Chunav chintan

Congress makes it official on Rahul Gandhi but for the rest, wastes the Jaipur opportunity

The outcome of the Congress's three-day deliberations at Jaipur was more a battle cry than a statement of vision or soul-searching. Perhaps that should not come as a surprise. Lok Sabha elections are only 15 months away, the party has had little to celebrate electorally since 2009 and the UPA government has seemed continuously besieged, as it battles charges of policy paralysis and corruption, economic challenges and urban middle-class agitations. For the Congress, fighting words to rebuild the morale of the party faithful must have seemed the need of the moment. Yet, in training its focus almost entirely on the battle in 2014, it may have frittered away a rare opportunity to ask itself some hard questions on why it seems so overtaken not just by events, but also by ideas. The only inkling that the party recognises the need for a deeper reorientation came through signs that it was willing to take ownership of the government's "tough" economic decisions recently, its emphasis on the need for better "communication strategies", and its acknowledgement that new constituencies of the aspirational and urban young, and women, were demanding its attention.

For the rest, this chintan shivir will be remembered for the formalisation of Rahul Gandhi's status in the party as its vice president and official No 2. Not many would have doubted that he was already playing the role, or at any rate, that it was his for the taking. But the decision announced in Jaipur could be remarkable for the dynamic it sets in motion. Having already wielded the power, now Rahul will also have to acknowledge responsibility, on a range of issues. He no longer has the option of parachuting in and out of situations at will and evading questions about failure or follow-through. His anointment will be meaningful only if he responds to these imperatives of greater openness and accountability that come with his new job. The patchy outcomes of his work so far in the NSUI and Youth Congress, the electorally dismal results of his strategy of going it alone in UP and Bihar, and his cultivated reticence on important matters of public concern in Parliament and outside it, could suggest that the bursting of crackers in the Congress camp may be a little premature.

At the heart of the Congress crisis today is its inability to see that the rules of the game have changed. Not all of its ideological-political reflexes, or its old habits of hauteur and complacence, serve it well in a more competitive political field and in addressing a younger and more demanding electorate. This may seem like a tall order for any weekend shivir, but the Congress may have deferred the search for answers at Jaipur.

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