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Flagship vs the rest


Congress believes its social sector programmes are antidote to inflation and charges of corruption, says Pramod Kumar
PRAMOD KUMAR | Issue Dated: July 25, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : 2014 Lok Sabha polls | Congress | UPA | Sonia Gandhi | Rahul Gandhi | Jaipur Chintin Shivir |

In a party that has ruled India for most part of its post-Independence history, it is common knowledge that governance and winning elections are two clear and separate functions. Which is why Congress president Sonia Gandhi and son Rahul Gandhi have kept themselves away from the government, preferring to concentrate on organization. It is also equally clear that without the duo, the Congress is in no position to form a government or win elections. Sonia, who was in total control of UPA 1, managed to meet her party deadlines, ensuring in the process that the alliance won a second term.

But insiders in the Congress believe that UPA 3 will be tougher than the previous two terms. The opposition is already going hammer and tongs at the slew of corruption charges which have put the ruling party on the defensive.

The top three in the Congress, Sonia, Rahul and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, are not unaware of the pitfalls. At the Jaipur Chintin Shivir, the PM said as much. Despite our many achievements, our ministerial colleagues have not been able to highlight them as they should have, he regretted. Says Congress general secretary Janardan Dwivedi, “It is a fact that we have not been able to showcase our achievements as it should have been done. But now on, our total attempt would be to reach out to the common man.’’

Past masters at winning elections, the Congress is now fully in the poll mode. As part of policy, it has been decided that party spokespersons, both at the centre and in state capitals, will highlight only the achievements of the party, in particular the role played by Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC), the group of high profile NGOs who have come to dominate policy and decision making processes in the country through the UPA's flagship programmes. To that end, the Congress has started training a dozen or so star campaigners, cabinet ministers and others in the fine art of communications. Points out party spokesman Ajay Maken: “It is our duty to inform the people of the work undertaken by the party.’’

The two epicenters of the Congress war machine are centred at 10 Janpath and Tughlaq lane, abode of Sonia and Rahul respectively. By all accounts, the Congress war ship is completely in the hands of Sonia while Rahul, with the help of the party organization, is keeping a close watch on campaigners and spokespersons. Says general secretary BK Hariprasad, “Rahul told the recent meeting of spokespersons that instead of promoting themselves, the need of the hour was to promote interests of the party. Two things were emphasized for those present; one speak in moderate tones and two, stick to one party line.’’

The Congress lineup – needless to say – will be headed by Sonia and Rahul with Manmohan Singh in tow. They are slated to address major rallies in all state capitals. The others who complete the ensemble are young leaders with clean images: Jairam Ramesh, Sandeep Dixit, Kapil Sibal, Salman Khurshid, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Digvijay Singh, Sandeep Dixit, Jyotiradita Scindia, Jitin Prasad, Meem Afzal, Renuka Chowdhary,Bhakta Charan Das and Chirinjeevi.

Significantly, two union ministers P Chidambaram and Veerappa Moily, are to be kept away from the campaign as they are too closely linked to inflation. All campaigners have been told to stay clear of controversial statements – the UP assembly elections are cited as an example of one controversial statement, too many. The campaign has been devised in a way where Sonia and Rahul will have separate poll programmes while designated spokespersons will confine themselves to state capitals.

The Congress is under no illusions about anti-incumbency and the toll it could. Sonia Gandhi herself is aware that to effectively smother opposition charges of corruption and inflation, the party needs its own set of talking points and those happen to be NAC’s flagship pro-poor programmes. Congress strategists have been asked to include these points even in Rahul’s speeches.

To keep the focus sharp, Sonia recently called a meeting of the NAC where all their important programmes – the Mahatma Gandhi Employment Programme, the Prime Ministers’ Road Building Programme, Rajiv Gandhi Urban Renewal Mission, Integrated Child Development Scheme, Indira Gandhi Housing Plan, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, National Rural Health Mission, Total Sanitation Programme, National Social Assistance  Plan, National Rural Water Supply, National Rural Livelihood Mission, National Rural Health Mission and several Mid-day Meal Programmes – were laid bare to introspect how best their gains could be turned to the Congress’s advantage. The main conclusions arrived after the review was that money allocated for the programmes was low and delivery mechanisms far from perfect. The realty of the Recommendations for Governance Reform is that unless power is decentralized, as visualized by Rajiv Gandhi in the form of more powers for panchayati raj, the real benefits of those who need development may not materialize. Rural Development minister Jairam Ramesh believes that fund allocation for implementing plans are a problem in non-Congress states who have been less than enthusiastic about following up on Congress flagship programmes. Bihar, for instance, continues to return money allocated for its mid-day meal schemes on similar specious grounds.

On Sonia’s recommendation, a three-strong group headed by NAC member Mihir Shah, who is also in the Planning Commission, has initiated a draft recommendation for best pursuing the party’s flagship programmes. It will look at the following: one, how to streamline fund flows; two, transparency in implementing these flagship programmes, three, knowledge bank on their implementation at the district level and fourth, optimum utilization of human resources. Why is Sonia and the Congress so keen on taking these flagship programmes to their logical conclusion? Party leaders say the aims are purely political. UPA 2 happened because in UPA 1, the Congress president personally presided over the election manifesto, ensuring that most goals mentioned there were met. In UPA 2, Sonia’s illness and her travels abroad became a huge factor and decision-making was left in the hands of a selected few, who instead of following up on flagship programmes, went for each other. Pranab Mukerjee and P Chidambaram could barely see eye to eye and Chidambaram and Ahluwalia’s fight had to be settled at 7 Race Course Road itself.

If that was not bad enough, the UPA was rocked by the 2G and coal allocation scams. As a result, there was little legislation in Parliament for close to five years. Things only began to settle down when Pranab left for the Rashtrapati Bhavan and Sonia moved in forcefully. She suggested amendments in RTI and chalked out a road map for the food security bill, which also has the support of the BJP. Party insiders say that unlike their earlier knee jerk approach, the party is moving systematically now. Post UP, the moves have been calibrated. Who are the Congress leaders who have been sidelined since then? Why is that arch enemies Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati agree only on one thing, support for the UPA? Why is it that despite Kanimozhi’s arrest, the DMK is still keen to continue with the Congress? Clearly, flagship programmes hold the key. It is this key which the Congress wants to use to unlock the gates of UPA 3 after the general elections.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017