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84th Congress Plenary: Several Firsts & a Serious Mosquito Problem

Will Rahul Gandhi end up replacing the ‘old guard’ with just a younger, equally inaccessible version of it?

Updated
Politics
5 min read
84th Congress Plenary: Several Firsts & a Serious Mosquito Problem
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It would be a “worker’s plenary”, stressed the spokespersons who remained constantly around the media bay at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium, which was hosting the 84th plenary of the Indian National Congress. The venue, incidentally was the second choice after Talkatora, which was found to be booked for another political event.

Nevertheless, the buzz ahead of the 16-18 March Congress “maha kumbh” as Navjot Singh Sidhu called it, was to allow loyal, grassroots-level, even booth-level Congress workers to dominate the stage, to address the plenary. Even the stage was cleared, as Congress President Rahul Gandhi said, of the ‘gaddas’ on which leaders like Gandhi, Nehru and Azad once sat, to make space for the ordinary worker.

But the plan fell through, reportedly at the AICC general secretary and state-in-charge level, as they failed to give timely instructions to short-list names of workers who could travel to Delhi to address the plenary.

Among those general secretaries was Digvijaya Singh, who skipped the plenary owing to his Narmada Parikrama – a 1600-km-long padyatra across 110 of the 230 Assembly constituencies that will vote in a new Assembly later this year. His son, Jaivardhan Singh, who at 31 is the youngest member of the Madhya Pradesh Assembly, was seen interacting with party workers and the media.

Confident that the Congress will dislodge Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led Bharatiya Janata Party government, which has been in power in the state for 15 years, Jaivardhan Singh spoke candidly about the tussle between senior leaders including his father, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Kamla Nath, vying for the top job in the state.

“This time, it will be different. Because our senior leaders realise that this is the most crucial year in the history of the Madhya Pradesh Congress. All three leaders will work together. As soon as Digvijaya Singh’s yatra ends, the three leaders will sit together to draw out an election strategy”, he told The Quint.

The issue of infighting among senior party leaders was also mentioned by the Congress president in his nearly 50-minute speech at the end of the plenary.

“Fight if you must, but after the election”, he said. “Disagreements are normal, but for the next six to seven months, we have to maintain strict discipline.”

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Replacing ‘Old Guard’ With a Younger Version?

Expected to be more difficult than taking on Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, affecting real change in the Congress is the biggest challenge for the party. To this effect, the Congress president announced that no longer will senior leaders be parachuted into a constituency and no longer will a hard-working party worker, who may not have the money to fund his campaign, be denied a ticket to contest elections.

The announcement was met with the loudest applause the 84th Congress plenary witnessed in its three days.

But will the second generation of party leaders agree to set aside personal ambitions for the future of the party as a whole? Will Rahul Gandhi end up replacing the ‘old guard’ with just a younger, equally inaccessible version of it? Apart from motivating his cadre, the Congress president is also tasked with managing the personal ambitions of his closest aides.

The Plenary of Several Firsts and a Serious Mosquito Problem

Apart from keeping the stage bereft of any lounging leaders, this was the first plenary moderated by younger leaders like Sushmita Dev, Ragini Nayak and Nadeem Javed. Earlier sessions have been conducted by senior leaders like Motilal Vora and Janardan Dwivedi.

The stage was surrounded by high-tech LED screens, and camera-mounted cranes, offering an uninterrupted view of the stage to the stadium which was filled to its capacity through the day.

The final arrangements – right from the stage, to the background on the LED when Rahul Gandhi would speak, even the (ineffective) fumigation – were overseen by Priyanka Gandhi who’s believed to have spent several hours at the venue, on the night before the plenary kickstarted.

But it is when the crowds broke for lunch, that the logistical nightmare of managing 15,000 party workers and a massive media contingent, became a reality. However the situation was better handled on Day 2, with senior leaders like Ahmad Patel making the rounds in the media room.

Seeing a journalist whack a mosquito, he acknowledged that the condition of the stadium was crumbling. “And we’re paying a rental of Rs 8 lakh a day”, someone behind him whispered.

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Sonia’s Headline Making Skills

The big headline of the 84th Plenary, before it began, was that it would ratify Rahul Gandhi’s election as the Congress President. The question then was, whether Sonia Gandhi would speak at the event and what would her role in the party be in the future.

