Talk about talking
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At the chintan shivir, the Congress needs to own up to its communication problem
The Congress party's major conclaves or chintan shivirs have coincided with political milestones in the past. At Pachmarhi in 1998, it reiterated its unwillingness to forge coalitions or to acknowledge that the rules of the game had been transformed for good. The party was still in denial — to an extent, it still is — about the collapse of one-party dominance. In part, it was that refusal to attune itself to the new politics, and the BJP's unreserved plunge into coalition-making, that led to the NDA coming to power in 1999 as a 24-party alliance. By the time the party met again at Shimla in 2003, the Congress had seen the necessity of rallying together "secular forces". When the 2004 Lok Sabha elections came, therefore, the Congress had gathered partners of its own, and the UPA was born soon after elections. As the party prepares to meet again for another brainstorming later this week in Jaipur, it could be on the cusp of another momentous discovery and makeover — or not.
The party's leaders are reportedly concerned about the challenges posed by the social media — its power to mobilise crowds at Jantar Mantar or Raisina Hill, during the Anna campaign and in the course of the agitation against the rape in Delhi recently. It is true that the Congress leadership showed itself to be far too heavy-footed in the face of protests energised and amplified by the new media. Yet, if the party were to allow itself an honest introspection, it might find that its failure runs deeper.
If at one time the Congress was faced with the challenge of finding a way to talk to potential allies, now it confronts a task more daunting. It needs to break its silence with the people. Ever since it came to power in 2004, the Congress's leadership has stepped back from every opportunity to strike a conversation with the electorate. In consequential and turbulent moments, in Parliament and outside it, the top leadership has appeared reticent and remote. At present, the Congress appears overtaken not so much by the new media, but by an old democratic idea acquiring new force: that part of the job of being a leader is to engage with the people's anxieties and concerns in between elections, and be seen to be doing so.