A.K. Antony and Rahul Gandhi at the inaugural session of the Chintan Shivir in Jaipur on Friday. (PTI)
Jaipur, Jan. 18: Rahul Gandhi looked on from the dais as little-known teenagers, nestled comfortably among Union ministers and chief ministers in the audience, created an unfamiliar scene.
They clapped passionately when Sonia Gandhi hailed the youth’s sizeable presence at the Chintan Shivir here as the “reflection of Congress priorities and resonance of the demographic reality of our country”.
The brainstorming session reflected the party’s mood of transition, from the era of Sonia to that of Rahul. At least half the delegates burst into feverish applause every time the youth and their aspirations got a mention or a change in attitudes was advocated.
Congress Chintan Shivirs are usually the domain of the veteran, with a smattering of young faces thrown in. The previous edition in Shimla a decade ago was attended by barely a dozen “youths” aged in their 30s.
In contrast, more than 150 of the 400 participants this time were said to be from the Youth Congress and party student wing NSUI, some of them as young as 18 or 19.
Sonia arrived as the supreme leader but seemed to be quietly stepping back in favour of her reluctant son who may find it a challenge to fill her formidable shoes.
Party strategists, however, firmly clubbed Rahul with Sonia and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, asking each to attend all the five debates — on political challenges, economic issues, foreign affairs, women’s empowerment and organisational matters. The idea is to give them an overview of the suggestions that will eventually shape the Congress vision.
Most senior leaders spoke of Rahul’s ascendance and stressed that the 2014 general election would be fought under his leadership.
The Youth Congress and NSUI delegates, who claimed they belonged to the high table because of the changing socio-political realities, too argued that Rahul’s time had come.
Asked if there would be a formal announcement of his number two position in the next two days, a leader told The Telegraph: “We don’t know, but we are projecting his leadership with full force.”
Sonia indicated this session wasn’t about electoral strategies, laying greater stress on the new political challenges such as the public outcry for accountability and participatory democracy and old social ills like gender bias and ostentatious lifestyles.
She even hinted at a readiness to embrace changes to the organisational culture.
“We must build new leadership at all levels, a leadership that is proactive and that is not afraid of moving forward, and taking up issues and programmes which highlight the concerns and aspirations of the people. Performance, not patronage, must be the ladder to advancement in the party,” she said.
This would have been music to the ears of the young men and women who won their Youth Congress and NSUI posts through countrywide elections. The youngsters spoke of their determination to raise uncomfortable questions relating to the party culture of status quoism, factional fights and personal power games.
In her inaugural speech, Sonia encouraged frank discussions and cited the problems of personal ambition and disunity in the context of the party’s repeated failures to reclaim lost political ground.
“We should be coming together, setting aside personal ambitions and egos, and working cohesively so that the party triumphs. Why do we forget the simple truth that in the party’s victory lies the victory of each and every one of us?” she said.
But her focus was on the new demands for delivery and transparency in governance, and on personal integrity and social inequalities.
“We have to recognise that today’s India is peopled by a younger, more aspirational, more impatient, more demanding, better-educated generation. Aided by the tools of the modern world — television, social media, mobile phones and the Internet — today’s India is better informed and better equipped to communicate. They seek more from the elected representatives, better delivery, stronger responsiveness, greater accountability and, ultimately, demonstrable integrity.”
Gender issues are “fundamental”, Sonia said. “The entire party must understand them and bring them to the heart of our political activity and change (the) mindset.”
Sonia either ignored or made passing references to more “political” subjects such as price rise, communalism, tensions with Pakistan, welfare schemes, organisational weaknesses and elections. But she spoke extensively on corruption.
“Our citizens are rightly fed up with the corruption they have to deal with in their daily lives.”
The Shivir — renamed from the earlier Chintan Baithak because of the association of “baithak” with the RSS — will debate freely for the next two days. The resolution will be discussed at the All India Congress Committee meeting the following day.
Although Sonia said such sessions help the party “introspect, clarify, reinterpret and consolidate positions” on various issues, the exercise is primarily aimed at projecting Rahul’s leadership.
This is a delicate task, made more difficult by a dilemma. While Rahul appears unready to take over the party reins, nobody wants to disinvest in Sonia, either. The next two days will indicate how the party decides to manage the issue of multiple leadership.
A proposal to reserve for the youth a fifth of seats in all elections, including Assembly and Lok Sabha polls, was moved by P. Chidambaram and may be included in the organisational resolution, sources said.