Jaipur: Before the Congress's Jaipur 'Chintan Shivir' brainstorming camp, there was the Surajkund 'Samvak Baithak' dialogue last November. A feature of the meeting at the Haryana tourist resort was the bus rides taken by the party bigwigs to the site. Jaipur's greater distance from Delhi precluded the adoption of a form of transport associated with the 'aam admi', the common man. So, the focus is on how the party intends to meet its latest challenge - the growing disconnect between it and the urban middle class in the wake of the ghastly gang-rape and death of a young woman last month.
This new threat has come in the wake of the erosion of its "traditional support bases", as Congress president Sonia Gandhi said, which means the Dalits and Muslims. However, there may be greater worry about the loss of touch with the middle class because the latter is more vocal. Its disillusionment is not only with the Congress, but with virtually the entire political class and it first came to the fore during the anti-corruption movement of civil society activists.
Now, it has become even more apparent if only because this time, there are no organizing groups like India Against Corruption (IAC) to bring the hundreds of young men and women out on the streets in Delhi's bitter cold to demand a sense of accountability from a seemingly insensitive political establishment. Without a leader and without even an identifiable ideology, they came out spontaneously to face the police batons and water cannons.
Not surprisingly, Sonia Gandhi referred to the challenge from the middle class in her Jaipur speech, which was otherwise replete with the usual advice to partymen to be disciplined and not ostentatious. But, notwithstanding the acknowledgement about the new political reality, what the Congress will be worried about is the political fallout from the anger expressed against the party by such a large group of people and the extensive coverage which it receives from the media.
The Congress's concern may be all the greater because although it has in its ranks quite a few young and articulate MPs and union ministers, led by Rahul Gandhi, they were unable to establish any rapport with the surging crowds. The only person who made an attempt to reach out to them was Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, but she had to retreat in a hurry after being booed. In contrast, Rahul Gandhi simply disappeared from the scene for several weeks, an absence which can come to haunt him in course of time.
Because of the gang-rape and death, and the revelations in their wake of the high rate of crimes against women, the 'Chintan Shivir' is bound to emphasise the need for proactive measures to ensure the safety of women. But what the party cannot be unaware of is that mere words have ceased to carry conviction. They have come to be seen as routine homilies, delivered by a privileged group surrounded by armed commandos.
For the Jaipur conclave to be a turning point, therefore, it will have to strive to eliminate the trust deficit that has grown between the party and a sizable section of the people. Otherwise, gatherings such as these will be seen as picnics in a scenic location. A major reason for the trust deficit is that there is no explanation as to why the systemic response to the many critical developments has been inadequate - why sleaze continues to affect the common man, why police stations are regarded as places which are to be avoided, why as many as 274 politicians with a criminal background are MPs.
The political ploy till now was to pacify pesky groups with offers of reservations in government service and educational institutions, or provide free power for agricultural production, or sops like free television and laptops at election time.
The post-liberalisation generation cannot be neutralised through such populism. It is not dependent on a paternalistic "mai-baap sarkar" for jobs or education, let alone television sets and laptops. Armed with their own telecommunication gadgets and global credit cards, the "more aspirational, more impatient, more demanding and better-educated" youths, as Sonia Gandhi said, see themselves as citizens of the world where the rule of law has primacy of place. And the laws of the land will gain precedence if only the bureaucracy, and especially the police, can act professionally and not look over their shoulders at the politicians for guidance.
For a larger part of its 127-year-old history, the Congress has been a modernising force which eschewed casteism, communalism and obscurantism. In the recent past, however, it has been swayed by these very factors, which are practised by its opponents, to encourage caste-based quotas and even consider extending them to minorities. But, if these compromises with its principles haven't helped the Congress to regain its influence over "large parts" of the country, as Sonia Gandhi said, the reason is that the voters do not want it to be a clone of the sectarian-minded regional parties. Unless the Congress rediscovers its original vision, it will continue to be in trouble.