Prashant Kishor and his plans for the “emasculation” of the Congress are just a faint memory as delegates pour into Udaipur to debate on ways to revive the party at a time when it faces its biggest existential threat.
Deepak Bhati “Chotiwala” was brave enough to contest the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections from Dadri from the Congress and he concedes that in most constituencies in UP, his party ended up at third or fourth place (the Congress ended up with just two seats out of 403. Ninety-seven per cent of the candidates lost their deposit). But, he says, the idea of the Congress still represents a powerful motivational force for people who don’t approve of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Manju Bharat Tongar is a woman sarpanch from Dharuhera in Haryana. She says the Congress almost formed a government after the 2019 Assembly elections in Haryana (the BJP had to approach Dushyant Chautala’s Janata Jan-nayak Party cap in hand when it could not reach the midway mark of 46). This was possibly only because “we have been agitating on the roads”. She is a member of the Indian Youth Congress and last month the Haryana government was forced to revoke Rule 134A of the Haryana School Education Rules, 2003. This relates to 25 per cent seats in private schools (classes II to XII) being reserved for children of families below the poverty line and economically weaker sections, which was introduced by the Bhupinder Hooda government but reduced to 10 per cent later when the BJP government came to power. “We achieved this because we agitated till the government was forced to give in.” She says she has been sarpanch for seven years because no local elections have been held in Haryana. “Women come to me and say, we like you lekin ‘desh bachana hai’. What is the logic?”
Both Chotiwala and Tongar agree that the problem is crossed wires at the top level. Bhupinder Hooda is the Congress leader who can draw big crowds. But it was Ashok Tanwar who was made chief of the state party, because of Rahul Gandhi’s affection for him -- he was Youth Congress president when Gandhi was general secretary in charge of the Youth Congress. Later Tanwar crossed the floor and joined the Trinamool Congress and is now convener of the Aam Aadmi Party in Haryana. “Tanwar might not have had a base. But his supporters did and they bolstered the JJP. Mistakes like this have cost us,” he said.
However, things are changing. Two new Congress state chiefs were appointed recently: Udai Bhan in Haryana and Pratibha Singh in Himachal Pradesh. “Both are right decisions,” said Shivi Chauhan from the Himachal Pradesh Youth Congress. Elections are due in the state later this year.
All three are strong supporters of Rahul Gandhi’s ideas of recasting the Congress. Chauhan says he comes from a family of farmers in Himachal which had nothing to do with politics. Chotiwala also belongs to an entirely non-political family. Who would have ever given us a chance if Rahulji hadn’t spotted us, they say.
The stage is set for the strong rebuttal of two central premises set by Prashant Kishor to revive the Congress: That the Gandhi family dissociate itself from decision-making; and the Congress consider alliances with like-minded parties even if it means the party’s own strength and growth is curtailed. A group of delegates from Telangana strongly rebuts the proposition that tying up with the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) could be a means for the Congress to return to power in Telangana. “People are fed up with KCR’s family. We should not tie up with such a man. We can return to power on our own,” they say.
The groups tasked with drafting resolutions have arrived and have begun work. The Chintan Shivir could make or break the party and they are acutely conscious of this. Sonia Gandhi will begin the proceedings by addressing the gathering on Friday. Will the Shivir end with full-throated roars of “Rahul lao desh bachao?” “Maybe,” says a delegate from Andhra Pradesh. “But Prashant Kishor will certainly be rejected.”