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Cong grapples with caste and poverty

Jaipur, Jan. 19: An age-old question agitated the Congress’s brainstorming session today at a time it is gearing to face modern challenges, and left the party groping for an answer.

It was caste.

Both the groups debating the political and socio-economic challenges dwelt at length on the subject, with most speakers concluding that the party cannot regain its lost glory without winning back the backward classes, Dalits and tribals.

At a rough estimate, over 80 per cent of the participants seemed to feel that the Congress must rededicate itself to a pro-poor agenda that primarily covers this segment of society.

As seniors theorised and youngsters voiced frustration at the alienation of the Other Backward Classes, Dalits and tribals from the Congress, an incisive intervention by Rahul Gandhi provided a rude awakening.

He appreciated the concerns being expressed but added: “I was counting how many Dalits and tribals are here. Out of the 75 participants in this group, I could spot five Dalits and two tribals. I couldn’t count Muslims, who too must be negligible. We need to introspect.”

Rahul, who had been listening to the discussions intently, had made his point without disturbing the debate or challenging the theories being proffered. His remark provided a pointer why he had been calling for a change in the party’s political culture and an opening of the system to ordinary people.

At the two-day Chintan Shivir, which ended today, many of his team members from the Youth Congress echoed this sentiment. They wondered how the system could change if those entrenched did not change their mindset or vacate space.

Among their elders, Kishore Chandra Deo and Ajit Jogi argued that the party had drifted away from tribals, and Ramesh Chennithala and Mani Shankar Aiyar rued that a wrong policy thrust was benefiting only a few. The common thread that ran through all these arguments was a desire to win over the weaker segments of society.

Plenty of questions were asked but there were few answers. At the debate on political challenges, Jaipal Reddy declared that the party was wrong if it thought the days of identity politics were over and cited how even Barack Obama was now learning the art of “social engineering”.

Sushil Kumar Shinde cautioned against diluting the traditional middle path in favour of a pro-US or pro-rich tilt. But neither provided any solution.

The speakers appeared resigned to the continuance of the economic reforms but they all wanted the political discourse to be centred on the poor.

The position paper on socio-economic challenges set the tone by outlining the growing disparities and revealing that “nearly 80 crore” Indians live on less than $2 (about Rs 108) a day.

“Nearly 12 million enter the workforce every year, a figure which is unimaginable in scale in developed economies and could turn into India’s biggest nightmare if not managed well,” the document said.

The speakers called for a slogan to be coined before the 2014 general election that would encapsulate the party’s emphasis on welfare and employment generation, on the lines of Indira Gandhi’s famed “Garibi hatao”. They urged the party to fight the perception that it wanted to end subsidies, some even suggesting a dual policy of targeting the rich and helping the poor.

The only other issue to figure prominently in the discussions was the credibility crisis facing the party thanks to corruption scandals and perceptions of inefficient governance.

While many blamed inadequate image management, some others said the crisis could be tackled only through tough action and not through lip service or propaganda. They advocated big-bang punitive actions against the corrupt and steps to make the law-enforcing agencies effective.

The position paper provided detailed blueprints on employment generation, skill development, agriculture, infrastructure, health, power and industrial growth.

The suggestions were examined and a report sent to Sonia Gandhi in the evening so that final drafts on various issues could be prepared for approval by the Congress Working Committee. The All India Congress Committee will debate these drafts tomorrow before a Jaipur Declaration is finalised.