in the Congress’ thinking is on the economic policy front. Former finance minister and economic reforms torch-bearer in the party Palaniappan Chidambaram made a radical confession. He said that half of India was left behind as the country became a market economy in 1991, and a new middle class emerged and prospered, while economic inequality increased. He spoke with passion about the plight of the poor, and he told the party that from this day onward the goal should be to take care of the poor, provide them with opportunities. He said that it was now time to shift the economic agenda somewhat, after nearly 40 years of economic reforms. But the economic liberaliser that he is, he did not suggest going back to the socialist economy.
He argued for extending the benefits of the market economy to the 700 million people who got “left behind”. It is fair enough to counter and say that like a good politician, Mr Chidambaram is shedding crocodile tears for the poor as is the Congress’ wont. But for the Congress to admit openly and loudly that there needs to be a change of direction shows the political maturity of the party to understand the existing situation and respond to it. That’s why the economic resolution reflects an important facet of the Congress, that it is politically realistic.
The bench strength of good minds in the party is far superior to that of the BJP.
It is also a subtle adaptation of Congress economic policies since the days of P.V. Narasimha Rao, who was a reluctant reformer at best, and Dr Manmohan Singh, who again was not a market fundamentalist. Rahul Gandhi has been echoing the populism of Indira Gandhi in talking about the poor in India. The economic resolution has provided the rationale for his instinctive talk. It is a known fact that market economies everywhere in the world are in trouble, and there is a need to respond to the crisis.
The Congress’ economic resolution is a good example of answering the question of market crisis in the Indian context. The BJP’s wonks are clueless about the global economic nightmare as they are, essentially, intellectually challenged.
The resolution on international relations has displayed a fine sense of pragmatism. It acknowledged the importance of the Indian diaspora, and it said that it would revive the ministry for overseas Indians, which has now been reduced to a division of the ministry of external affairs. It has also emphasised the need not to identify the diaspora with Hindu nationalism in the BJP manner, and respect the diaspora’s talent and position in their adopted societies. This removes the dangers of extra-territorial nationalism which the BJP has been promoting, and which could prove counterproductive to Indians living abroad. More important, the resolution talked about the need to increase the budget and expand the MEA’s personnel overseas to enable India to play its proper role as an emerging power in the global configuration. It is quite likely that this is Shashi Tharoor’s contribution to the resolution.
In the political resolution, the party talked of amending the Constitution to strengthen the freedom of the press as part of the freedom of speech enshrined in the Fundamental Rights. This is a detail that is likely to attract derision from the media but given the fact that the government has been clamping down on press freedom in a thousand small and invisible and not so invisible ways, the Congress’ desire to defend the freedom of the press should come as a breath of fresh air. Even if it fails to fulfil its promise, it is possible to hold the Congress to its commitment. The BJP-NDA government is only too eager to crack down on the press in the name of anti-national activities.
Not many people in the country, in political circles as well as in the media, will take the Congress’ resolutions very seriously. But the resolutions are out there in black and white and in the open, and they can contribute qualitatively to a largely degraded political discourse that has become the paradigm. These resolutions will outlast the headlines about the domineering Nehru-Gandhi family and a marginalised party president.