Why Congress wants to revisit lessons from Pachmarhi & Shimla

Sonia Gandhi is said to have accepted the proposal, put forward by Manish Tewari. The Congress is at a crossroads, but there is stark similarity between the party's situation now and what it went through over two decades ago.

At a meeting Congress president Sonia Gandhi had with her senior colleagues, including the core team of 23 leaders who had written to her seeking sweeping reforms within, a proposal was mooted to hold a Chintan Shivir, on the lines of the ones it had held in Pachmarhi and Shimla in 1998 and 2003 respectively, when it was in opposition.

Sonia Gandhi is said to have accepted the proposal, put forward by Manish Tewari, one of the 23 leaders. The Congress is at a crossroads, but there is stark similarity between the party’s situation now and what it went through over two decades ago. The Pachmarhi session was held to reassess the party’s course and develop a new programme to win back the confidence of the people after back-to-back defeats in Lok Sabha elections.

The challenges before the party today are no different. In fact, the crisis it is facing is far deeper and complex.

The backdrop

In her first address as Congress president to the AICC session on April 6, 1998, Sonia Gandhi said, “I have come to this office at a critical point in the history of the party. Our numbers in Parliament have dwindled. Our support base among the electorate has been seriously eroded. Some segments of the voters — including our tribals, Dalits and minorities — have drifted from us. We are in danger of losing our central place in the polity of our country as the natural party of governance.”

The Congress had slumped to 141 seats just a month earlier in general elections.

While arguing that she was no “saviour” and the party must be realistic in its expectations, Sonia Gandhi had said that “the revival of our party is going to be a long drawn process, involving sincere hard work, from each and every one of us…” She had said the party must “shun what is expedient and stand by what is right” and argued that the party’s leadership must emerge from the grassroots and reflect the aspirations of the grassroots.

The Pachmarhi session was held months later that year. Over three days from September 4 to 6, the top leadership of the party went into a huddle searching for light at the end of the tunnel and seeking to iron out the party’s ideological and organisational inconsistencies.

In fact, in her inaugural address, Sonia Gandhi said, “Electoral reverses are inevitable and are, in themselves, not cause for worry. But what is disturbing is the loss of our social base, of the social coalition that supports us and looks up to us. What is also worrisome is that intra-party discord seems to take up so much of our time and energy when it ought to be channelised for working together to regain popular support and public credibility.”

While the Congress’s diagnosis that the coalition era is a “transient phase” in Indian politics had made headlines, the brainstorming session – Vichar Manthan Shivir — resulted in the party adopting a 14-point plan of action for revival.

On coalition

In her concluding remarks, Sonia Gandhi said, “The fact that we are going through a coalitional phase at national level politics reflects in many ways the decline of the Congress. This is a passing phase and we will come back again with full force and on our own steam.”

The declaration echoed this, affirming that “the party considers the present difficulties in forming one-party governments a transient phase in the evolution of our polity” and pledging “to restore the party to its primacy in national affairs”. It decided that “coalitions will be considered only when absolutely necessary and that too on the basis of agreed programmes which will not weaken the party or compromise its basic ideology”.

Interestingly, the declaration said the Congress will “unflinchingly meet the challenge of the communal forces as represented by the BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar, such as the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, and those outside, such as the Shiv Sena with no compromise or dilution of the well-established principles and practice of secularism, defined and evolved by the party as crucial to our nationhood”.

The Congress today is sharing power with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra.

In fact, in her inaugural address, Sonia Gandhi had said that “the question we must ask ourselves is whether we have in any way diluted our commitment to the fight against communal forces. It would perhaps be tempting to say we have not. However, there is a general perception that we have at times compromised with our basic commitment to the secular ideal that forms the bedrock of our society”.

Other highlights

The Pachmarhi session resolved to forestall and oppose any move to dilute reservations, and the filling of vacancies, promotions and preference in government employment for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes, weaker sections of society and minorities, prevent any discrimination against them, and ensure their security and insist on stern action in regard to atrocities inflicted on them.

The party resolved to recognise the importance of empowerment of youth and importantly noted with concern the inadequacy of attention to the question of voluntary population control. It decided to make it a key element of the party programme and said “any party member who becomes the parent of more than two children after January 1, 2000 would be ineligible for selection or election to any party office or for selection as a party candidate for any election”.

Organisationally, it decided to accord “the highest priority to the revival and renewal of the party” in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Tamil Nadu and approved, interestingly, a proposal to establish a Congress Election Authority, composed of eminent, impartial and highly respected senior Congress leaders to ensure free and fair elections “at all levels of the party”. Election to all levels is now a demand which has been made repeatedly by the ‘G-23’ leaders.

Over to Shimla

The Pachmarhi conclave and the declaration failed to revive the Congress as Lok Sabha elections the following year, 1999, saw the party plunging to a further low of 114. The party underwent convulsions soon as Sharad Pawar, P A Sangma and Tariq Anwar raised a banner of revolt against Sonia Gandhi, leading to their exit. Then senior leader Jitendra Prasada threw a challenge to her in 2000 when he contested against her for the post of Congress president.

The Shimla Shivir was held in July 2003, barely a year before the general elections in 2004, and the party significantly nuanced its stand on coalition, indicating its openness to share power at the Centre by calling for unity of secular forces.

More importantly, the party put forward a rights-based alternative governance model promising to enact a national rural employment guarantee act; establish food and nutrition security for all at more affordable prices; introduce social insurance and other schemes for the protection and welfare of all workers, particularly for those in the unorganised sector; accelerate land reforms; launch programmes for the economic advancement, social empowerment, political representation and legal equality of Dalits, adivasis, OBCs and minorities; and start a purposeful dialogue with private industry on how best India’s social diversity could be reflected in the private sector in different ways like reservations and fiscal incentives.

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