The Congress is supposed to be deep in thought in Jaipur. The reflective mode does not come naturally to the Congress, but present circumstances have made reflection urgent, if not, imperative. With general elections about one year — or maybe a little more — away, it is evident to most observers, including to some Congress leaders, that the electoral prospects of the Congress are bleak. There is also a crisis of political leadership. Manmohan Singh is not getting any younger and he has done two terms as prime minister. Sonia Gandhi is unlikely to take on the reins of government. This is not a happy condition for a political party to be in. Added to this is the mysterious role and presence of Rahul Gandhi, seen by some Congressmen as the heir apparent but who sees himself as a reluctant starter. What is perhaps most important is the vision deficit of the Congress. India’s oldest political party has nothing credible and convincing to offer the people of the country. It has no message to take to the people. The meeting in Jaipur is unlikely to resolve any of these issues but a mass party like the Congress needs to occasionally meet and make a show of thinking if only to keep afloat the morale of the rank and file.
The problems facing the Congress are underlined by what the Congress president had to say at the opening. Ms Gandhi’s comments had nothing dramatically new to offer. She reiterated some known aspects of the Congress programme like inclusive growth, the Congress’s championing of social harmony and social justice. She added that the Congress was the only political party that stood for these values and programmes. The all- important question is whether these are adequate to bring about a change in the political fortunes of the party. The answer to the query has already been provided by recent election results which show that the Congress’s popularity is on the decline. The opening remarks of Ms Gandhi suggest that at the level of ideas and programmes the vision deficit persists. It remains to be seen if the deficit is met by what other leaders have to offer.
Part of the Congress’s problems grows from the fact that it is once reformist but twice shy. Very few leaders in the Congress are convinced that reforms can bring forth electoral dividends. On the contrary, what has become part of the Congress’s belief system is the notion that only populist measures win votes. There is thus no attempt made to convince the people of India that economic reforms will also bring to them welfare, that wealth-making can be every Indian’s dream. The cold rationality of economic reforms can be connected to the emotions of the people. But this requires a change of mindset. There is no recognition within the Congress that it must change the way it thinks. To just think in Jaipur is not enough.