Big Question at Congress Chintan Shivir: How To Reclaim Nationalism From BJP?
"Congress represents nationalism" is a key narrative coming out of the political committee at the Chintan Shivir.
One big, overarching narrative emerging from the Congress' Chintan Shivir in Udaipur is the party's desire to reclaim the "nationalist" space from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
This narrative is operating at several levels at the ongoing Udaipur Chintan Shivir.
The major part of Congress' assertion of nationalism is coming from the discussions in the committee on "political issues" headed by Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge.
In fact, some of the leaders in the political issues committee meeting said that the idea isn't to "reclaim" nationalism but to assert that the "Indian National Congress represents Indian Nationalism" and that the BJP represents a "distortion" or "pseudo-nationalism."
Political Issues Committee Says Congress Represents Indian Nationalism
A party leader part of the political issues committee said that Kharge began deliberations by speaking in an impassioned manner for over 20 minutes on how Congress stands for "true nationalism."
The 430 delegates or so have been divided into six groups with around 70 being sent to each of the six committees.
As a result on Friday, around 70 leaders were present in the political issues huddle, including the nine members of the political issues committee.
Congress President Sonia Gandhi attended the political issues committee meeting for around 40 minutes.
"It was a big group. She sat on the side, not at the centre, and let other leaders do most of the talking," said a party leader present.
Former Congress President Rahul Gandhi also attended the political issues meeting for about half an hour. He moved from one committee to another and attended the sessions in almost every committee.
The political issues committee sat almost non-stop from 3 pm to 7:30 pm. Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel was also part of the discussions for over three hours.
Nearly half of the 70 leaders assigned to the group spoke in this period and the rest are expected to speak on Saturday.
Most of the leaders who spoke agreed that the Congress' nationalist credentials need to be asserted and what they call BJP's "pseudo-nationalism" should be "exposed."
The discussion of the political issues group on nationalism was also reflected in Kharge's remarks during the press conference on Friday.
"During the freedom struggle, they (the BJP), their party or their Sangh leaders were nowhere to be seen. They didn't go to jail, they made no efforts. Yet the BJP tries to teach patriotism to the Congress."Mallikarjun Kharge, Leader of Opposition (Rajya Sabha)
"If you are true patriots, where were you during Quit India movement? Where were you when Gandhi ji was conducting mass movements," he asked.
'Nationalism Not Just About Freedom Struggle But Also National Security'
A key aspect of the discussions in the political issues group was the view of the leaders that the Congress' "nationalist" credentials shouldn't be restricted to its role in the freedom struggle.
They said that it should be extended to "national security" and key achievements like the victory in the 1971 war or what the party claims as "sacrifices" of its leaders.
Significantly, Kharge in his remarks made it point to list the assassinations of not just Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi but also of former Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh and former Union Minister Vidya Charan Shukla.
"We will tell people what we have done, what we have sacrificed," Kharge said.
In the discussions in the political issues committee, leaders said that the BJP shouldn't be allowed to give the impression that it is the party to trust on national security matters.
The leaders claimed that Congress had a better track record on national security and that this needs to be communicated effectively to the BJP.
"We are the party under whom India won three wars against Pakistan. Under them (BJP) the Kandahar embarrassment took place. Now China threatens our territory and the PM is too scared to even name China. We have to communicate this effectively," a leader said.
Optics of the Chintan Shivir: Diversity of Icons
The Congress' need to reclaim the nationalist space from the BJP can also be seen in the optics of the Udaipur Chintan Shivir.
For instance, in the 2013 Jaipur Chintan Shivir, the background flex on the main stage had three pictures: Sonia Gandhi, Dr Manmohan Singh, and Rahul Gandhi.
This time the flex put up on the stage for press conferences didn't have the party leaders and instead had an artwork of Mahatma Gandhi's Dandi March.
The approach road leading to the Chintan Shivir venue in Udaipur is dotted with horizontal flexes containing pictures and quotes of freedom fighters like Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Sardar Patel, Sarojini Naidu, Dr Rajendra Prasad, Jawaharlal Nehru, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, and Lala Lajpat Rai besides post-freedom struggle Congress leaders Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, PV Narasimha Rao, and Dr Manmohan Singh.
The party seems to have made it a point to project a diverse set of icons, in response to BJP's attempts at appropriating icons and criticism that Congress has given inordinate importance to the Nehru-Gandhi family in the past.
But it's not just about going beyond the family, the party also seems to be trying to project ideological diversity within the nationalist space – from Shaheed Bhagat Singh on the Left to Dr Rajendra Prasad, Lala Lajpat Rai, and PV Narasimha Rao on the Right.
It appears that the Congress wants to go back to occupying a broad Centre space in politics – on matters of national security, cultural nationalism, and the economy.
"We have allowed BJP to give the impression that we have ceded this broad centrist, nationalist space. This space belongs to the Congress. This space best represents India," a leader involved in the discussions of the political issues committee said.
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