Sonia watching Rahul deliver his closing address at the 84th Congress Plenary. 
Sonia watching Rahul deliver his closing address at the 84th Congress Plenary. 
(Photo: Twitter/@INCIndia)

Although, Congress communications-in-charge, Randeep Surjewala had ruled out the possibility of Sonia Gandhi speaking at the Congress Plenary, the United Progressive Alliance chairperson took the stage on Saturday, 17 March, following a discussion moderated by the Congress’ Rajya Sabha nominee from Maharashtra Kumar Ketkar. Ketkar was incidentally handpicked by Gandhi over other party veterans like Ratnakar Mahajan, whose name was among two others forwarded by the state unit.

Taking the podium after an emotional hug from her son, Sonia Gandhi tore into the “drunk on power” Modi government. “The slogans of ‘sab ka saath, sab ka vikas’ and ‘na khaoonga, na khaane doonga’ are only dramebaazi”, she said.

Journalists nodded. They had the headline for the day.

In fact, the presence of regional media, even those who have bureaus in Delhi, was significant, ensuring surround sound coverage of the plenary.

Congress’ Social Media Explosion

Among other things, Rahul Gandhi also went from being @OfficeOfRG on Twitter to just @RahulGandhi. Not only did this generate enough online chatter for the Congress’ hyperactive social media team, but also conveyed an attempt to shake off the tag of a “reluctant politician” and a leader who wasn’t speaking or tweeting for himself.

The effort had began in October, last year, when Gandhi responded to claims that a dedicated team of social media experts handled his account. He sarcastically posted that it was his pet dog, Pidi who was tweeting for him, along with a video of the little pooch.

Borrowing a leaf from Modi’s social media habits, the Congress went from mocking Narendra Modi for his selfie obsession to a bit of self-indulgence on social media.

  • 01/06
    Navjot Singh Sidhu walked up to the stage, air swung a bat and had the crowd cheering for the next 20 minutes. (Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@INCIndia)
    Navjot Singh Sidhu walked up to the stage, air swung a bat and had the crowd cheering for the next 20 minutes. 
  • 02/06
    NSUI President Fairoz Khan was seen around Rahul Gandhi through the event. (Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@INCIndia)
    NSUI President Fairoz Khan was seen around Rahul Gandhi through the event. 
  • 03/06
    Sanjay Jha stayed in the media bay for most of the plenary.(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@INCIndia)
    Sanjay Jha stayed in the media bay for most of the plenary.
  • 04/06
    Still the Congress’ ‘Think Tank’, P Chidamabaram and Anand Sharma.(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@INCIndia)
    Still the Congress’ ‘Think Tank’, P Chidamabaram and Anand Sharma.
  • 05/06
    Second generation leaders, Deepender Hooda and Gaurva Gogoi, both addressed the plenary. (Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@INCIndia)
    Second generation leaders, Deepender Hooda and Gaurva Gogoi, both addressed the plenary. 
  • 06/06
    The ‘old guard’, veteran Congress leader Motilal Vora.(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@INCIndia)
    The ‘old guard’, veteran Congress leader Motilal Vora.
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Sidhu Hits It Out of the Park

Even as Navjot Singh Sidhu got up to speak, he air swung his imaginary bat into the air, to a loud cheer from the party workers. One of the Congress’ most powerful orators, Sidhu’s apology to Dr Manmohan Singh won the hearts of the party workers. Whether it will get him a seat in the party’s top leadership, however is debatable. There was however, a general consensus that a leader with his oratory skills could serve the Congress’ purpose better in the Rajya Sabha.

BJP’s ‘Defence’ Minister & Congress’ Refusal to Look Back

Of all the spokespersons in the BJP’s star-studded line up, the Bharatiya Janata Party fielded Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to counter the allegations, related not just to defence procurements, but also the blistering attack launched by Rahul Gandhi’s closing speech.

Incidentally, Defense Minister in the UPA government, AK Antony, who was responsible for the report that listed the reasons for the party’s 2014 loss, was not heard from. Neither was his report or any of the reasons listed in it for the electoral debacle deliberated upon.

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