The oldest political party in the country, Congress has spent three days at its version of "The Last Chance Saloon" in Udaipur.
The brain-storming session or "chintan shivir" deliberated on a complete reboot of the party, which stands exhausted by its debilitating leadership crisis, a consequence of which has been losing one state after another. Exceptions: Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
Sonia Gandhi, interim Congress President, and her two children who run the party Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi needed to establish that they are still in the business of politics and are capable of rigorous leadership. The talk shop comes after Rahul Gandhi was filmed at a holiday in Nepal, lighting up the BJP's inbox. The video was pushed by the BJP as proof that while his party self-destructs, Rahul Gandhi vacations; conclusion: he is not a serious politician.
The Congress held the three-day strategy camp in Udaipur after a string of electoral defeats and dissent in the party in recent years.
There is no clarity even now among the Congress's old faithful or its dissidents ("G 23") about whether or when Rahul Gandhi will return as party President. The limbo over that issue sets the tone for the ambling on, over or around all other significant issues. So, for example, the party has adopted a one-family-one-ticket rule - except it won't apply if a person has served more than five years in which case he or she will also be eligible for a ticket along with a direct relative. Convenient for the Gandhis. And the dynasties that are part of the Congress's history or baggage, however you look at it.
The party said that several important decisions have been taken. Among them "50 Under 50" - half of all positions will be reserved for those under the age of 50. An attempt to Benjamin Button the Grand Ever Older Party of India. One-person-one-post will also be enforced.
The Congress on Sunday adopted a 'Nav Sankalp' - a road map for wide-ranging reforms in the party organisation to make it battle-ready for the next round of assembly and Lok Sabha polls.
Some of the suggestions that were reviewed were introduced by strategist Prashant Kishor while he was auditioning for a role in the Congress, an initiative that tanked in full public view. Prashant Kishor had suggested tearing down the building, the party's response is effectively "Thanks, we will just white wash the facade."
The Congress seems to have toyed with just enough change to tempt the cadre into mild enthusiasm but well outside the zone of any real reset. Even though its many faults and miscalculations have cost it states like Punjab and Goa.
The two biggest questions - how to win elections again (the only thing that matters in a democracy) and how to take on the BJP's majoritarian Hindutva agenda were ducked. Yet again. Till the leadership can find a convincing answer to these two big questions, the Udaipur declaration will seem like uninspired housekeeping.
The party declared that it will hit the road with a series of padayatras starting August 15 which will call attention to unemployment. Three new departments, including a public insight department (to gauge public mood using data), a national institute for training Congress workers, and an election management department will be set up. This in an already committee-heavy party where Sonia Gandhi often shelves issues to panels without any result - death by committee, effectively.
The return of Rahul Gandhi was the giant elephant in the Udaipur tent. And RG signalled that he was game. Separately, the Prime Minister has already stated that two terms aren't enough for him. The general election is now due in two years. So, if the Congress is priming for an "RG vs Modi" campaign again, history is not on its side. Rahul Gandhi in his address at the conclave said that he has dedicated his life to fighting the RSS ideology and the BJP and and that he is not scared as he has "not taken a single paisa from Bharat Mata". But the Congress's fortune will lie in astute political alliances to take on the BJP. But Rahul Gandhi appeared to have heavily discounted this, alleging that they do not have the ideology to tackle the BJP.
The Congress has adopted the “one-family, one ticket” formula with a rider that another family member seeking to contest elections should have worked in the party for at least five years.
The statement will trigger senior Opposition leaders who have national ambitions: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, NCP leader Sharad Pawar supremo and Telangana Chief Minister KCR who don't vibe well with Rahul Gandhi. Some regional parties are already refusing to ally with the Congress, finding it toxic electorally. Rahul Gandhi has himself stated that BSP chief Mayawati refused to take his calls in the run-up to the UP election.
It isn't just other parties that Rahul Gandhi will have to learn to handle better than he has in the past. Within the Congress, he has to resolve the uneasiness around the role of Sachin Pilot who was assured he would replace Ashok Gehlot as Chief Minister of Rajasthan before the election, now just a year ago. Sachin Pilot is impatient and ready to take off if the promises aren't kept.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.