Chintan Shivir: the proof of the pudding is in the eating


Shashi Tharoor


COLUMN

I Mean What I Say


The recently-concluded “Nav Sankalp Chintan Shivir” of the Indian National Congress Party, which saw some 430 Congressmen and women assemble in Udaipur from the 12th to the 15th of May, was undoubtedly a vital exercise in the party’s reform and revival. Serious discussions were held in a constructive spirit of camaraderie and a sense of shared purpose, amid much talk of change in the air. But whether it will end up where many of us had wanted remains to be seen.

Some of us had, in 2020, had written to the party President, seeking reforms in the functioning of the party. Some of our ideas were discussed in Udaipur; not many were retained. But the merit of the event was in the fact that such discussions took place. Some positive changes were announced that were widely welcomed (One Family One Ticket, maximum five-year term in an organisational post, and more opportunities for the young). Since I was in the Political Committee, I was not privy to the discussions in the Organisation Committee, where the matters that have preoccupied the media were dealt with. In the end, the Organisation Committee may have had more ideas and recommendations than the Working Committee and the President were prepared to retain.

The fact is that what the reformists wanted was a more consultative process in the party, where a wide variety of voices would be heard and taken into account before decisions were made. That may well happen in the proposed Advisory Council, which will be appointed to advise the party President. But since that Council does not exist yet, it remains to be seen how it will work and whether it will serve the purposes the reformists had sought. A process has begun that still needs to unfold over the next few months. The cliché holds true: the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

This is not an expression of dissent or disgruntlement. Our proposals like the revival of the Parliamentary Board and the idea of elections to the Working Committee were both intended to bring fresh voices to the table. But it was always understood that in any party, the final decisions, after such discussions, would always rest with the leadership.

Congress General Secretaries Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Randeep Singh Surjewala Ajay Maken, KC Venugopal, Tariq Anwar and others during the follow-up meeting of general secretaries and AICC incharges on the Chintan Shivir Declaration | ANI

It is also important to stress that the participants in the Chintan Shivir were divided into six committees of more or less equal size, and only one of those discussed organisational matters. The bulk of the work, and five-sixth of the attendees, were focused on issues that matter to the people of India at large. In my (political) committee, for instance, there were lively and sometimes impassioned debates on some issues, notably on the question of the place of religion in the party’s work, and the so-called “soft Hindutva” question.

It was clear to me that the Party’s fundamental commitment to India’s pluralism and diversity is non-negotiable. We have long used the word “secularism” for this, but secularism implies a distancing from religion, whereas we in India are deeply implicated in religious practices, customs, rituals, festivals and conventions. The Congress has no problem with its members showing respect for all religions. I myself, as an MP for Thiruvananthapuram, go to temples, churches and mosques in my constituency all the time – to temples as a devotee, to the others to demonstrate respect for the sacred beliefs of my constituents and fellow-citizens.

This may not seem very secular, but it is not “soft Hindutva” by any means. Hindutva is a political ideology that has little to do with religion or the Hindu faith – it is a doctrine that preaches the supremacy of a particular cultural identity, in violation of the key Hindu tenet that teaches us the acceptance of difference. This kind of majoritarian politics is alien to the Congress (and I would argue, represents a gross distortion of Hinduism). The Congress cannot deviate from its unwavering commitment to treating every Indian as an equal rights-bearing citizen, entitled to our sympathetic consideration and support.

An unnecessary controversy appears to have been stirred up by some regional parties that have been critical of Rahul Gandhi's statement in the concluding session that only Congress can fight the BJP because the regional parties do not have the ideology to take the BJP on. I honestly do not believe that any slight was intended to the regional parties, other than to point out that their vision is by definition regional, whereas the Congress is a national party with a presence in every district of the country.

In any case, my personal view, which was widely shared by many participants at the Chintan Shivir, is that all of us like-minded parties, both regional and national, will have to work together to take on the NDA in 2024. Otherwise, we will see an irrevocable transformation of India into an intolerant, narrow-minded autocracy led by a majoritarian-minded BJP. The only way to prevent that is to gather all forces that believe in pluralism, diversity, equal treatment for all, social justice and democracy, to fight together for an India that embodies those virtues.

This the Congress proposes to do through a “Bharat Jodo” (Unite India) yatra starting on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, October 2, a slogan and a date that will remind many of the Mahatma’s “Bharat Chhodo” (Quit India) call of 1942. This could prove an inspirational moment rallying the forces of the Opposition together to pose a potent challenge to the ruling party. The Congressmen and women who emerged from the Chintan Shivir have done so in the spirit of wanting to bring about change, in the party and in the country. I believe it is in the interests of all Indians that they succeed.

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