At Congress' Surajkund conclave, Sonia Gandhi clarified that the government must toe the party line. Renu Mittal reports.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Friday led the charge against the government at the party's Surjakund conclave, making it clear that it is the party which fights the elections, and now with just 18 months left for the Lok Sabha polls, she expects the government to toe the party line and work and take decisions in its interest.
Sending a clear message after a marathon six-and-a-half hours of discussion that the need of the hour is better co-ordination and dialogue between the party and the government, Sonia Gandhi made it clear the United Progressive Alliance government under Manmohan Singh would have to play a supporting role to the party, and ministers would need to behave like 'Congressmen'.
While she spoke of this in her opening speech, the message was much sharper in her closing remarks. She said that during the last eight years of the UPA government, the Congress had at every turn supported the government, and in times of tough decisions the party had stood with the government. And now with just 18 months left for the general elections, the government would need to play ball with the party.
Out of the 66 senior leaders who attended the samvad baithak (dialogue session) at Surajkund, 40 spoke in the meeting where leaders spoke freely and frankly without mincing words. There was a great deal of criticism of the government by the party -- on its functioning, the way in which critical decisions affecting the aam admi were being taken without looking at the timing factor.
The Congress leaders were given the opportunity to let off steam and target the government to send the signal that the party is supreme and its writ runs. And the fact that the ministers were being repeatedly ticked off for not meeting the workers, for not visiting the party headquarters, etc. was a clear sign that the government had been put on the mat.
There was anger in the party at the manner in which the government decided to restrict the number of subsidised LPG cylinders to six. Newly-appointed Petroleum Minister Veerappa Moily said he would call a meeting and look at the issue.
The party has decided to increase the number to 12 cylinders per year.
Congress leaders said that perception battle is lost by such decisions while the gain from removing the subsidy is minimal in this case.
Taking a potshot at Finance Minister P Chidambaram, All India Congress Committee general secretary Shakeel Ahmed, who is in charge of important states like West Bengal and Jharkhand, said that for the last six months he had been asking for time from Chidambaram, but so with no success. "So when senior leaders were kept at arm's length by the ministers, what hope does the aam admi have in getting an audience with ministers?" he remarked.
Meanwhile, Union minister Kamal Nath was at his fiery best when he told the gathering that there was no cohesion between the functioning of the government and the party. He said that in his view the party was not ready for elections at this juncture as the organisation had become weak.
Another senior leader Jagdish Tytler attacked the various party functionaries, saying there was no discipline. He said unlike in the past when the 125-year-old Congress party used to speak in one voice on key issues, now it was different voices singing different tunes.
He said that leaders were using the media to showcase themselves and "Facebook and Twitter cannot be a replacement for actual contact with the people". He was obviously targeting general secretary Digvijaya Singh.
Interestingly, while there was an outright admission that the government and the party lacked cohesion, there was also a tacit admission that within the party there was a need for better co-ordination in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections. To this end, purely at the party-level, the Congress president has already set up a co-ordination group with three sub groups with specific tasks and the terms of reference of the groups will be announced soon.
It was also felt that a long overdue chintan shivir (brainstorming session) would be held as soon as possible which will formulate concrete plans based on the fallout and analysis of the issues raised in the samvad baithak.
Sonia Gandhi has asked the ministers to ensure the speedy implementation of the manifesto promises which remain unfulfilled, but beyond that the conclave failed to offer any substantive solutions to the ills plaguing both the party and the government.
General secretary Rahul Gandhi said that in the past the Congress had overcome numerous challenges and there was no reason why it could not overcome the current obstacles as well. He followed up from his Ramlila Ground speech last Sunday when he said the system should be systematically opened up to help the aam admi.
The important part was that fed up of defending unilateral government decisions, the party severely criticised the government, especially over its decision on LPG cap. So much so that Veerapa Moily had to stand up and say he would speak to the prime minister and take a decision in a day or two.
For the last few years, the Congress under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi had taken a back seat and it was the agenda of the prime minister and the pro-reformers which had come to dominate, so much so that the party leaders had become uncomfortable.
The Surajkund conclave was an attempt to restore the balance and bring the party back on top, as mentioned by Sonia Gandhi. Did she succeed at all, is a question which remains in the realm of speculation.
Image: PM Singh and Sonia Gandhi address party leaders at the Surajkund conclave on Friday
Photograph: B Mathur/Reuters