There is little doubt that the Congress's recent public rally in the national capital and then a Samvad Baithak, a closed-door, inner-party discussion session, in nearby Surajkund are signs that the party is gearing up for the next general election, which is only 18 months away, as Sonia Gandhi reminded the audience.
However, but for the convergence of opinion on reforms between the government and substantial sections of the party, nothing major has emerged from these events. Even the expectation that these occasions will mark Rahul Gandhi's ascension to the No.2 position in the party hasn't been fulfilled.
In fact, during the press briefing after the Surajkund conclave, the party spokesman, Janardan Dwivedi, even forgot to mention that the heir apparent had also spoken till he was reminded by the media personnel. Then, he had to hurriedly flip through his notes to find the pages where he had written down Rahul's observations.
But, the effort was hardly necessary, for the young general secretary didn't say much of substance except for his recent preoccupation with systemic change although he hasn't spelt out the details. What he apparently means is that the system has to be more responsive. But, the proposal amounts to little in the absence of concrete suggestions.
It was the same with Sonia Gandhi. Hers was evidently a pep talk calling for closer interaction between the party and the government and an expected condemnation of the opposition's greed for power. There was also a suggestion to the government to explain the "tough" decisions which the reforms entail, especially when there are influential sections in the party like the Kerala unit, which is wary of the market-oriented policies.
However, much of Sonia Gandhi's comments can be regarded as a case of whistling in the dark to keep up the party's spirits at a time when neither the party nor the government is too confident of successfully crossing the electoral Rubicon because of the inflation and the corruption charges against the party.
True, the scene is slightly better than what it was. For one, the Congress's principal opponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is also embroiled in corruption because of the charges against its president, Nitin Gadkari, and Karnataka leader, B.S. Yeddyurappa, who is threatening to leave the party.
For another, the fact that both Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi are now on the same page on reforms has led to the end of the policy logjam which had paralysed the government for months. As a result, it may now be possible to stop the deceleration of the growth rate and advance towards fiscal consolidation. These developments, in turn, should encourage domestic and foreign investment which, in turn, could boost the currently sluggish tax receipts. If the reforms do take off, it will be possible for the Congress to divert some of the attention from the scams besmirching its name.
Perhaps these are some of the points which should have been stressed at the meeting. In fact, the Congress and the government might consider whether gatherings of this nature should deal at greater length with economics rather than with politics, the standard item on the menu.
The need for such a change of emphasis is all the greater because the party, and the country, are undergoing a tectonic shift from socialism to capitalism. And, given the bad name which the hedonistic, profit-oriented, consumerist doctrine associated with big business has for most people, it is necessary to explain its salient features.
Since the Congress is fortunate in having in its ranks reputed economists like the prime minister, it should make full use of this opportunity to spell out the rationale for the transition. In fact, the party can even invite well known, pro-market economists like Jagdish Bhagwati to convince the "socialists" who still regard reforms as a sinister conspiracy intended to benefit the multinationals and impoverish the masses.
Those who remember the Congress at the time of Jawaharlal Nehru can recall how much trouble the country's first prime minister took to "educate" the audience with his wide-ranging speeches. His focus then was on secularism and non-alignment since India had just emerged from the throes of partition and the world was witnessing a deadly cold war between the two superpowers.
Now, the scene is different when economic direction has assumed prime importance after the demise of communism and the consequent discrediting of socialism, which was earlier believed to be a viable and even better model. As the largest and oldest party, the Congress has a special responsibility in ensuring that the transition from the "socialistic pattern of society", which it earlier favoured, to what is described as neo-liberalism takes place as smoothly as possible.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)