This Could Be The Congress's Sanjeevani Moment

Published: March 23, 2015 15:32 IST

(Nur Laiq is Visiting Researcher at Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service. She worked for the Congress on the general election campaign in 2014.)

Sanjeevani is the life-infusing plant with which Hanuman brought Lakshmana back from near death. Jairam Ramesh, former Rural Development Minister, believes that the land campaign could work the same sanjeevani magic for the Congress as Chikmagalur did in re-launching the party in 1978. The Congress is fighting the BJP's land ordinance both in Parliament and on the streets. Last week, Sonia Gandhi led an opposition protest in Delhi and the party has also held numerous farmers' meetings, a padyatra and two dharnas at Jantar Mantar.

Jairam Ramesh may just be right. And not because the sanjeevani herb can be found in the Aravalli Hills skirting Delhi. But because something turned at Jantar Mantar, where I attended the recent protests against the land ordinance, one organized by Anna Hazare and the other by the Congress. There, I witnessed a reversal of roles between Anna and Congress - a metamorphosis of legitimacy.

Anna owned that trump card in 2011. His anti-corruption dharnas struck a chord. His words, with their Gandhian overtones, demanded a call to action. But this time around at Jantar Mantar, most of the day passed by in farmers being called up to the stage to touch Anna's feet. Anna Time had become Pranam Time. His spiel sounded stale, running along the lines of: "Farmers haven't suffered such injustice since British rule. Inqilab zindabad." Congress, on the other hand, could talk straight to the issue. The 2013 Land Act was, after all, passed following two years of consultations both across parties and the country. It had the support of the opposition, including the BJP, in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.

This month, Anna plans to embark on a padyatra or march to gather support for a Jail Bharo Andolan, which he will bring back to Delhi's Ramlila Maidan in the summer. There is only one flaw in this. These are the months when the rabi crops, such as wheat are harvested, followed by the kharif season, when paddy sowing starts. I doubt any farmer will have the free time either to go to Delhi or to jail.

In contrast, Congress has outlined its plan to take the battle to the fields. But it requires more to get to a sanjeevani moment, Chikamagalur style. For that, not only did Indira Gandhi hold a grueling 7-8 rallies a day, she also managed to pin down the Janata government on the gap between its soaring rhetoric and relatively lackluster delivery. The Aam Aadmi Party won Delhi in February by tapping into that same vein vis-a-vis Modi.

Kejriwal held countless people's assemblies and focused relentlessly on addressing the difficulties of people's everyday lives. In the outer Delhi constituencies, he zoomed in on the issue of land acquisition, listened to farmers' grievances and vowed that they would be protected from predatory land grabs. AAP is now taking the fight to Haryana, where it is connecting it to the BJP's other anti-farmer policies such as the raising of fertilizer prices and the reduction of the minimum support price. AAP combined the local with a larger idea - one of a new political culture based on accountability. It got Kejriwal Delhi, but he does not have India.

The opposition political space today is tight. The land rights issue, once owned by Congress, is now being co-opted by other parties. But none of them, from AAP to the regional parties have an organizational reach that is countrywide. Congress' organizational machinery might be sclerotic, but it exists. The party is currently in the process of revamping its PCC (state-level) committees. Taking the land fight to the villages provides an opportunity to renew the links between grassroots workers and the state leadership. It could be used to revive the block and district committees and to connect with local concerns.

The land ordinance also offers Congress the chance to re-seize the narrative. The land issue is not about farmers vs industry, but about inequality and inclusiveness. Other opposition parties have already used this to position themselves as defenders of the disenfranchised but they don't have ten years of progressive legislation to back them up. This was evident at Jantar Mantar, where Anna and Kejriwal could talk up land rights, but did not have an ideological framework within which they could place it.

Can Congress use this moment to lay out a vision for development that moves beyond the binaries of industrialists and farmers, urban and rural? The last few years have seen a wave of movements across the world based on people's aspirations not just for development but also a desire for dignity. This is where the idea of inclusive development comes in, where an emotional connect can be made and where legitimacy matters. The sanjeevani vidya lies here. The question is which political party will be able to use it.

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