Congress’s Chintan Shivir Resembled a Reality TV Show. Its Effects Have Already Vanished

Days after the Congress Party’s Chintan Shivir came to an end last week, Rahul Gandhi made an appearance in the United Kingdom. At an event called the Ideas for India Conference, he made a statement that caused a furore back home. Claiming that it was the people of India who had come together to form a union, he proclaimed that India was described therefore as a union of states and not a nation. Perhaps such a line of thought would have struck a chord in the United Kingdom, since such arguments have been used to whitewash colonialism at different junctures. In India however, it comes across as the denial or the undermining of a civilisation that has stood the test of time and continues to play a part in the lives of millions of Indians, in different ways and to different degrees. In another event, upon being questioned about his earlier statement, he chose to double down on it. Setting aside the civilisational debate that rages in certain elite and now dwindling circles, the fact that the debate rages only in such circles is indication enough of how counterproductive such a stance can be. The outcome of the Chintan Shivir, which remains ambiguous for most political observers, seems not to have covered certain obvious lacunae.

Much like the civilisational debate in which the Congress Party has found itself on the wrong side consistently, especially so in the past eight years wherein the debate has reemerged with renewed vigour, the party’s Chintan Shivir was yet another example of how far removed it has become from ground reality. Banalities such as poll-preparedness, youth representation, and the formation of yet another set of committees, were stressed upon. However, the changes in communication and leadership, the two biggest issues ailing the party, were spoken about but largely left untouched. As is clear from Rahul Gandhi’s statements in the United Kingdom and his meeting with India-baiters such as Jeremy Corbyn, the Congress Party failed to realise that the problem in its communication did not stem from the messaging but lay in the message itself. Hardik Patel seems to have caught on to this and has dumped the party right after the Shivir. When it came to leadership, the party attempted to curb nepotism with the ‘one family one ticket’ rule, but added a caveat- that this rule would not apply to anyone with five years of organisational work experience. The usual suspects who have emerged as symbols of family rule or dynasty politics will therefore not fall within the purview of this rule, and in fact, the caveat might now give them further sanction to perpetuate the practice. There is very little to suggest that the Shivir, much like other supposedly game-changing initiatives of the party, was not merely a cosmetic exercise.

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At the root of the many cosmetic exercises the party has undertaken over the years, lie two phenomena. The first is the ‘emperor has new clothes’ syndrome. Realistic feedback from the ground never reaches the party’s decision-makers, while at the same time, every decision they make is hailed as revolutionary lower down in the hierarchy and accepted in an uncritical fashion. The second, perhaps downstream from the first, is more sinister. The leadership seems to be under the impression that the Congress Party is still the default political option of the country, and that its current condition is only cyclical. Hence, certain cosmetic changes are all it will take for the party to return to its former glory, since the country is conditioned to Congress rule. At a subconscious level, India is only waiting for the party to make a course correction so that it can start electing the party to power once again. The party, therefore, has allowed itself to become like a reality television show, letting the country have a constant live feed of how it is attempting to make amends and alter its internal dynamics, as if India was a one-party state where these internal dynamics matter to the common man. What strategies it will adopt and how the leadership thinks, subjects that are generally deliberated upon behind closed doors, are openly discussed and debated in the media. The media gets minute-by-minute updates of how Prashant Kishor has arrived as the savior, and how the Chintan Shivir is bringing about sweeping changes. Unfortunately for the Congress, such an approach also brings to the surface infighting and the palace intrigues. The stories are never complete without the G23, Kishor’s power-point presentation, or how the talks eventually broke down.

The approach is in stark contrast to how the BJP, which has replaced the Congress Party as the country’s default political option, has functioned in the past few years. The playbook that transformed it not just into an election-winning machine but also brought about two of the largest electoral mandates in human history, is not one that has been placed before the public for constant scrutiny and ridicule. The conception and planning do not take place before the mainstream media, and the implementation happens without fanfare. For instance, prior to the 2014 elections, the BJP began expanding its various committees from the state level right down till the level of the polling booth, by inducting members of the OBC community in them. This conscious push made the community a crucial part of the party’s organisational machinery, allowing the party to break new electoral ground. After the Modi government came to power, the delivery of welfare began at an unprecedented scale and with acute efficiency. In parallel, the organisation kept track of the beneficiaries, and was able to mobilise them during election season. The party ran a membership drive as well, which made it the largest political organisation in the world and further enthused the cadre. Another interesting initiative was the concept of ‘panna-pramukh’, wherein it managed to identify one member for every page of the electoral roll in many polling booths across the country, and handed them the responsibility to keep the other voters of the same page well-disposed towards the party. The party has also put in place feedback mechanisms at various levels and of various kinds, about which not much is well-known. These are only some of the BJP’s strategies that are now in the public domain. Most of them have not even been reported on extensively. The details of some of these strategies have come to the fore largely through books about the party, like the ones written by Prashant Jha (2017) and Nalin Mehta (2022).

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There is little evidence to suggest that the BJP has gone out of its way to hide any aspect of its strategy. But the party seems well aware of the fact that having achieved the status of being the default option in Indian politics, it cannot take the position for granted. Moreover, it does not suffer from the delusion that it needs to put on a constant show about its own thought process for the country as if the party’s internal discourse is an intellectual fest that the common citisen follows with bated breath. It seems well-aware of the elitist assumption underlying such an approach, as well as how quickly such a show can turn into a complete circus in the information age.

The drawback in the BJP’s approach is that it is often accused of being autocratic and opaque. This is a cost that the BJP seems willing to bear for running a tight ship. The Congress Party’s approach clouds its judgment, allows the lack of discipline and coordination to play out before a national audience, and prevents it from becoming a serious political alternative. If anything, the Chintan Shivir, which was touted to bring honest introspection and real change, has only brought about further derision. An effective feedback mechanism, a clear message that resonates with people, or even the exclusion of untalented nepotists, would have gone much further than soul-searching and pontificating before television cameras.

Ajit Datta is an author and political commentator. He has authored the book, ‘Himanta Biswa Sarma: From Boy Wonder to CM’. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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