Listen to the Ranks

Aftershocks of Congress's Bihar debacle were felt at its 83rd plenary with top leaders admitting de-motivation among the ranks. It will take more than rhetoric to bridge the growing chasm between the grand old party's leadership and its ordinary workers 
Akash Bisht Delhi 

Besieged by scams and embarrassed by the recent electoral drubbing in Bihar, Congress party's popularity has hit an all-time low since it rode to power in 2009. The party's misery has been deepened by the manner in which the opposition parties refused the conduct of winter session of Parliament by demanding a joint parliamentary committee on the messy telecom scandal. 

The party's troubles seemed to mount when Bihar assembly elections punctured the long-held myth that Rahul Gandhi's magic would help the party revive its fortune in the state. The party may be stable at the Centre, but a rash of corruption scandals and rebellion in Andhra Pradesh has hurt the grand old party. This has created doubts in the minds of ordinary Congressmen about the party's ability to win assembly elections in 2011-12. 

It was in the shadow of these debilitating scams and organisational stasis that the 83rd plenary session of the party was held in Burari, Delhi. Although the occasion was to celebrate 125 years of Congress's existence, the top leadership was consumed by the desire to get out of the political quicksand they seemed to be stuck in. Sensing the growing de-motivation among ordinary workers and the need to galvanise the party before the crucial assembly elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and later in Uttar Pradesh, the top leadership got down to the act of damage control. Repeatedly, Congress President Sonia Gandhi and later her son, Rahul, stressed the need to focus on the ordinary workers and how they were critical for the revival of the party. 

Many of the 'ordinary workers' present at the session, however, did not seem convinced with this rhetoric. 

Taking cognisance of the growing hiatus between ministers and ordinary workers, Congress President Sonia Gandhi in her opening remarks said, "It is the primary responsibility of those in office to be sensitive to the voices coming from the party organisation, be it from any rank. Party workers must be seriously heard and listened to. We must not forget that it is the ordinary worker who is our ear on the ground and our finger on the pulse of the common man." 

Soon after her speech, Sunil Kumar Sinha, a Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) member from Nalanda, Bihar, confided to Hardnews, "Her intentions have always been right, but there is a coterie that gives her wrong advice. These persons should be held responsible for the embarrassment they cause to the Congress president and the party."  

Talking of the Bihar debacle, Sinha blamed Congress General Secretary Mukul Wasnik for it and claimed that tickets had been sold to people with inflated pockets. "Instead of genuine party workers, tickets were distributed to businessmen. This is bound to demoralise workers who have dedicated their lives working for the party," he said. 

Rajiv Kumar, an AICC member from Muzaffarpur, Bihar, said, "While Nitish was talking of the development of the state and the eradication of goonda raj, Congress was busy allotting tickets to hardcore criminals. This sent a wrong message to the masses and evidently became one of the several reasons for our humiliating defeat." 

Workers from Bihar revealed that the most alarming act was the distribution of tickets to leaders who had deserted their parties and joined Congress just before the elections. "We do all the hard work while someone else, who we have been campaigning against for the last five years, is chosen over us as the deserving party ticket holder. This shatters our confidence in the party and its leadership," said Sinha. 

Both Sinha and Kumar are of the view that given an opportunity, most of the grassroots workers in Bihar would have informed Sonia Gandhi or Rahul about the misdeeds of the Bihar leadership. "If only they had met the grassroots workers at frequent intervals, they would have known what was happening at the ground level. Many of us wanted to tell them about the transgressions by the Bihar leadership, but were not given the opportunity to do so. Of course, we feel betrayed, and it will take more than words to win back our confidence," said Kumar.        

Rahul Gandhi, too,in his speech at the plenary session said, "We must also face tough questions. And the most important of them all is how well an ordinary worker is known in our party? How easy is it for those working at the grassroots level to rise up the ranks? And how open are our various organisations to accepting this change? Our party worker is an important link between the government and the common masses. Hence, it is imperative that there is constant dialogue with them." 

Rahul Gandhi admitted that until everyone gets equal opportunities in the organisation, the 'common man' would not like to be a part of it. "If we don't respect our ordinary workers and don't realise how important they are for our success, then how can we learn of the realities at ground zero?" he added. Many workers present at the session applauded the views expressed by the Congress general secretary. However, this applause was nowhere close in enthusiasm to what had been heard at the AICC meet earlier.  

While many blindly trusted Rahul concerns, a few also believed that he is hard to approach and prefers taking advice from those responsible for the party's shaky position. Rajinder Singh Malik, a PCC member from Guhana, Haryana, said, "We are made to sit at the back while the front seats are reserved for those occupying the top echelons of party hierarchy. We do as much as they for the party and yet it is they who get to corner all the privileges, while we just wait for someone to acknowledge our efforts, in speeches that are either read out at such functions or given at the time of elections." 

Sapna Rani Behen, a Congress worker from Delhi, however, did not share this view. She argued that if Sonia Gandhi and Rahul were not genuinely concerned with the interests of party workers, they would not have spoken at such length about them. "When Rahul said that ministers busy with their portfolios should take time out to meet the real faces of the Congress, he was sending a stern message to all those in power," she said. But, when asked if she had met any of the two leaders, she quickly evaded the question. 

Even Philamaya Mercy, who had come all the way from Manipur to attend the session, believed that under Rahul Gandhi's leadership the party is bound to excel. However, she seemed sceptical of being able to meet the two leaders in the near future. She also mentioned how workers from the Northeast are not considered at par with those from other parts of India. "We feel discriminated, but who will listen to us? We have taken all the pain to come here and be a part of the celebration, but no one lends an ear to our woes. Who do we tell our share of problems?" she asked. 

Discontent of the party workers spilled over during the plenary session. Slogans were raised and pamphlets distributed, targeting specific leaders like Mukul Wasnik. There were specific allegations of assembly tickets being sold to moneybags. Clearly, Congress will soon have to go into a damage-control mode in order to revive the support of its workers and fill them with enthusiasm. How well the party fares in this endeavour would have a major influence on its future, even as it gears up to enter the ring of assembly elections in 2011.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2011