Monday, November 12, 2012

The Message is the Dialogue../ Power & Politics/ The Sunday Standard/ November 11, 2012

The message is the dialogue: We crash together, and the first family is in charge

Dialogue without direction is as meaningless as a debate without debaters. However, if dialogue is an excuse to get warring, egoistic individuals to break bread together, it can yield dividends. When 66 honchos—small and big, young and old with mini and mega mindsets—assembled last week in the salubrious environment created by Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda in Surajkund, Haryana, it didn’t turn out to be either a clash of the titans or intellectual gymnastics. It wasn’t meant to be, as the aroma of the delicious five-course lunch served amid the strains of piano music made it clear. The rendezvous was only a move to prove that the Gandhi Parivar was fully in control of both government and the party. Congress President Sonia Gandhi was full of confidence, and Rahul Gandhi symbolised the vital paradigm shift in the ruling establishment. 

The assembly was appropriately titled  ‘Samvad Baithak’, in which those who draw political lines and agendas, and those who execute them were present. The samvad (dialogue), however, was confined to only a select few. Officially, the meeting was expected to review the implementation of the 2009 Congress election manifesto. But it turned out to be more of a six-and-a-half hour seminar in which speeches were made, but no critical questions were raised or answered. Instead of going through the structured dialogue in three sessions—on the manifesto, politics and economics—the meeting became a platform for senior leaders to display their ignorance. However, the Samvad Baithak—the first-of-its-kind in recent Congress history—proved beyond doubt that when other political parties were engulfed in mismanagement, the Congress was walking united, cohesively and purposefully. The baithak (a favourite RSS term) has all the ingredients of a strong organisation. It has the right soochi (list), perfect soochna ( information) and meaningful soch ( thought). The Surajkund baithak may have failed to make any impact on voters, but it reduced the gap between the government and the party. The Congress may have lost the battle of perception but it has won the hearts of its demoralised middle-level leaders and directionless workers. The tone, tenor and content of the speeches made it clear that it wasn’t meant only to bring the government closer to the party. 

As Sonia made it clear that it is the party that wins an election and forms the government, the baithak generated powerful signals for an early election. For those who ceremoniously drove to the venue in a tourist bus, the message was clear—they have to drive or crash together. But if the Samvad was meant to give voice and stature to Congress GenNext, it hardly served its purpose. Rahul was the only person who made a purposeful intervention, when his speech exceeded the allotted time of five minutes. The half-a-dozen young ministers with independent charge or Cabinet rank were more conspicuous by their mandatory presence. The recently promoted Sachin Pilot, Jitender Singh, Ajay Maken and Jyotiraditya Scindia were hardly called upon. Maybe they were under the impression that the baithak was just another Cabinet meeting where only elders speak. With the average age of the Cabinet 65 years, these future leaders were more than elated with the place of pride their leader Rahul got. One said, “Where was the need for us to add anything when he was speaking for all of us?” Another explained: “We have been brought up in an environment in which young members of the family are advised to respect and hear the elders out, even if they are not in tune with your thinking.” Even aggressive interventionists like Jairam Ramesh, Salman Khurshid and Ambika Soni played the role of fence-sitters, not ministers.

Contrary to the current perception, Rahul did set the tone and made the ministers listen to his discovery of a paradigm shift in the Indian political and administrative system.  He wondered how the RTI Act, gifted by the UPA government, could be used effectively by its opponents and the judiciary to enforce transparency. Rahul wondered why the system can’t be made more responsive by eliminating excess bureaucratic intervention. Finance Minister P Chidambaram revealed that he was initiating action against an official who had sat on a file for over 50 days. Surprisingly, his powerful presentation on the economy went over the heads of many, including senior colleagues.

But the participants were riled over the beating that the party and the government is getting from social media and civil society. Over a dozen participants, including senior ministers and leaders like Kapil Sibal, Veerappa Moily, Ashwani kumar, Manish Tewari, Digvijaya Singh, and Jagdish Tytler felt that the party hasn’t been able to use social media effectively to counter its opponents. Moily was insistent that the cadres should be instructed to mark their presence on all social media platforms and make them a political propaganda vehicle. He revealed that over 30 per cent of the sitting Congress MPS have won from rich and urban constituencies, where social media is important. When it comes to discussing the media, most meetings end abruptly without a consensus. So did the baithak. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was told to take the copter back ‘before 4.30 pm, since the weather wouldn’t be conducive afterwards’. He happily flew away, to host another dinner to bring allies like the Samajawadi Party and the National Conference closer, even if his own party was not able to close the distance between dialogue and perception.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

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