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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

With Rahul Gandhi's emphasis on galvanising the party's moribund youth cadre, the Congress believes its prospects are beginning to look bright

After Irom Sharmila last year, Anna Hazare wins IIPM's 2011 Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize of Rs. 1cr. To be handed over on 9th May

An ace up his sleeve

It is well known in Congress circles that if there is anyone who cares most dearly about its future, it is its president Sonia Gandhi. The second name on that list is Rahul Gandhi. While under the UPA-I dispensation, Sonia Gandhi focused hard on 'achievements' of the party, the same period was used by Rahul to activate Congress' youth cadre. The Left Front, then supporters of the government, were the watchdogs: an opinion sought from the Left would entail such a research-based reply that the issue in concern would cease to be relevant. In other words, problems use to take care of themselves.

But UPA-II has been different. In the face of strong tearaway criticism of the government recently in the 2G payoffs and embarrassing exposure from WikiLeaks on the monies paid to buy votes of Members of Parliament (MPs) during the 2008 no-confidence vote, the pressure from the party on the government has been nearly as strong as it was from the Left Front during the UPA government's first term.

Those leaders in the Congress who were worried about the future of the party as well as the Gandhi family, have changed colours. Under pressure from the party high command, every little grievance now needs redressal, a routine party report cannot just be pushed under the carpet or treated casually. It has to be acted upon and pronto.

For instance, Sonia Gandhi was recently in London when a Delhi newspaper published a report of how a former union minister close to the family had utilised the services of a small time Congressman to buy MP votes. According to well placed party sources, Sonia ordered a report to be placed on her table before she returned from her sojourn explaining the potential damage that WikiLeaks may have caused the party.

The party report suggested that not much was likely to happen to the UPA in WikiLeaks, if anything it would be the BJP which would have a lot to answer. Instead, this committee which dealt with challenges and possibilities, has proposed that economic reforms need a human face, inflation be brought down, relief be given to the rural sector and young Congress cadres be organised at booth level.

The party is now leaning on the government to implement the proposals of this report. Cleverly, the Congress decision to involve the public accounts committee (PAC) in the 2G investigations is designed to keep it at loggerheads with the JPC, which is pursuing a similar probe and has already summoned Tata chairman Ratan Tata and Niira Radia.

According to Congress calculations, state elections in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal would be over and the party could then devote itself to strategising for the future. But central to all these themes is the invigorating of youth cadres which have the desired energy to get involved in mass contact programmes. Importantly, this team of leaders close to Rahul Gandhi believe that old party organisations had failed to promote a second, well defined line of leadership and that this is the time to activate that second line.

In the same vein, the party has prepared a Vision Paper 2014, which points out that regional parties have adroitly exploited regional sentiments, cashing on regional problems and soaring aspirations. In the context, the Paper has said that the party should stop thinking about the two-party system and instead concentrate on coalition governments as they were the immediate foreseeable future.
The recent seat-sharing arrangements that Congress has entered into with regional parties going to polls, is a result of that thought process. Both in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, it has Trinamool and AIADMK respectively. General Secretary Oscar Fernandes told TSI that "regional sentiments cannot be ignored.'' Asked if the party would think of accommodating the SP or BSP in the UPA or contest elections jointly, Fernandes said since these parties were not part of the government, that possibility has ruled itself out.

The Paper has clearly set out a target – or more specifically, sought to maintain one. It believes that the 206 seats and 28 per cent vote share that it got in the 2009 elections, should be kept intact.

To attain that goal, the Paper says that logistical support and organisational strength are critical. No better evidence of it comes than from the party headquarters at 24 Akbar Road where currently about 25 jeeps with UP-32 registration numbers are parked waiting to go to West Bengal for the assembly elections. Before this, in the Bihar elections, Rajasthan numbered cars were sent from the same location. The trend began with Rajiv Gandhi when he sent out brand new Maruti Gypsies for poll campaigns: no surprise that none ever came back and rumour has it that one former MP from eastern UP still uses an old Gypsy!

According to Rahul's concept of logistical support, the need for cars is different this time. The party plans to give them to needy candidates, wherever required. In addition, funding of candidates and providing them with uninterrupted publicity material is on the cards.

Emphasising the need for elementary poll booth management, cadres in Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh have been put through a Back to Basics course, whose preliminary session ended around Holi and the second is likely to resume after Navratras.

Says BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad, "Our Back to Basics meant for the 2014 general elections has been stolen by Congress' heir apparent Rahul.'' Retorts Congress general secretary Janardan Dwivedi: "We are always prepared for elections and there is no question of copying the BJP. Had we done that, we would have been sitting in the Opposition.''

But as ever, UP remains the most elusive prize the Congress and its president aspire for. Working towards that and inducting Beni Prasad Verma into the Union Cabinet is part of the new initiative. Verma – with his own vision 2014 – has reportedly told the high command it may not be a bad idea to work out some sort of understanding with Ajit Singh in western UP to strengthen the party's base.
Not surprisingly, a majority of those involved in Rahul's ambitious plans are the youth. According to party observers, these are long-term prospects, but if pursued consistently, could produce unexpected results when the country is ready to go in for General Elections 2014.

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